Sunday, 5 February 2012

1993 European Grand Prix - Donington Park

April 11, 1993

This was Ayrton Senna at his supreme best. Before the race, he had said that, as at Interlagos a fortnight earlier where he scored an impressive victory, only a wet race would give him a prayer against the mighty Williams-Renaults.

There was never a true rival to the Williams-Renaults in 1993, although McLaren and Benetton had their measure occasionally. The FW15C was still emphatically the class of the field, with Renault's RS5 V10 a paragon of power and strength. Comparatively, with Honda's departure from Formula One at the end of 1992, McLaren's team principal, Ron Dennis had no alternative but to use a customer Ford HB V8. However, this engine was at least two development steps behind the factory Ford engines used by the Benetton team. Rain, they say, is the great equalizer in racing, allowing a drivers talent to compensate for their car's technical deficiencies. At Donington, the rain was not simply an equalizer .. it was Ayrton's secret weapon. 

Senna - A master in the wet.
As in Brazil, a wet race was what he got. All the way through this time. During Friday practice the weather was awful, and he was duly fastest. But on Saturday the weather cleared for qualifying, and in these conditions Alain Prost (Williams) and Damon Hill (Williams) were unapproachable - indeed, Michael Schumacher (Benetton) was able to pip Senna for third on the grid. Ayrton was cheered, however, by the forecasts that Sunday would be wet.

And it was so.

Although it wasn't actually raining when the teams began forming up for the race, there was no question of going to the grid on anything other than wets. Away from the grid, at the start, Schumacher swerved left, in an attempt to block Senna. Momentarily, it worked. Into Redgate, Prost and Hill were smoothly first and second, with Karl Wendlinger (Sauber) up to third from fifth thanks to the Schumacher-Senna squabble. Then came Schmacher in fourth, and Senna in fifth.

Craner Curves - Senna alongside Wendlinger and into third. 
Senna dealt with Schumacher as they exited the corner, and then in a move of astonishing confidence and audacity, proceeded to go by Wendlinger through the Craner Curves - on the outside! It took a bit of believing, but into the Old Hairpin Senna was third. and gaining on Hill. Whom he duly passed at Coppice.

That left only Prost with whom to deal. Half-way round the lap Alain looked relatively secure in the lead, but Senna now with only his arch rival ahead of him effortlessly closed on the Frenchman. Down to the hairpin at Melbourne, Ayrton was right up with him, outbraking neatly down the inside. The opening minute had been breathtaking, but somehow you felt the race already over.

On the greasy surface, Senna briefly pulled out a lead of seven seconds after only four laps. After that, it stabilised, then began to reduce a little; the track clearly was beginning to dry.

1993 European GP - Senna overtakes Prost for the lead at Melbourne.
Senna came into the pits for slick tyres on lap 18. Hill and Schumacher stopped with Senna and Prost pitted the next time around. After everything had settled down again, it was Senna in the lead, five seconds clear of Prost, with Hill a couple more behind.

Now it began to rain again. After only three laps on his slicks, Prost was in once more switching back to wets. On lap 24 Hill followed suit. Senna managed his slicks until lap 28, when he pitted for wets, and did not lose the lead in the process.

The rain stopped almost at once, but gone from the proceedings was Schumacher, who had spun into a sandtrap. Now the situation in the pits became almost farcical. Lap 33 saw Prost back in again, for slicks, and next time around Senna and Hill did the same. This time, however, there was a disruption in the flow of smooth stops, a problem with the left rear wheel keeping Senna immobile for twenty seconds. By the time he rejoined, Prost had gone through, and now led by almost seven seconds.

More rain. Unbelievable, perhaps, but true. Williams brought in Prost on lap 38, and Hill on lap 41, each going back out on wets once more. Crucially, though, McLaren did not call in Senna at this point, and soon the policy proved correct, for the Williams-Renaults, on wets, were able to make no impression on the slick-shod McLaren - indeed little by little, Senna began to extend his lead. The track was drying again.

Lap 48 and Prost was in again, for the fifth time, this time for slicks. And the stop was disastrous, Alain stalling as he tried to leave. The clutch he said, was "becoming difficult". By the time he went back out, the pole position man had been lapped by Senna. Hill was in on lap 50, also to take on slicks. Now he, too, was a lap back.

1993 European GP - Senna laps all but Damon Hill in the mighty Williams.
By lap 53 the situation was this: Senna had at least one lap on everybody, and led Hill, the astonishing Rubens Barrichello (Jodan), Prost, Johnny Herbert (Lotus)  and Derek Warwick (Footwork). All on slicks.

It began to rain again. And hard this time. Senna entered the pitlane on lap 57, seemingly unexpected since his crew was not ready for him, so he continued straight through - and this, given the lap distance saved by  Donington's pit entry road, was to prove the fastest lap of the race! Officially, anyway. A lap later the rain had eased, and now Senna decided wets weren't necessary, after all. With more than a lap's lead, however, he felt he could back off a little, and Hill, charging along in second place unlapped himself on lap 63.

The rain returned in the closing laps. On lap 66 Senna stopped for wets, and on laps 68 and and 69 Hill and Prost did the same. Senna, of course, won consummately. Hill was almost a minute and a half behind when the chequered flag fell. Everyone else had been lapped at least once. It was a virtuoso performance. Senna had crushed the opposition, despite facing a huge technical disadvantage to a three time World Champion, and using a simple customer engine that other teams using the same engine were happy to just score points with. Even more astounding was the fact that this was his second victory in a row facing these challenges, and he made it look easy.

1993 European GP - unparalleled brilliance wins over technical dominance. 
Ayrton's opening lap at Donington was one of the most electrifying ever seen - fifth at the first corner, first at the end of the lap. After that, he was untouchable for the rest of the day.

Senna once said; "On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit. And you then go for this limit and you touch this limit, and you think, 'Okay, this is the limit.' As soon as you touch this limit, something happens and you can suddenly go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and your experience as well, you can fly very high."

At Donington in 1993 Senna proved exactly how high one could fly.

Friday, 3 February 2012

1981 Spanish Grand Prix - Circuito del Jarama

June 21, 1981

In Formula One, as in any sport, there are competitors and then there are true heroes. Those with depth of character, with an undying will to win, with integrity and courage are the ones that are remembered long after their days in racing are over. Gilles Villeneuve was such a driver, and the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix was without doubt the French-Canadian's finest victory. It was a race of incredible tension and the result was a tactical masterpiece that only a naturally gifted driver could achieve. That year Ferrari had produced a powerful turbocharged engine but the 126CK chassis was so bad that Villeneuve himself described it as "a hopeless fast red Cadillac". "You put on new tyres, and it is OK for four laps," he said. "After that, forget it."

1981 Spanish GP: Villeneuve's ability trumped the 126CK's poor qualities.
But, as was the hallmark of Villeneuve's career, a poor car was never something that stopped him from trying to win races and in Monaco at the end of May he did just that, scoring Ferrari's first win for two years. Three weeks later the F1 circus rolled up at Jarama for the Spanish Grand Prix. Jacques Laffite (Ligier-Matra) took pole with the two Williams-Fords of Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann second and third ahead of John Watson (McLaren-Ford), Alain Prost (Renault) and Bruno Giacomelli (Alfa Romeo). Villeneuve drove impressively to simply qualify in seventh. Didier Pironi, Villeneuve's extremely capable team-mate could only manage thirteenth with the Ferrari.

Race day was incredibly hot and the temperature was around 100 degrees when the race began. Gilles' strategy at the start was to make full use of his new Michelins, and gain as many positions as possible at that green light. Jones and Reutemann blasted into the lead as Laffite dropped to twelfth when his engine bogged down as he tried to get off the line. Villeneuve scorched into third place at the first corner, snagging Prost's front wing as he did so. At the end of the first lap Villeneuve pulled out of Reutemann's slipstream and took second place. Jones quickly began building a lead, and stretched his advantage to ten seconds. However, on lap 14 the reigning World Champion made an uncharacteristic error and spun off at the Ascari chicane.

This left Villeneuve with Reutemann on is tail. Behind them Watson, a resurging Laffite and Elio de Angelis (Lotus-Ford) emerged from the hurly-burly and all began to close on the duelling leaders. Reutemann was having some trouble with his gearbox and when Laffite arrived behind him there was little Carlos could do to stop Jacques overtaking. The Argentine would later drop behind Watson as well as the five front-runners became a train of cars, nose-to-tail for the remainder of the race.
Unrelenting Pressure: lap after lap, Laffite harries Villeneuve.

Villeneuve had the power to get away from his rivals on the straights but in the corners they were all over him. Time and time again Laffite pulled alongside as they emerged from a corner but the Ferrari would serge ahead as the horsepower kicked in. He judged things to perfection, never rushing when he was at a disadvantage and positioning his car on the track so as not to allow any of his rivals past. The five remained locked together right to the flag, crossing the line covered by just 1.24s to record the second closest race in the history of F1 at the time.

It had been a sensational drive by Villeneuve, and even Enzo Ferrari was impressed. The day after the race Villeneuve's boss compared his driver to the legendary Tazio Nuvolari who raced for Ferrari 50 years earlier.

Cadillac Day - Villeneuve, Laffite and Watson.
The "Commendatore" had notoriously difficult relationships with his drivers, but Villeneuve was one of the few to earn his complete admiration and respect. Little could he have realized that this would be Gilles' final Grand Prix victory, and within a year his beloved driver would be dead. Killed while trying to qualify for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder. Years later in an interview Enzo Ferrari would reveal just how much Villeneuve meant to him.

"My past is scarred with grief." Ferrari said. "Father, mother, brother, son, wife. My life is full of sad memories. I look back and I see my loved ones and among my loved ones I see the face of this great man, Gilles Villeneuve."