Ayrton Senna pulled off F1's finest moment 24 years ago today
An otherwise ordinary, not unexpectedly rain-lashed, grey and chilly April day in Leicestershire in 1993 would become one of the most remarkable in Grand Prix racing history.
The date, to be precise, was April 11th and it marked the realisation of a dream for then-70-year-old Donington Park circuit owner Tom Wheatcroft after years of hard graft, financial toil and bloody-mindedness.
The gritty local businessman, who’d acquired the remnants of the once-magnificent pre-war Grand Prix track in the mid-1970s and overseen its re-opening as a pukka venue in ’77, as well as getting the Donington Collection (now the world’s finest assortment of racing cars under one roof) off the ground, had yearned for motorsport’s Premiership, the Formula 1 World Championship, to come to play in his back garden.
And on Easter Sunday, 1993, it finally happened – in the shape of the European Grand Prix, round three of that season’s 16-race calendar and the 535th World Championship Grand Prix since the series’ inception in 1950. The race was sponsored by Sega, but for Wheatcroft and his team this was no game.
Qualifying for the 76-lap race took place in dry conditions on the Saturday, with Frenchman Alain Prost securing his third straight pole for Williams, ahead of team-mate Damon Hill. In fact, the technically superior – to everything else – 3.5-litre V10 Renault-motivated FW15Cs were the only cars in the 1m10s. No one else got into the 1m11s.
The second row was occupied by the best of the Ford V8-powered challengers: the Benetton of Michael Schumacher and the McLaren of World Championship leader Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian was racing at Donington for the first time since his dominant British Formula 3 campaign a decade earlier and having qualified only fourth he would need to pull off something pretty special to hang on to the points lead he’d earned with second place in South Africa and victory at his home circuit of Interlagos.
A fraction hesitant at the start, Senna jostled with Schumacher on the run down to the first corner at Redgate, jinking inside the German into the first right-hander. The V8 scrap allowed fifth-fastest qualifier Karl Wendlinger in the Ilmor V10-powered Sauber C12 to squeeze past both of them and plunge down the Craner Curves behind the Williams pair, Prost ahead of Hill.
Allowing the Austrian no time to feel pleased with himself, Senna inflicted instant revenge by threading the McLaren around the outside on the way through the left-handed compression. Only Senna could find a needle of grip in a haystack of sodden marbles so far off line.
Third secured into the Old Hairpin at the bottom of the hill, Senna then tucked up under the gearbox of Hill and started his decisive move on the Englishman up the hill through the left-handed Schwantz Curve and nailed second into McLeans.
Next target: bitter foe Prost.
Through Coppice, down under the Dunlop Bridge and into the left-right Esses, Senna edged closer to his fellow three-time title winner. As they came over the brow approaching the Melbourne Hairpin, the McLaren appeared alongside the Williams, closer to the apex, but would Senna get the MP4/8 stopped in time? With a millimetre-perfect blend of brake pressure, steering lock and throttle application, Senna was into the lead before the lap was out.
Thereafter Senna took command. Even as the track dried and the lap times plummeted, he kept the underpowered McLaren out front until making his first pitstop on lap 18. Even when the rain came again he stayed on slick tyres, while the pursuing Williams returned to the pits for wets. Senna’s masterclass lifted the spirits of the wet and cold crowd; they realised they were witnessing an historic F1 moment and cheered on the Brazilian to victory.
Senna’s winning margin was 1m23s over Hill, whose runner-up spot was only his second appearance on an F1 podium. Prost, meanwhile, had disappeared from the lead fight after making numerous visits to the pits to change tyres, eventually finishing an uncharacteristically confused third, a lap in arrears.
It had been classic Senna at his combative, never-give-up-best and his obstinately opportunistic opening lap would, quite rightly, enter Formula 1 legend.
European Grand Prix, 1993
1. Ayrton Senna (BR) – McLaren MP4/8-Ford, 76 laps
2. Damon Hill (GB) – Williams FW15C-Renault, 76 laps
3. Alain Prost (F) – Williams FW15C-Renault, 75 laps
4. Johnny Herbert (B) – Lotus 107B-Ford 75 laps
5. Riccardo Patrese (ITA) – Benetton B193B-Ford, 74 laps
6. Fabrizio Barbazza (ITA) – Minardi M193-Ford, 74 laps
Words by Henry Hope-Frost, photos courtesy of LAT