Twenty-five years ago, the ‘Lap of the Gods’ occurred when Donington Park finally received its opportunity to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix, and it delivered us with one of the greatest opening laps in F1 history as Ayrton Senna started in fourth and thrashed the opposition on his way to the lead by the end of that lap.
In fairness, many opening laps deserve credit but what made Senna’s lap so unique was that it was in a car that despite already winning the second race of the season in a popular home win in Brazil for Senna, was still struggling with a sub-par package and a customer Ford-Cosworth engine that was always less developed than the works package used by Benetton.
The track had been damp all morning and with no intermediate tires available at the time, everybody started on full wets. Senna got a poor getaway from fourth and was squeezed out by Michael Schumacher’s Benetton into the first corner, losing out to Karl Wendlinger at the exit of Redgate and dropping to fifth.
What happened next was a stuff of miracles. Senna, mad with not having a competitive package for the second year running and even more undercut by his lesser engine package, decided as Gerhard Berger described to “make everybody look stupid”. Senna got a better exit out of the first corner and dragged past Schumacher in the very short straight leading up to Turn 2, and just swept past Wendlinger’s Sauber around the outside of Craner in a plume of spray from all the water off the racing line.
Senna found himself behind the Williams he had so coveted to drive that year and before long he had out-braked Hill at Old Hairpin and set off chasing Alain Prost, his long nemesis. Few corners later he was passing Prost on the inside of the Melbourne Hairpin, the penultimate corner
One could only imagine, with no TV screens around the track at the time, what the spectators in the main grandstand must have thought when they saw Senna leaving their sights in P5, and reemerging on the pit straight in the lead!
I have no personal recollection of this lap as I was only two months old at the time. But what consistently awes me when reading about that lap or watching it is the number of giant names that are mentioned around the four-kilometer race track, each having his own reputation of being a wet-weather master, all being silenced by Senna.
To understand what else exactly makes this lap so amazing, you needed to understand what Senna really was about. Martin Brundle sums it up best: “He would put you in a compromising position and then leave you to make the decision and if you didn’t run into him then psychologically you were buried and finished. He would know after that, that every time he showed you a wheel, you would jump out of the way.”
That was always Senna’s modus operandi but, on that afternoon, he was driving a 700-brake horsepower, 500-kilogram beast with half of today’s downforce figures. Senna knew he was braving the conditions. He knew he had to put everything on the line every time he pounced for an overtake, and the grand names of Schumacher, Hill and Prost all acted out of self-preservation when he was around. He’d already won that war. His only remaining battle was to keep his underperforming McLaren on the road and indeed, on the limit. ” If you want to have 40 seconds of what Ayrton Senna, the racing driver, is about, there it is, in a nutshell.” Brundle concludes.
“He knew that he’s not going to fight for the championship so all he could do was to wait for some special circumstance to show everybody what he could do.” Gerhard Berger, who was driving for Ferrari at the time, said of his former team-mate. But as the race wound on, Senna lost the lead back to Prost after a cross-threaded wheelnut delayed him in the pits.
As the race progressed, his rivals were going into overdrive trying to recover positions and also face for losing in such superior machinery. Jo Ramirez, McLaren’s team coordinator from the golden age, solidifies this point: “I will never forget that lap. He’d psyched them out, demoralized the whole lot of them. He won the whole race on that first lap”.
As the track dried off, Senna made the move back to slicks and was unmoved by a threat of rain, sticking it out on slicks as Prost handed the lead back when he pitted again for wets. Senna’s decision proved inspired when Prost pitted a sixth time for another set of slicks, and again after suffering a puncture, while Ayrton went on to win.
“So, all he wanted to do was to put it in his head and in the first lap come back first to make everybody look stupid” Berger goes on, “and that’s exactly what he did!”.
This performance remains as one of our sweetest memories of arguably one of the greatest drivers ever to grace a race track. A lap so magical that it continues to bewilder generations of drivers and fans alike, who were just a bit too late to experience what it means to watch this kind of thing happen in real time. Like the boy who was born in 1993, but still has the urge to sit down twenty-five years later and try to put to words what he’d just seen.
Images via Sutton Motorsport Images, LAT Photographic