1993 European Grand Prix – Racing Returns to Donington & We See Some True Senna Magic
by Robert S. Butsch
Easter Sunday, 1993, saw the first Grand Prix at Donington Park since the immortal Nuvolari’s win 55 years earlier. The crowd was not spectacular by F1 standards, the weather was dismal in a way that it seems only English weather can be, but the race was a classic.
Traction control was still allowed, and it was never more prominently on display than at the sopping wet 29th European Grand Prix. Gagging engines could be heard often at the exits from slow corners. Traction control was soon to be condemned by the FIA as a computer aid that took the driver too much out of the equation. But this event that seemed made for it was, ironically, to produce one of the great drivers’ races.
The competition was subtle since the chief protagonists, Senna and Prost, were seldom near to each other on the track. It was, however, no less intense for this, as there was never any doubt about who the race was between. Prost was on his way to his fourth championship. His and Hill’s Williams were the cars to beat in ’93, while Senna’s McLaren was considered not to be the car to beat them. McLaren did not have the latest spec Ford, that engine belonging exclusively to Benetton.
On top of all this was the distraction caused by the mercurial Senna having operated so far on a series of one race contracts. But up to this point in the young season the weather gods had not smilled on Prost, and as a result he and Senna possessed one win each. Prost had taken the Kyalami event despite a downpour at the end, but had gone off ignominiously in the wet at Brazil, leaving a victorious Senna to fall into the arms of his adoring countrymen. The fickle meteorological conditions at Donington would again serve to level the field, and set up the duel between the Frenchman and the Brazilian.
Prost had taken pole, and was next to Hill who was making only his fifth F1 start. Senna was gridded fourth, alongside Schumacher’s Benetton, having been outdone by Prost to the tune of 2 seconds in dry qualifying. The rain was in remission at the start (for students of the diversity FIA starting procedures, races in ’93 began when the 2 red lights went out and the green came on), but the track was damp and the field, on wets, got away carefully with Prost leading Hill. Senna suddenly became aggressive taking Wendlinger on the outside, then Hill and Prost in quick succession, and finished lap 1 in front.
Over the succeeding few laps the unsuspecting pit crews enjoyed the only respite they were to have on the day while Senna’s lead grew to more than 6 sec and Prost and Hill remained in touch with one other. About lap 7, as Senna was joyously flying around the course, the sun threatened to make an appearance. Cars began turning up in the pits for slicks. Brundle immediately spun his Ligier out of the race on his new tires. After lap 10 Hill made a couple of serious attempts at Prost, in the process setting fastest lap. Prost took this honor from his team mate just prior to Hill pitting for slicks. Senna’s crew turned in a blistering stop, and finally Prost went in to get his slicks. Senna’s pace in the first few laps stood him in good stead following these initial stops, and he retained his lead over Prost and Hill, the latter meanwhile capturing another fastest lap.
By lap 20 Senna, with a 5 sec advantage, began encountering slower cars (he would eat up back markers all afternoon, at one point actually becoming the only car on the lead lap). Berger abandoned his Ferrari in the pits. The track had been continuing to dry, but suddenly the rain was back. Prost, who had been reluctant to give up his first set of wets, was the first of the top three to go in for new wets. Schumacher went off. Blundell went off. Senna was displaying either marks of a competitor’s tire or some of the local real estate on his side pod, indicating that he too had had a difficult moment.
It was raining hard by this time, but Senna maintained a 12 sec lead over Hill, who got wets in a leisurely stop just after lap 23. Senna, now with a 20 sec lead on Alesi and Barrichello, elected to get his money’s worth out of his slicks and stayed out. By lap 26 he was working at the wheel fairly vigorously. Prost started looking racy and easily took Barrichello for 3rd just prior to Senna finally going in for wets. The combination of another blazing stop and the lead that he had banked by running fast early and by staying on slicks as long as possible delivered Senna out of pit lane still ahead of Alesi.
Prost took second from Alesi who promptly called at his pits for wets, his impatience evident from the screaming revs while the Ferrari was up on the jacks. This left Senna with nearly 15 sec on Prost. By lap 31 the lead was down to 11 sec in what now looked to be drying conditions. Barrichello surprised Hill by passing him for third, a move that seemed to light a fire under the Williams driver. In a turn-about, the latest change in the weather saw Prost go in for slicks before Senna. This boldness was augmented by fast work in the Williams pit, while the McLaren crew was slow with Senna’s right rear wheel nut. All of this conspired to put Senna back on the track behind Prost.
Hill had a fast stop to get slicks, in the process handing over third to an ever more impressive looking Barrichello. Around lap 35 it started to look like rain again. Alesi, still on wets, spent a long time in the pits getting a wheel nut problem from his previous stop sorted out. Prost, who had acquire the lead through aggressive tactics and a little luck, turned cautious again and went in for wets. This decision was to prove pivotal as it surrendered the lead to Senna in conditions that were suited to the Brazilian on slicks. Not surprisingly Senna again elected to find out just how long he could push before changing tires. He recorded fastest lap thus far on the 37th time around. Hill caught up Barrichello, who decided it was time for wets despite the paucity and intermittent nature of the rain.
Fifteen of the twenty-five starters were still competing at this point, with 5 cars on the lead lap. Senna held a 16.6 sec lead over Prost, which he soon stretched to 21 sec. on the partly wet track. Hill meanwhile had visited the Williams pit for 6.42 sec just after lap 40 to get wets. Senna’s life was not without its problems. He had trouble lapping 5th-place Herbert, flashing the Lotus driver an unflattering salute as he went by.
By lap 46 Senna, still on slicks in what now, perversely, looked to be drying conditions, had 25.2 sec on Prost. When he built this to 27 sec, Prost threw in the towel on his wets and visited his pit. This time, however, the fates called him to account for his early conservative tactics. The car stalled as Prost tried to leave. The mechanism for manually selecting neutral on the semi-automatic gearbox was not conveniently located, and a mechanic spent valuable moments fishing around for it under the car. Senna lapped Prost as the Frenchman finally re-entered the course. The race, which a dozen laps earlier looked to be even up between Prost and Senna, was slipping away from the Williams driver.
The running order was now Senna – Barrichello – Hill. Just prior to lap 49 Senna passed Hill leaving only himself and Barrichello, still on wets, on the lead lap. Hill took the hint and stopped to swap his wets for slicks. Once back on the track he quickly put away his team mate for 3rd just before lap 52. This motivated Prost, despite a suddenly threatening sky, to go in for a different set of slicks, dropping him farther back. Senna, meanwhile clocked a 1’20.413″ fastest lap while catching up Barrichello. The young Jordan driver did not roll over a play dead for the McLaren but got lapped anyway, Senna taking time for a friendly wave as he went by his countryman. The lead lap was now solely his. Barrichello made a stop at his pits, getting another set of wets, apparently anticipating renewed precipitation.
Hill, now in 2nd, reset fastest lap while Prost took Barrichello for 3rd. Senna, having gotten good service from his slicks, decided to go in for another set. As he entered pit lane it began to sprinkle, making more slicks look like not such a great idea after all. He waved to the crew and they to him as he motored right on by and back out on to the track. This maneuver cost him very little, and the lap 58 order was Senna from a very quick Hill from Prost.
Lap 62 saw Hill, having replaced Prost as the major challenger, getting closer to Senna who was stuck out on old slicks while his pit reorganized following the abandoned stop. At this point Hill was putting 2 sec per lap between himself and Prost. He passed Senna on the start line straight to un-lap himself, but could not get away in the increasing rainfall.
With 10 laps left, Senna was able to get into his pit for a set of wets. A couple of laps later Hill slid into his pit to swap his slicks for wets. Senna put a lap back on the Englishman as the Williams blasted back out onto the track. Prost, meanwhile, was unaccountably pressing on in 3rd place on slicks in miserable conditions. Barrichello in 4th got to within 12 sec of Prost before the latter finally went in for wets. This allowed Barrichello into 3rd, appearing to set him up with less than 10 laps remaining to become one of the youngest podium finishers in F1 history. This was not to be, however, as, with just a couple of laps remaining, the Jordan halted out on the track suffering from a lack of fuel pressure.
Hill had meanwhile saved some of Williams’ honor by getting his lap back from Senna. Zinardi in 9th, the last placed car running, provided a little end of race excitement by making a side excursion through a trap and then promptly dumping the resulting load of gravel on the Lotus’ rear tires at the next heavy braking spot. He managed to stay on the track, and the balance of the race was without incident. Senna finished 1 min 23.199 sec ahead of Hill, who, although it was hard to tell, had run what will surely be remembered as one of his best races. Hill was in turn 35 sec ahead of the thoroughly beaten Prost.
Retrospective analysis of the contest is interesting. Prost made the opening move with one of his trademark qualifying efforts. Senna responded forcefully on lap 1. He followed that with a confident persistence in the use of dry weather tires in wet conditions which Prost was generally unable to match. Prost did mount an admirable counter-attack just prior to half-way, resulting in an evening of the match. But when he was unable to build on this, Senna’s killer instincts carried the day. Prost had turned in an astounding 7 pit stops (as against Senna’s 4) trying to figure out what to do.
Senna, always an emotional competitor, understood exactly what he had accomplished and was exuberant in victory. He stopped on the cool down lap to get a spectator’s Brazilian flag for a victory pennant, and was particularly animated in Parc Ferme and on the way to the podium. And well he should have been. As spectacular as Prost’s stats were, there was something more to Senna. Stirling Moss has called Senna “the greatest ‘racer’ of all time”. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in the rain at Donington Park in 1993.