The Secret to Ayrton Senna’s “Lap of the Gods” at Donington 1993

Alex Gassman

by Alex Gassman

Ayrton Senna Donington 1993

Ayrton Senna” by Martin Lee is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Ayrton Senna Donington 1993. Four words we now assosciate with one of the best single laps of F1 we have ever witnessed.

In 1993, for one year only, Formula 1 visited Donington Park where it hosted the European Grand Prix in torrential rain. Ayrton Senna entered the first corner in 5th position but by the end of the first lap he was leading the race, having overtaken Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and Alain Post who ended up with 12 World Championship titles between them.

This incredible bit of driving is now known as the Lap of the Gods. But how exactly did he manage to go from 5th to 1st in the space of one lap?

In this article we will take a deep dive in to the lap, corner-by-corner, and explain what techniques Senna used to humiliate his competitors in such spectacular style.

Contents

Donington Park 1993 F1

1993 was the only year the F1 ever visited Donington Park. In the same year Silverstone also hosted the British GP, so the Donington round was known as the European GP. This was the only time two rounds of the Formula 1 world championship were held at two different British venues in the same year.

Unfortunately the price of hosting the F1 race at Donington meant the race event was a massive financial loss. Costs for groundworks, track modifications to meet FIA standards and BBC TV licensing far outweighed the earnings from ticket sales, with only 50,000 spectators entering Donington on race day thanks to the appalling weather conditions.

F1 would not return here as Silverstone was shortly after awarded a 17 year contract to host the British GP. 

Senna Donington Park 1993 McLaren

Ayrton Senna” by Martin Lee is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

racing in the rain

Before we look at Senna’s driving, here’s a quick bit of important information about racing in the rain.

The first thing to note is that the normal dry racing line is usually the slowest line. In the dry, small rubber deposits from sticky racing tyres get crushed in to the tarmac and make this the fastest place to be on the circuit. But when it rains, oil from those sticky bits of rubber seeps out and rises to the top of the rain water, making it the slipperiest part of the trck.

So often the fastest line for a given corner in the wet will be well off the dry line, usually around the outside of the corner. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule and the difference in grip between the lines changes for every corner, usually requiring a few laps to figure it out.

Senna rain British Grand Prix McLaren

Ayrton Senna” by Martin Lee is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Senna's wet weather skill

Before the Formula 1 grid ever reached Donington, it was clear that Senna was a master in the rain. 

When competitors, team managers and people who ‘know’ have spoken about Senna in more recent years, there’s been a number of constants in their admiration for his skill. One of those is his ability to understand what level of grip any section of a track has before he even reached it. And in the rain, when normally even the best drivers spend a few laps ‘hunting for grip’ to find the most adhesive section of a wet track, this foresight is incredible and invaluable. And it showed in Senna’s racing.

Ayrton Senna racing his Toleman in the rain in Monaco

1984 Monaco GP” by Juan Pablo Donoso is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

In 1984 in his first season of Formula 1, driving for the backmarker Toleman team Senna qualified 13th for a soaking wet Monaca Grand Prix in what was only his sixth F1 race start. By lap 15 of the race in which the rain continued to fall heavier and heavier, he had caught and passed Keke Rosberg for 5th place. By lap 31 he was in second and has closed the distance to the race leader Alain Prost down from 30 seconds to just 7.

Shortly after the race was red flagged due to the appaling conditions and despite Senna crossing the line first, Alain Prost won the race. Regardless, Senna had officially arrived on the F1 grid and this was just the first of a number of incredible drives.

But Ayrton Senna Donington 1993 would become even more legendary than that. 

video of the lap

There’s lots of versions of the video of Senna’s Lap of the Gods on YouTube and the internet, but the best one I can find is the one on the Formula 1 YouTube channel. It seems to be the highest quality plus it has a video overlay of the onboard camera. We can see Senna’s driving inputs as well as his position on the track simultaneously. Plus it’s commentated by two late greats; Murray Walker and James Hunt.

Donington 1993 European GP qualifying

The Grand Prix circuit was used for the F1 race, the longer of the two circuit layouts at Donington. Qualifying on the Saturday took place in the dry but Senna wasn’t able to match the pace of the engineering marvel that was the Williams FW15C driven by Hill and Prost. In the end his underpowered Ford-engine’d McLaren qualified in 4th place behind Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and 1.6 seconds behind Alain Prost on pole who qualified with a fastest lap time around Donington of 1:10.46.

Donington 1993 European GP race start

When the lights went green infront of 50,000 spectators at Donington, Senna’s very initial gateway is poor compared to both the two Williams ahead of him and Schumacher’s Benneton to his right. Senna’s red and white Marlboro sponsored McLaren MP4/8 had traction control, Schumacher’s Benneton did not, making Michael’s start even more impressive. But Karl Wendlinger in the black car gets a better start than both Senna and Schumacher.

Donington F1 GP 1993 race start

After the very initial getaway, Senna gains on Schumacher and begins to draw alongside him on the left. Schuey is wise to this and crowds him out towards the grass and pitlane exit. Senna has to back out of it to avoid being pushed off the track.

Senna gets pushed off track by Schumacher at Donington 1993

At the same time Karl Wendliger, starting 5th, gets a better start than both of them and immediately goes up their inside. Senna darts back across to the right hand side of the track just before they enter the first corner Redgate to protect his position from his teammate Mario Andretti.

Senna moves to the right of the circuit to defend his position from teammat Mario Andretti

overtake 1 - Michael Schumacher

By the time the cars have reached the apex of the first corner Redgate, Senna is back on the inside and his teammate is directly on the outside of him. Ahead, Schumacher is on the outside of the fast starting Karl Wendlinger.

Redgate corner at the 1993 European GP

As mentioned earlier, usually the outside line of a corner can provide more grip in the rain. So in this instance we’d expect both Schumacher and Andretti to have greater traction and gain an advantage, both being on the outside of Redgate corner.

This is true for the apex of the corner, where the normal dry racing line is right on the inside. But this isn’t so true for the corner exit. If you’re on the outside of the corner at the corner exit, you will eventually be met by the normal dry racing line, which when wet is more slippery.

Looking at the image above, we can see Andretti and Schumacher are on the outside right at the middle part of the corner, and here they have gained an advantage. However, as the camera angle changes, they are now at the corner exit and back on the dry (slippery) racing line, so struggle for traction and drop back. 

In addition, Schumacher is baulked slightly by Wendlinger who crowds him out to the edge of the track, allowing Senna to slip up Schuey’s inside to make his first overtake and move back in to 4th place.

Senna passes Schumacher at the 1993 Donington GP

overtake 2 - Karl Wendlinger

Exiting the first corner of Redgate, Senna’s car is positioned to the inside of the track, off the normal racing line. This gives him a traction advantage and he is able to draw almost alongside Wendlinger as they reach the right hander of Hollywood. Wendlinger defends his position and actually forces Senna to put a wheel on the grass.

Senna and Karl Wendlinger go through Hollywood corner

At this point Senna backs out of it and tucks in behind Wendlinger for the remainder of the right hander. As they reach the entry point to the left hander of Craner Curves, Wendliger lifts off or brakes slightly and that is all the invitation Senna needs to make a move. He knows he can find more grip around the outside of the corner, so jinks to the right and simply drives around him.

Craner Curves is not only one of the most daunting and spectacular corners at Donington, it is also one of the most ballsy in the UK. To pull this kind of move at this corner in these conditions is incredible.

Senna overtakes Karl Wendlinger at Craner Curves

He goes right to the edge of the track, finding maximum grip as far away from the dry racing line as possible. Knowing that the next corner of Old Hairpin is a right hander, all he has to do is hold his position to be able to take the spot. And that’s exactly what he does, to put him up to third place.

Craner Curves at the 1993 Donington GP
Prost and Damon Hill lead the 1993 European GP in their Williams

overtake 3 - Damon Hill

Senna exits the old hairpin in third place behind Damon Hill in a Williams. The next left hander under Starkey’s Bridge is flat out in the dry. But in the wet, Damon isn’t so sure. Before they reach the bridge, you can see Hill is a few car lengths ahead from Senna’s onboard.

Onboard Senna following Damon Hill

As they go under the bridge and pass the apex kerb on the left Hill has a big lift off the throttle. Senna does not, having more confidence in the car and himself, and is immediately on Hill’s tail. At this point Ayrton doesn’t have anywhere to go as Hill blocks him. 

Ayrton Senna closes on Damon Hill at Starkey's corner

The circuit continues round to the left for Schwantz curve, and Hill takes a position over to the left hand side of the track, the usual dry racing line here. Senna sees the space on the right hand side of the track, off the usual dry racing line and puts his car there, finding more grip in the rain and being able to draw alongside Hill.

Senna overtakes Damon Hill

The next corner of McLeans is a right hander, so Senna has track position and claims 2nd place.

Alain Prost leads the 1993 European GP

overtake 4 - Alain Prost

Once Senna gets past Damon Hill the next car of Alain Prost appears to be a long way up the track and is barely visible. You would think it would need a few laps worth of work to catch up. But this is Ayrton Senna.

As they enter the following right hander of Coppice, Senna makes up a lot of time in the braking zone and carries more speed in to the apex than Prost. This puts him visibly closer, but his increased entry speed actually costs him here.

Just after the first apex as he is getting back on the power Senna has a big armful of oversteer to deal with thanks to his higher entry speed and perhaps slight greediness getting on too much throttle too soon. We can see he is having to put in some corrective left-hand lock to keep the car straight.

Ayrton Senna oversteer in his McLaren

This cost him time, whereas Prost ahead puts the power down without any drama and starts to edge away. As they head down the back straight Prost has pulled away so much that he’s barely visible from Senna’s onboard again.

Senna chases Prost at Donington park 1993

As they enter the braking zone for the left-right Fogarty Esses, Senna’s bravery and confidence on the brakes are incredible. He gains so much time on Prost in the braking zone alone, now only a few car lengths behind from his onboard camera.

Prost leads the 1993 European GP

As they enter the chicane, from Senna’s onboard you can see Prost ahead has a wiggle of oversteer as he turns in to the left hander. There were reports that he was struggling with his gearbox this weekend, and if that was the case a slightly botched downshift could have caused the momentary lack of rear grip.

Whatever the reason, this puts him way off line for the first part of the chicane and he basically has to crawl around the rest of it.

Senna goes through the Fogarty Esses at Donington Park

Senna is right on his tail as they head down the next straight towards the right hand Melbourne Hairpin, the penultimate corner on the 1993 Donington GP circuit. From the braking for the previous chicane, Senna now knows he has far superior grip and confidence in his car on the brakes. He’ll also know that being off the normal dry racing line in the braking zone on a wet track will give him more grip.

If Prost defends his line, however, Senna will be forced on to the usual racing line with less grip. So rather than giving away his overtake plan too early, on the run down to the Melbourne Hairpin he stays right in Prost’s wheel tracks.

Senna onboard Donington 1993

But the second Prost hits the brakes, Sennas pulls to the right and brakes much much later. He draws alongside Prost and pulls ahead of him as they turn in towards the apex.

Senna overtakes Prost at Donington 1993
Ayrton Senna overtakes Prost at the 1993 European GP

At this point Senna has track position, Prost can’t go around the outside of him despite an attempt to do so and the move is done, putting him in to 1st place.

Ayrton Senna Donington 1993 race result

Senna went on to win what would be a race of very changeable conditions in commanding fashion. He finished 1 minute 23 seconds ahead of the 2nd place finisher Damon Hill, and lapped every other car out there, including Prost who made 7 pit stops to change his tyres.

One of Senna’s most commanding wins ever. Ayrton Senna Donington 1993 will forever be synonymous with this bit of driving, and well worth of the title the Lap of the Gods.

Ayrton Senna 1993

Ayrton Senna” by Martin Lee is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Alex Gassman

I‘m Alex. I write F1 and motorsport travel guides based on my experience as racing driver and full-time motorsport nerd. I’ve traveled the world watching F1 and other racing series.

I started oversteer48 with the aim of helping other motorsport fans who are planning on watching some racing themselves.

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Paul Clark

A wonderful analysis with all the graphics to support it!
Incredibly detailed with encyclopaedic references.

Thank you, Alex.
Will be sharing this.

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