The countryside of the East-Midlands may not seem like a location befitting of Formula One, it doesn’t provide the glitz and glamour of a place like Monaco or boast a racing pedigree such as Monza. What it can claim though will be talked about forever; the greatest lap ever driven in a Formula One car.
Let’s set the scene…
The main protagonist needs no introduction, viewed by many as the finest natural talent to ever compete in the sport; Ayrton Senna. He found himself in a state of limbo coming into the 1993 season. Rumours of a move to Williams had fizzled out in the months before and the iron-fist partnership McLaren had shared with Honda was no more, in its place was a promising, yet unproven, Ford Cosworth engine.
Any good story needs hurdles that a hero must conquer; this came in the form of a dominant Williams team who ran away with the championship in 1992, a feat that looked certain to repeat itself once more. A man hoping for the same success as his predecessor Nigel Mansell was a well-rested Alain Prost, who’d returned after a year-long sabbatical to find himself placed in the best seat in the house.
Despite pre-season testing teasing the possibility of a Williams-McLaren showdown, the reality was far simpler – the Renault-powered FW15C was still in a league of its own.
Barring “unusual circumstances”, Senna confessed that he didn’t have an engine capable of competing for race wins, let alone the championship. As if it was written in the stars, a damp Easter weekend at Donington Park provided circumstances far from the usual.
A dry Saturday gifted the Williams pairing of Alain Prost and Damon Hill a front row lock-out, behind them was a young German by the name of Michael Schumacher and the underpowered McLaren of Senna. As it turned out, Saturday was merely a smokescreen blinding everyone to the events of the following day.
While the cars sat on the grid, Murray Walker looked out of his commentary box window to view what he described as “the worst conditions he’d seen anywhere in the world”. During the warmup lap, helicopters that usually provided TV footage captured nothing, the clouds were so thick with moisture that they shouldn’t have even been in the air.
Back on the ground, there were dry patches forming on parts of the circuit, yet when the lights went out, large areas of standing water left untouched sprayed upwards making visibility difficult and grip non-existent. Senna lost a place initially, dropping him to fifth, but he immediately rectified it with a move on Michael Schumacher’s Benetton at the first corner.
Let’s not forget, this was the first and (so far) only time Formula One cars have raced around Donington Park. Knowledge of the circuit was minimal, especially in interchangeable conditions. That said, the next, frankly ridiculous move by Senna around the outside of the fast-starting Sauber of Karl Wendlinger at Craner Curves was not only unexpected but bordered the fine line between genius and idiocy, especially at this early stage of the race.
By the time Senna reached The Old Hairpin, he’d pulled away from the chaos behind by over a second. As he flew past Starkey’s Bridge, his exit speed was enough to propel him past Damon Hill on the inside of McLeans, a move that Damon admits he “didn’t fight enough for”.
At this stage, Prost, who had numerous wet race victories under his belt, was pulling away comfortably. However, the 1.5-second gap he’d built over Senna was destroyed in the braking zone for The Esses. When the leading pair emerged onto the short straight that followed, the Brazilian was already on the gearbox of the Renault-powered Williams.
In what felt like the blink of an eye, he was level and overtook at the Melbourne Hairpin; the result already looked a formality.
What unfolded for the pair during the remainder of the race couldn’t have been more different; Senna completed what many consider to be his finest drive, finishing over a minute in front of second-placed Damon Hill. Prost, however, was ripped apart by the media for essentially losing in a superior car. His poor tyre judgment, along with seven pitstops, only added to the embarrassment.
In the context of the season this showed more than anything that given the right situation or car, Ayrton Senna was capable of taking the fight to the Williams team. While the Frenchman unsurprisingly took his fourth and final world championship come the end of the year, he made it far harder than it needed to be, justifying his second retirement at the season’s end.
Senna’s stock, however, continued to rise and he finally got his move to Williams. Unfortunately his time there is tinged with struggle and eventual tragedy; regulation changes and retirements plagued the start of 1994 preceding Formula One’s bleakest weekend at Imola.
Other Great Laps
There have been many laps that have taken our breath away over the years for whatever reason; Brazil 2008 was edge of the seat excitement, leading to Lewis Hamilton pulling it out of the bag to become world champion on the very last corner of the season. And who can forget the spray-soaked run down to Eau Rouge in 1998 when absolute chaos ensued?
Why was this lap around Donington Park so special? Well, within a minute and a half it told the story of a man in an inferior car, driving in treacherous conditions around a track unfamiliar to him, defying the odds and coming out on top.
It’s a true underdog story, and who doesn’t like one of those, even if your underdog happens to be Ayrton Senna?