Memories of Senna – European Grand Prix 1993

Memories of Senna – European Grand Prix 1993

I was lucky enough to be a witness to the true genius of Ayrton Senna as a spectator at the 1993 European Grand Prix at Donington Park. I thought other people might be interested to read about my experience of the day as it was a truly historic and amazing race to be at.

I went to the race with two of my friends from school and my father who is also an avid racing fan. We arrived at the crack of dawn as we always did for a Grand Prix to get the best possible spot. This was the result of a tough lesson learned as a result of turning up at Silverstone around 9am for the 1989 British GP, only to find that the only available viewing spots were on the Hanger Straight! Anyway, we turned up really early, only to find that it actually wasn’t that busy, much quieter than a Silverstone Grand Prix but still a decent turn out. We picked our spot just at the exit of the old hairpin at the bottom of the Craner Curves.

As long time visitors to Brands Hatch and having seen a number of soaking wet Formula Ford festivals and Rallycross events we weren’t strangers to being out in the rain. Even so, this was tough! The rain was torrential all morning and we just had to shelter under our umbrellas as best we could and look forward to some on track action! It seemed like a long wait. Finally there was some track action and the morning F1 warm up began in the pouring rain. As always the sound and fury of the cars sent shivers down my back, it was interesting back in those days because Formula 1 engines were being rapidly developed and all the cars sounded different. You had the Ford V8′s, the high revving V12 Ferrari’s and V10′s from Hart, Yamaha and Renault. Each car had it’s own unique sound and believe it or not smell. There was also a fuel race going on and some very exotic fuels were in use, giving as much as 50 extra bhp.

I remember seeing Fabrizio Barbazza have an absolutely massive spin the morning warm up. It started on the exit of Redgate and finished half way down the craner curves. Because the car got on the wet grass, with wheels locked it just seemed to accelerate down the hill. Fortunately he survived it without collecting anything or anyone! Senna looked quick out there, as did the Williams of Hill and Prost and of course Michael Schumacher. Another young gun taking part in his first season of F1 was 19 year old Brazilian hotshoe Rubens Barrichello. He looked handy out there in the Jordan and looked like he could be a threat in the race. My other memory is seeing the Chesterfield Lola Ferrari’s of Alboreto and Luca Badoer lumbering round at the back. They were hopelessly overweight, with the Ferrari engine being ill suited to the Lola chassis. It was sadly one of the worst F1 cars I’ve seen.

The F1 session ended all too soon and we were into the lunchbreak. This was to prove surprisingly entertaining too. Tom Wheatcroft the circuit owner was due to give a demonstration of the mighty Mercedes W154 and quite a display it was! He came through the second part of the Craner Curves on the wet track and at first things looked pretty much under control, but suddenly he looked to be going way too quick and before you could blink he had lost the back end. The car went off at alarming speed into the gravel, coming close to tipping over as it dug into the gravel. It came to rest against the tyrewall and everyone in the crowd breathed a huge sigh of relief! The intrepid Wheatcroft was dug out and duly carried on for the rest of the lap. Many years later I found out that he had put off major heart surgery to be at the race, a race he had fought long and hard to hold at Donington Park and had had a 3rd heart attack only one week prior to the event. An amazing man.

Once all that excitement was over and a few other support races (I think touring cars were also on the bill) were held we were onto the big event. The rain continued to come down, but it was less heavy than during the morning and more patchy. The excitement began to build in the way it always does before a Grand Prix until the roar of the cars started once again. In those days there was a lengthy warm up period before the race to get the cars bedded in and for final tweaks and adjustments. Finally, all the cars formed on the grid and things were all quiet again for the minutes leading up to the start. Alain Prost was on pole for the race in the technically superior Williams. Senna qualified fourth in the outpowered McLaren Ford. It was a tough season for Senna as he was hopelessly outgunned by the Williams and the powerful Renault engine. Schumacher was alongside Senna and was already showing his driving brilliance. But this was not to be his day.

Standing in our position with baited breath we could hear every note of those 26 F1 engines as they prepared for the start. As the lights went out, Senna did not make the best of starts and was down to about fifth or sixth at the first corner. As the cars raced down the Craner Curves everyone was on the edge, looking for grip wherever it could be found. Somehow Senna found grip where others could not. As I watched he shot around the outside of Karl Wendlinger coming into the second part of the Craner Curves. I would say that my viewpoint was very similar to that which you see in the TV pictures, I may have just been a little further round the Old Hairpin. It was clear that Senna was on a charge and as the cars disappeared out of our view we could only try to listen in vain to the commentary coming from the circuit tannoy. To our amazement Senna came round in the lead with a gap on the following lap and continued to pull away for some time. As the race wore on the track began to dry and some cars (including Brundles Ligier) pitted for slicks. The William’s of Hill and Prost started to close a little on Senna as their car advantage began to count again. A brilliant first pitstop by McLaren kept Senna out in the lead but the gap was much diminished. Then it started to rain again and the weather started to become much more unpredictable. Prost stopped for wets again and Senna did the same some time later but now with a 12 second lead over Hill.

By lap 26 it was raining harder again and Prost was now fast on the wets and Senna was beginning to struggle. He stopped again for wets and brilliant McLaren pit work kept him ahead of Prost. He pulled away into the distance again after Alesi stopped for new tyres. Then it began to dry again! This time the Williams crew did a better job and Alain led for the first time in the race. An impressive Barrichello was now up to 3rd. When it started to rain again, Prost pitted but Senna stayed out, even managing to set a fastest lap in the inclement conditions. Prost pitted again but stalled and now Senna was a lap in front. Senna opened the gap to Barrichello, the only other car on the lead lap and even lapped him when he pitted. Finally just to cap it all off, Senna set the fastest lap by driving through the pitlane. It had just started to rain again as he entered the pits so he elected to continue on to the confusion of his pit crew.

It was an utterly dominant performance by Senna. He won by almost a minute and a half over Hill with Prost a further 35 seconds down the road. He had read the conditions perfectly and had only pitted 4 times in the changeable conditions to Prost’s 7 stops. My father and I were amazed even then by the brilliance of it, Senna was in a class of his own that day and it was fantastic to witness such genius at work. Watching that race and getting to know Senna through all the TV interviews he gave (particularly the ones with Steve Ryder) I felt that he was a unique person. He spoke so eloquently about life, death, his passion for racing and his desire to succeed, it was almost hypnotic to watch. I really feel that he could have been so much more to the world after his racing career if he had so wished because he was very charismatic. Sadly Imola 1994 was to take him from us too soon.

When we got back to our car after the event we found that we were stuck and us three lads had to get out and push. Unfortuntely my friend got himself sprayed with mud from the spinning front tyres of my Dad’s car and had to do the return journey covered in mud! As another lifelong fan he tells me that he hasn’t washed the cap since and has kept it as a permanent reminder of the day!

Here is a video showing most of the opening lap from Senna’s onboard camera: