Unforgettable Moments in F1 History: Ayrton Senna's Lap of the Gods at the 1993 European GP
Donnington Park might have only hosted a single Grand Prix, but thanks to the exploits of a certain Brazilian racing driver, it was one for the ages. Ayrton Senna's lap of the gods is Formula One folklore. Images by Martin Lee via Wikipedia Commons
Chocolate Easter Eggs aside, the one thing guaranteed during the British Spring time is rain, and for the hastily organised 1993 European Grand Prix mother nature would turn the dial up to eleven. Race number three in the '93 F1 calendar was supposed to be the new Asian Grand Prix, but the organisers had filed for bankruptcy with two months to go. Into the void stepped Donnington Park, and given the dramatic race that followed it’s surprising Formula One hasn’t been back since.
In the McLaren garage Ayrton Senna cuts a frustrated figure. The new MP4/8 was simply not in the same league as the all-conquering, Adrian Newey designed Williams FW14B of the 1992 season, let alone the revised 1993 FW15C - no car was. The McLaren had to make do with a Ford V8 that was inferior to the Williams’ Renault supplied V10 whilst also lagging behind in both aerodynamics and active suspension technology. Senna had finished a lacklustre forth in the 1992 championship and it was an open secret that he’d tried to secure (World Champion) Nigel Mansell’s Williams drive, which had been bagged by arch nemesis Alain Prost, back from a years’ sabbatical. Prost demanded final say on his teammate in his contract and torpedoed Senna’s ambition. Ayrton stayed with McLaren on a race-by-race basis.
In the season so far, Prost had drawn first blood at Kyalami, Senna answered with a win at Interlagos. At Donnington qualifying was dry and Prost hammered home the advantage of the technologically advanced Williams, taking pole position (1:10.458s). His teammate Damon Hill would occupy the other spot on the front row. Next up was a certain rising star by the name of Michael Schumacher in a Benneton, 1.5 seconds off the pace. Senna languished in forth, nearly two seconds adrift of pole, highlighting the gulf in class between the cars. When the race starts the German shows his trademark ruthless streak, blocking Senna into the first turn, pushing him towards the grandstand, which costs them both time & position. Karl Wendlinger senses an opportunity and slips through from fifth to third in his Sauber.
Enraged, Senna immediately delivers comeuppance, dispensing Schumacher at the next turn. Into the treacherous high-speed & downhill Craner Curves Senna astonishingly drives around the outside of Wendlinger, braking hard for Old Hairpin. He carries so much speed on the exit he almost careens into the back of Damon Hill in the Renault in the long drag up to Mcleans, where he takes the Brit. Prost is now the target. Senna makes his move on Le Professor with a classic out-braking manoeuvre, diving down the inside into Melbourne Hairpin. The rest of the pack, led by Schumacher has fallen some distance behind the leading trio.
Ayrton crosses the line ahead of Prost and manages a flick of opposite lock exiting Redgate. It feels like a victory dance, and it would prove to be - Senna takes the chequered flag by one minute and twenty-three seconds from Hill. Prost would finish third, having been lapped. Senna would also clock the fastest lap of the race too.
The Brazilian shot to the top of the Drivers Championship standings with 26 points, as did McLaren on the Constructors title leaderboard. Their accumulated points were the same – Senna’s teammate Michael Andretti had fallen foul of the conditions as Senna was concocting his historic first lap. Prost would go on to win the drivers’ title that year and promptly retire. Senna would occupy his seat, but the active suspension that gave the Williams team such an advantage would be banned for 1994 by the powers that be. Forced back to the drawing board with a car that was designed around such technology meant the new FW16 became a tricky car to drive. Williams would still be refining the car as the season began. Ayrton would not win a single race for his new team before tragically passing away during the San Marino Grand Prix – whilst in the lead.
During the winter break Senna and Prost had patched up their differences and became close friends - Alain would be a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral and has since been appointed a trustee of the Senna Foundation. Donnington and F1 would suffer a similar fate as the European Grand Prix rotated to the new look Nürburgring for 1994 calendar. The circuit made another bid to host F1 in 2008, but it wasn’t to be as, mirroring the Asian GP, the re-structure of the circuit’s facilities proved to be a step too far and the project collapsed. Perhaps it’s fitting that such a special drive remains a one-off.