Monday 17 June 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XIII - Donington Park, European Grand Prix

Image Courtesy: Allf1.com

Twenty years ago on an Easter Sunday, I had no idea about the whole business of F1. I barely remember watching it on TV, just little glimpses that appeared once in a while on the sports magazines, and I never looked much into it. Few years from that Easter Sunday, I was a changed man or say boy when it came to F1. It has never been the same since then.

Four years ago, while in London for a short work assignment, I wanted to visit Leicestershire, Silverstone and what not. I ended up not visiting any of these places. Someday in the future for sure, for now I am happy talking about the solitary race that took place at Donington Park.

In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I write about England’s permanent park circuit which hosted a single F1 race; though not as the British Grand Prix.

Thanks to one of the archived videos, I was able to watch the designated European Grand Prix of 1993. European Grand Prix, over the years have had different interpretations and avatars so to speak. What started as an honorary title to the existing races, the name became a full-fledged race from 1977. The association was short-lived and the whole business of European Grand Prix was volatile. European GP did take place few times in the mid 1980’s and cancelled after two seasons. The idea was revived in the decade of 90’s before the race occupied a consistent slot for close to 20 years.
F1 was popular in Japan at the start of the final decade of 20th century. A track was being built called Nippon Autopolis, an ambitious project of Japanese businessman Tomonori Tsurumaki  to host an F1 event. Autopolis sponsored the Benetton team for two seasons (90 and 91) and also lobbied heavily to have a race scheduled in his purpose built circuit. Similar in characteristics to that of Mexican GP at that time, the Autopolis looked good to host Asian GP in 1993, before bankruptcy forced the project to be aborted.

On the other hand Tom Wheatcroft, who was responsible for the up gradation and managed the Donington Park since 1970’s, took this as an opportunity after repeated failures to host a GP previously. An agreement was set in motion and Donington Park was to be designated as the European GP for 1993.

Back to that Easter weekend of 1993. Senna on his McLaren was not as sharp as the Williams during qualifying. The Williams duo of Prost and Hill took the front row, while Michael Schumacher and Aryton Senna took the second row respectively.

The weather on the race day can be summarised by these words of Murray Walker, the famed F1 commentator “Look from the commentary box, I saw the worst weather that I have ever seen at any race anywhere in the world”. Mind you, he has watched a lot of F1 races.

Race started and by the end of lap one, and by the time tyres got warmed;  Senna on a wet track was leading the race and was a good four second ahead of the pack by the time lap three started. He was no stranger to this circuit, as he had driven and won it in 1983 as a part of British F3 championships. That was a good 10 years ago and the conditions were not this bad.

The race started with majority of drivers opting for wet weather tyres as the track was slippery. With rain clouds staying away on the track site, the conditions suited for the dry slicks to come on to the cars by lap 15. By the end of lap 20, all the drivers had pitted in for dry tyres and fate has it, light shower graced the circuit three laps later. Alain Prost quick to pit for wet tyres. Other drivers opted to race with dry tyres, prolonging the decision to change for the more gripped tyres.

By the time Senna came on to wet weather tyres, he had a good lead. The track started to dry out and teams went for pits for the slicks. Senna had a slight problem which promoted Prost to the lead till the time of the next showers. The Williams duo pitted while Senna stayed out on dry tyres. McLaren was spot on with this move as the track started to dry few laps later and the two Williams returned to pits for dry tyres. Amidst all this confusion, Senna had built up a lead in such manner that he had lapped every car but the second placed Damon Hill come lap 60.

By the time, the chequered flag was waved; Senna had a lead of 83 seconds over Hill. He made just four pit stops while Prost had to make seven. Not surprisingly, the fastest lap of the race was Senna’s which came in bizarre circumstances on lap 57, which included a drive to the pits but aborted the pit stop. This was also Senna’s final fastest lap of his F1 career.

Ten years after that incredible race of 1993 - on the thirtieth anniversary of his fatal crash, a bronze statue of Roger Williamson was unveiled at the Donington Park circuit in his native Leicestershire. Then-owner Tom Wheatcroft had provided financial backing to Williamson, and described the day Williamson died as the saddest day of his life.

The one-off event was a success if you consider what was on display that Easter Sunday with race being held in wet/dry conditions. The European Grand Prix would move to Jerez, Spain the following year and since then Donington Park have made many failed attempts to host the race. The financial meltdown in 2008 was the final deciding factor, as the organisers could not gather the money which was required to host the race.

But Donington’ 93 belongs to Senna. For all his doubters and critics, this race was the proof of his superior driving skills and greatness in the way he handled the ever-changing conditions.

In 2010, in Top gear episode, there was a special focus that featured Senna and his legacy. The team at Top Gear presented the statistics of Schumacher, Fangio and Senna. They asked the current crop of drivers to share their number one driver. Alonso, Barrichello, Massa, Trulli, Webber, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Hamilton and Michael Schumacher himself, all put Aryton Senna as the number one driver in F1. I am sure there are more drivers who would agree to this.

Former F1 driver Martin Brundle sums it up nicely.  “If you ever wanted to know Aryton Senna in 40 seconds, just watch the opening lap of this race”. And that to me is the highlight of the 76-lap solo F1 race at Donington Park. 

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