There have been some opportunist moves in Formula One over the years – Jacky Ickx passing Niki Lauda round the outside at Paddock Bend in the 1974 Race of Champions, or Nigel Mansell diving past Ayrton Senna up the hill in Hungary in 1989 – spring immediately to mind but few have equalled the audacity shown by Ayrton Senna in the opening lap of the Grand Prix of Europe.
“There is no long straight here and passing is difficult. Because of this there may be some controversy on overtaking,” he had said the previous day, as he faced a start from fourth position, nearly two seconds adrift of the Williams-Renaults on the front row and a shade slower than Michael Schumacher’s Benetton. The cynics among us had taken note as no doubt Senna’s rivals were meant to and we interpreted that to mean ‘Move over, because I’m coming through whether you do or not’. We expected the worst.
Instead, the former World Champion treated us all to a virtuoso performance throughout 76 of the most tortuous racing laps seen in the post-war era. Tom Wheatcroft’s long-awaited Grand Prix began with a wet track, but even as the start lights blinked green the rain had all but ceased. The racing line would dry, then it would rain again, it would dry, it would rain, it would dry. In the end it rained again, to create the sort of pit stop nightmare rarely seen in F1. Truly, this was not one for the faint hearted.
Senna was well aware of the shortcomings of Donington as far as passing is concerned, but what added spice to an incredible opening lap was the way Schumacher eased him to the left at the start. The yellow and green Benetton pushed the red and white McLaren right up to the left-hand kerbing as Hill came sweeping to the outer line, and Karl Wendlinger, an excellent fifth on the grid in the Sauber, can scarcely have believed his apparent luck as he dived gratefully down the inside and into third place as Prost led Hill into Redgate. That, it seemed, was that. What Senna had most feared had happened. The two Williamses were away where they wanted to be.
The Brazilian dealt with Schumacher quickly in Hollywood, no doubt aided in part by the traction control which he had but which Schumacher hadn’t. He then went bravely round the outside of Wendlinger going through the left-hander down to Old Hairpin, and at McLeans he shouldered neatly inside an understandably cautious Hill. By this time Prost was apparently well ensconced in the lead, but at the Melbourne Hairpin the Frenchman’s innate wet road caution allied to a transmission problem played totally into Senna’s hands. This was one of the latter’s Day of Days, just as the greasy Suzuka had been back in 1988. He took Prost down the inside and the Williams driver could only let it happen. By the time he reached Redgate, Senna can barely have seen the FW15C as a spray-blurred yellow and blue dot in his mirrors. This was annihilation, and frankly it made the rest of them look as if they were still on their warm-up lap.
To begin with Prost seemed content to await an improvement in conditions as Hill moved to within a second and a half of him, and for the first 18 laps that was how the front of the field remained. By then the track, which in any case drains well, began to dry out on the racing line. Martin Brundle was the first to experiment with slicks, changing on his sixth lap. Sadly that was a little too soon, as he discovered two laps later when he slithered helplessly into a spin at the chicane when his gearbox locked the rear wheels and stalled his Renault V10. He would be joined there on lap 21, when team-mate Mark Blundell landed in the gravel trap just after temporarily depriving Christian Fittipaldi of 12th place as Senna lapped them.
Senna changed at the end of the 18th, a lap after Hill, and after a lap in the lead Prost followed suit. Thus far it was all normal, and when full racing resumed Senna was 6.9s ahead of Prost. But then the Frenchman came in again for more wets as it rained again on lap 22, followed by Hill two laps later. This was where it began to go wrong for Williams. Senna was prepared to tough it out on slicks, aware that conditions could change again. Prost, calling the shots in tune with Williams management, seemed to set his watch by the last clock he passed. Damon, inexperienced, followed suit with his team leader.
“We messed it up,” said a senior team member, although he put it a little more earthily than that. And that was precisely what Williams did. In total, Senna would stop five times, but his last was more of a precautionary call for wets in the closing stages, when he had dramatically put a lap on everyone bar Hill, whom he had allowed to unlap himself.
Damon would stop six times, and afterwards he had no illusions. “It was like a nightmare! The worst conditions you ever wanted to race in.” Of a race in which pit crews played as vital a part as drivers, he paid tribute to his. “I locked up a few times coming in, but they just stood there like good soldiers and then got on with the job. I don’t know how I came second,” he admitted. “I felt as if I did not know what was going to happen next most of the time. The conditions were changing all the time and it was very difficult to predict what tyres to use. It might have been possible to do the whole race on slicks, but it alternated so much it was difficult to make decisions.”
Certainly, Prost appeared to find it so at least making the right ones and he would stop seven times. But while Senna starred three others shone like beacons in the murk: Rubens Barrichello, Johnny Herbert and Derek Warwick.
“He took some really big risks,” said one rival of the Brazilian rookie on the first lap. “He was banging wheels with people, sliding all over the place.” And so he was, but the risks proved worthwhile. Michael Andretti had qualified very well in sixth place and was right with Senna initially at the start, but in a move he later had the grace to admit was rash, he took off Wendlinger. “When I tried to overtake him I suddenly realised he probably hadn’t seen me, so I braked hard but couldn’t avoid hitting him,” he said ruefully of his first F1 race in front of father Mario. Barrichello thus settled down in fourth place at the end of the first lap. Not bad from 12th on the grid! On his tail he had Alesi and Schumacher, yet at no stage did he seem awed by their presence. Indeed, he seemed almost unaware of it as he held his place. It became third when Senna first stopped, and though he dropped to fifth behind Alesi after his own slick call on lap 19, he was back to third by lap 25 when the Williams boys came in again. In the conditions, and the exalted company, he looked totally at home.
“The traction control helped at the start of the race,” he said. “I committed myself and tried very hard, but I do have to say there was a fair bit of luck involved! Still, it was a great start. The car felt good all the way through the race.”
He stayed on slicks during the wettest parts and then changed to wets again on his 39th lap, dropping from a well-held third to fourth again behind Senna and the Williams duo, but by then any threat from Ferrari and Benetton had evaporated. Poor Alesi lost time with long pit stops, and then retired on lap 37 when the active suspension’s hydraulic system began losing fluid and affecting his gearchange. By then Schumacher’s race had already ended in the gravel bed on lap 23. He and Senna had staged a glorious qualifying shoot-out as he debuted the new Benetton B193B, but in the race it had been a disappointment. His initial move had perhaps been indication of his detestation of the Brazilian, once his idol, but once Senna had gone by Michael had no response. “I’m sure the team feels let down,” he shrugged. “All I can say is sorry. I’ll try and make it up for next time.” Shifting down to third for a corner, he had locked the rear wheels and slid off.
Barrichello, meanwhile, kept plugging on, even overtaking Hill for third on lap 32, and then rising to a glorious second between laps 49 and 54, as the Williams team changed tyres yet again and then he made another stop to switch back to slicks. This time he stayed second for another lap, but Hill was back into his stride and soon demoted him. Then Prost came creeping back up, but the sight of a Jordan-Hart slugging it out with the Williams-Renaults was, without offence to Eddie’s team, a part indication of just how wrong Frank and his crew had got things.
It became clear that Barrichello would have to settle for fourth, but it was a superb result, and as he reeled off the final laps it all seemed a foregone conclusion until the blue Sasol car pulled off on its 71st tour. “It was all going really well and then the fuel pressure light came on and the next lap the car just stopped,” he reported, with the air of a driver who is confident of great things to come. Jordan himself was too choked to speak. The Silverstone team’s misfortune promoted the third star, Herbert, to fourth for Lotus. At the start, however, he’d had a scare. Revving the 107B in first he had felt it sink down on to its helper springs, as if its active ride had failed. “I looked up and saw the red lights were on, then when I got into second gear everything seemed to sort itself out.”
His car would drag its tail for much of the race, but it was his performance behind the wheel that was so notable. From 11th on the grid he was eighth for the first 10 laps before, just as he did in Brazil, taking the early decision to opt for slicks. Thereafter the Lotus handled better, and he resolved to stay out as long as he dared. Thus, even more than Senna, he fought the track all afternoon.
“The way things were for us today. I thought the best thing that I could do was to stay out and go as carefully as I could,” he said modestly. “I just didn’t want to risk time coming in, and maybe having a bad stop, although in Brazil our stops had been the best. In any case, unless it was really wet there wasn’t much difference between slicks and wets, and the wets wouldn’t have lasted long during the dry periods. I just kept going and it all paid off.”
Team director Peter Collins summarised it better: “We kept our nerve when many others were panicked into making too many tyre stops. Today Johnny’s drive was just simply stunning; the car wasn’t a match for his ability.”
There was much to cheer elsewhere in a race that defied the awful weather, for Derek Warwick and Riccardo Patrese fought in company with the Inter-Minardi Challenge right up until the closing stages. Sadly, the Footwork driver’s tenancy of an aggressive sixth place in the new FA14 was terminated as he went into his 67th lap, thanks to driveshaft failure (thankfully not with the dire consequences such a failure had had on the car’s debut test at Silverstone). Like Johnny, Delboy had driven beautifully on slicks after his initial change. That left Riccardo to scoop what became fifth with Barrichello’s demise, the Italian driving a “conservative” – read uncommitted – race to be sure of a finish after his disasters so far this year. In his wake, Fabrizio Barbazza was delighted to score his first World Championship point after fighting tooth and nail with team-mate Fittipaldi, Warwick, Patrese and Blundell. “Nothing is a problem today,” he beamed, “except this.” He pointed to a broken endplate on his left front wing. “This broke maybe at the start, and I had big understeer all through. But sixth? I am very happy!” Fittipaldi wasn’t so chuffed. Both had spun in the closing stages, Barbazza after clipping the kerb at Old Hairpin, Christian after Alessandro Zanardi had spun his difficult Lotus on to the grass and then rejoined immediately in front of him. Fittipaldi claimed that had obliged him to spin in avoidance. Without that he might have taken that final point.
Zanardi claimed an unhappy eighth, unsettled by a handling imbalance in his 107B which, like Herbert’s, had a ride height problem, Comas was ninth, unhappy that his initial set of wets had mismatched pressures, and Barrichello was classified 10th ahead of Alboreto’s sluggish but reliable Lola-Ferrari. Joining Alesi in retirement, Berger succumbed to failure of an active suspension actuator after feeling fluid leaking on to his legs right from the start. He had been chasing Schumacher for seventh until the problem became acute. Lehto, too, deserved much better fortune. The ever-cheerful Finn had to switch to the spare Sauber after the warm-up lap, when his own developed a problem in its ignition switch. The spare C12 was set for the taller Wendlinger, and after starting from the pit lane and gambling on slicks he reluctantly came in to retire after 13 laps. “The steering wheel and pedals were all set for Karl,” he explained, “so it was almost impossible to drive the car properly.”
When the rout was over, Prost was sombre as he outlined his race as sat and Senna rolled his eyes heavenward. “I had a bad moment from the start when the car went into neutral and I could not get a gear in the third or fourth corner. Then I had another problem at the end of the straight, so that I went a bit wide in neutral again. On the straight after that, Ayrton overtook me. From then on I had problems almost all the time. It was impossible to brake late because I was locking the rear wheels; when you called for a gear it would not come immediately, and under retardation it would lock the rears.
“Anyway, the car was not bad at the beginning, and after I got used to it I was being careful. But then I had more and more problems with the gearbox. I stalled the engine at one stop…
“I made some good decisions at the beginning, to stop at the right time. But then, as soon as I put the slicks on, the car was absolutely undriveable. I was braking later and changing gear faster, and I could not get the gears. Also, as with Damon, the tyre pressures were not correct and we took something off the wing, which was not the correct decision. . .”
Senna, listening to all this, responded: “Perhaps you should change cars with me…”
Prost’s afternoon had been rendered worse when his clutch problem caused him to stall on his lap 48 stop, and then again on lap 53 when he came in to have what he thought was a punctured left rear replaced. Actually, the team’s slicks had been pressured on the assumption that it would stay dry, and that had created an apparent imbalance as they were too low for the conditions. On the positive side, though, he went unpenalised for passing Warwick under the yellows in the Esses during Brundle’s incident.
Said a team member later: “It was pretty grisly for us. After qualifying first and second, distant second and third places didn’t make us too happy. The basic problem is that at low speeds the re-engagement of drive after downchanges can be a bit brutal, and locks the rear axle. But it only does so briefly…” For Senna on this great day, little was wrong. Like Prost, he had also suffered one bad stop, on lap 34, when a right rear wheelnut cross-threaded and lost him the lead again. Victory just made it even better that 10 years earlier the Leicestershire track had been the venue of his first ever run in an F1 car. . . ironically enough, a Williams. “I am over the moon,” he declared, a trifle unoriginally. “This was a tremendous race because the conditions were unpredictable and unknown. On slicks on a circuit like this you almost have to commit yourself before you get the feeling of the car in the corner. If you try too hard, you are off. If you go too easy, they come and get you.”
His fifth pit call proved the best, as he sauntered in and out without stopping. It was a radio communication problem, he suggested; he’d called for wets but they weren’t ready in time. But was it coincidence that that was also his fastest lap and the race’s as he cut a little off the overall lap length?
It mattered not. The race virtually belonged to Ayrton Senna from the moment he plunged by Prost on the first lap, from the moment he took the fight to Williams, and certainly once he had regained the lead on lap 39 after that wheelnut delay. He had been obliged to gamble, and it had paid off handsomely as Prost trailed in his wake, perhaps overly fearful of a Brazilian repeat. It was a crushing defeat, quite possibly the best drive of Senna’s career, the best of his 38 GP wins. Come to think of it, it was probably one of McLaren’s best, too. If Senna won on the track, McLaren won off it. As they headed off from the Sega-sponsored Grand Prix of Europe, towards San Marino, the Brazilian’s car wore its second squashed Sonic the Hedgehog sticker on its cockpit side to rub in the message that the 1993 win stakes thus far rated McLaren 2-1 over Williams. After South Africa, not even Senna or Ron Dennis had dared to hope for that.