All in all, it was an emotional finale to the 1993 Grand Prix season, as the teams settled down in Adelaide. Alain Prost was preparing for retirement after 199 GP outings, 51 victories, 33 pole positions (the same as Jimmy Clark), 41 fastest laps and four World Championships. Ayrton Senna was preparing to leave McLaren. Riccardo Patrese, Andrea de Cesaris and Derek Warwick were possibly facing their last GP outings, in Prost’s shadow.
Camel was about to withdraw; various drivers were about to leave their teams, and various engine supply deals were about to end. It was also, whisper it, the final appearance of active ride, traction control and anti-lock brakes.
On Friday, when most of the quick times were set, there was an end-of-term atmosphere, and even though Senna had not been amused to find the boxing gloves a team member had left in his cockpit on Thursday, he seemed relaxed enough. That day he was in brilliant form as he outqualified the Williams-Renaults. Round the street track you needed five or six good clear laps to get the best of the Goodyear D tyres, and that was a work of art and/or down to sheer luck. That afternoon Senna timed his moment just right, and wound up half a second quicker than Prost. On Saturday, when the ambient temperature sidled up, Hill was outstanding as the only topliner to improve, very nearly pushing Prost down to the second row but spinning when trying to go quicker.
Senna’s effort was, incredibly, his first pole position of the season, and his first since Canada 1992. On each occasion he interrupted Williams’ aspirations of annual clean sweeps. It was also the first pole for Ford’s HB V8 (in its last outing as a ‘works’ engine), and the first for Ford and Cosworth since Keke Rosberg put his Williams FW08C at the front of the grid in Rio back in 1983.
The peaceful atmosphere was shattered rather rudely when Senna indulged in one of his outbursts on Saturday, this time against the manner in which the British media had handled the Irvine affair. It was irritating, but an indication of the strain he is under. To see him drive, though, you wouldn’t think he had a care in the world. The McLaren-Ford had the legs of the Williams-Renaults all weekend, the Didcot cars struggling with the bumps and running into calibration problems with their active suspension that were never fully cured. It was quite a reversal of fortune, one way and another. As Lotus had also discovered with Johnny Herbert’s fastest of several troubled qualifying laps set with 60 litres of fuel aboard and with old tyres, the FW15Cs seemed to work better the more weight they carried. Predictably, it was Senna who made the best start. Behind him, Prost was second from Hill, but as Schumacher and Berger pounced into fourth and fifth places Hakkinen lagged. Brundle got a good start and squeezed by the McLaren, obliging Alesi to back off.
At the end of that lap Senna was already 1.3s ahead. Hill was on Prost’s tail, with Schumacher pushing him hard. Then came Berger, Brundle, Hakkinen, Alesi and Aguri Suzuki, Wendlinger leading Lehto, then Patrese, Blundell, Herbert, Martini, Warwick, de Cesaris, Barrichello, Gounon, Comas, Irvine, Katayama and Toshio Suzuki.
Over those opening laps Senna pulled away from Prost every lap, and by the 10th, as Herbert crawled round to retire with a broken driveshaft in his Lotus active suspension’s hydraulic pump, the McLaren was 3.1s ahead. Hill was exactly that distance behind Prost, while Schumacher was still harrying him. Hakkinen had moved up to sixth, preparing to challenge Berger, and Brundle had been unable to maintain a position ahead of Alesi. In his wake, Aguri Suzuki was putting in his best GP performance in a long while, pushing his Footwork hard after the Ligier. Behind them, the duel between the two Saubers and Patrese, which would be waged until the last 20 or so laps, was in full spate, while Blundell and Warwick were also embroiled in a battle that would last until the final stages.
There had been a time when it seemed that the Australian GP was never going to start. The Renault engine in Martin Brundle’s Ligier had stalled at the beginning of the first formation lap, and then, just as he lined up at the back of the grid, Ukyo Katayama had stalled his Tyrrell. That first attempt was waived. Another formation lap followed, but since this was deemed a new start, occasioned by Katayama’s problem, Ligier was allowed to push Brundle back into his eighth position. It was to be his lucky day.
As the field reassembled all seemed well, until observers noticed Irvine sitting with a dead engine, almost a car length ahead of the position his Jordan should have been occupying. An already jittery field went off on yet another formation lap. On the third try everything had finally gone to schedule. For Irvine there would be no glory, however, nor any further controversy after his grid infringement. He got off line, ironically enough at the same left-hander that had claimed Senna in 1990, and his Sasol Jordan was too badly damaged to continue. The most significant retirement, however, came as Schumacher rolled to a halt down the straight on lap 20, by which time Senna was 3.9s ahead of Prost. Hill was again exactly the same margin adrift of his teammate.
The German had been pushing Damon really hard up until the 15th lap, then he made the first stop for fresh D compound Goodyears. “Everything had been going well up until the engine problem,” he said. “Our pit stop strategy was perfect; I came in at exactly the right time and I’m sure I would have been able to get ahead of at least two cars once they had stopped. In fact, I’m sure I could have caught Senna and maybe challenged for the lead .
His demise took some of the pressure off Hill, who then pushed as hard as he could after Prost. Alain briefly took the lead between the 24th and 28th laps when Ayrton made his first tyre stop, but with McLaren turning its man out again in 5.32s and Williams taking 6.41s for Hill on lap 22 and 7.41s for Alain seven laps later, the odds always favoured Senna.
As Senna stamped clear command, Hill really started to have a go after Prost by the 30 lap mark. By then the Ayrton’s advantage was a remarkable 15.025s in a superb display of disciplined driving, but from 4.2s behind his team-mate, Damon had carved the gap down to less than a second by lap 39. As in Suzuka, he had opted for slightly lower downforce settings and had the speed down the straight, but Prost is not a quadruple World Champion for nothing, and as the gap then began to fluctuate while they lapped traffic, he maintained the upper hand. Neither FW15C, however, was handling as crisply as Senna’s MP4/8, and any hopes the Didcot team might have harboured of a fairy tale victory for Prost now clearly relied on reliability problems striking the McLaren.
Hakkinen’s progress after his poor start had taken him past both Ferraris by lap 13, and with Schumacher’s retirement and Hill’s first tyre stop he rose to third, but a long way behind the two leaders. He then staunchly defended that position as Hill came back at him on his fresh rubber, and even with his own stop on lap 26 he only dropped to fourth. Two laps later, however, he was back into the pits, and clearly his race was run as a brake caliper bridge pipe had started weeping fluid.
Hill came in again for fresh rubber on lap 44. Williams had initially hoped to get by with only one stop, “but coming in again seemed the right thing to do”. Alesi was too far behind to benefit, and with a flurry of fastest laps on the 49th, 50th, 51st and 52nd tours, Damon drew closer and closer again to Alain. By lap 54, when Senna was 29.2s ahead, Damon was just over half a second behind Alain, who’d stopped on lap 48, and beginning to look for gaps. That lap Senna took the opportunity to grab his own third set of Ds, emerging still with 17s in hand.
The inter-team battle for second now drew the full focus of attention as Hill continued to pulverise the lap record in a terrific display of controlled aggression. His chances of retaining his runner-up slot in the championship chase looked remote, with Senna leading so easily, but he was damned if he was going down without a fight and he acquitted himself nobly. Traffic parted the two FW15Cs now and then, but each time Damon came back at Alain, and by lap 68 they were literally nose to tail. Going down Dequetteville Terrace to the hairpin, Damon stuck his nose down the inside, had a good look, and then had to tighten his line fractionally as Alain needed what room there was. It was gentlemanly stuff, but as Damon tightened that line the rear end just lost grip, and round he went. Unlike his qualifying spin on Saturday, however, his Renault V10 didn’t stall as he looked for reverse and first, and he was able to resume in third place, slightly chastened.
“The cars are so evenly matched round here it is very, very difficult to find a way past,” he admitted. “When I spun Alain braked very late, and he had a late turn in. I thought I had a bit of an opening, I stuck my car in and I just lost it on the exit to the corner. I was surprised I lost it, but I had gone down on the marbles and probably picked up rubbish on my tyres, so the grip wasn’t there .
“I kept to the left but I braked very, very hard,” said Alain. “I did not want him to overtake me, but I did not want to close the door too much that was a fun moment!”
Senna then reeled off the final laps to another convincing triumph in which he didn’t put a wheel wrong, and his success gave him an emotional leaving present for the team for which he has done so much since 1988.
As he stepped from the cockpit, he embraced Ron Dennis and the ever-loyal Jo Ramirez, and Ron said something to him. “He told me it’s never too late to change your mind!” said Ayrton. “But anyway he said he was happy for me. And so was I, and I said that we must keep the good times, the good moments, and let’s finish that way, with the good things…
Behind Prost and Hill, Alesi just managed to hold Berger at bay as they crossed the line four tenths apart and a lap down. Jean was pacing himself all the way through, after opting for only one tyre stop, while Gerhard had poor brakes for much of the early part, having selected a different type of disc to Jean. He stopped twice for tyres, and as the fuel load went down everything started to harmonise and by the end he closed up as Jean’s rubber wore out. He decided not to try any heroics, since Ferrari desperately needed two cars in the points for the first time this season.
In sixth place, Ligier picked up another point in what Brundle felt was a dull race, for he neither passed anyone, nor was passed by others after the initial sorting out. Suzuki took seventh after his best race of the season on only one tyre stop, and Patrese was eighth even though his Benetton stopped on the last lap with low fuel pressure. He had fought throughout with both Saubers, but Lehto had a nasty fright when his throttle stuck open in the first corner on lap 57, and he was lucky to avoid repeating Christian Fittipaldi’s Monza somersault, while seven laps later Wendlinger had a front brake disc shatter in the same place, and was lucky to get round the corner. Blundell was ninth after fighting most of the day with Warwick, who survived one trip over a high kerb but was relieved to finish at all after missing Friday practice and feeling awful all weekend with ‘flu and bronchitis. Typically, he soldiered on bravely and without any of the trumpeting we have come to associate with one of his illustrious countrymen.
Thus, with Alain Prost’s 199th and final Grand Prix, another racing era came to an end. The man will be missed by all who appreciate artistry and sportsmanship, and in the drivers’ briefing his peers had risen to give him a round of applause. As he sat after the race, he admitted that it had barely sunk in that it was over. It will take time. Maybe in one hour, two hours’ time I will feel a little bit different. I feel a bit tired, because mentally it was not easy today, and I have tried to do my best in the race. It was tiring, it was not easy; I have a strange feeling, if you know what I mean, but I can’t explain very much ..
He rose, and as the drivers’ post-race conference broke up, he took his microphone. I would just like to thank you all for your support over the years,” he said, and with a brilliant career concluded he took his leave. The man always did have class.