Sega is still a key player in today's video game industry, but its position has changed considerably over the past few decades. 30 years ago, it was one of the undisputed giants of the gaming hardware and software arenas and mainstream popular culture in general, having successfully taken on Nintendo with its Mega Drive / Genesis and made a global star of its cool mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog.
Today would have been the birthday of Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna, and now is as good a time as any to look back on an event which illustrated just how enormous both he and Sega were at the time: the 1993 Formula One European Grand Prix, or (to use its official name) the XXXVIII Sega European Grand Prix. That's right – Sega spent big on the race weekend and even went as far as securing naming rights for the race.
Held at the UK circuit of Donington Park (a short drive from the Time Extension office, coincidentally) on 11th April 1993, the race can be considered the culmination of Sega's intense marketing blitz at the time. The Japanese firm had already paid a handsome amount of cash to become a headline sponsor for the Williams F1 team, who were expected to claim the title that season despite the departure of the talismanic Nigel Mansell for the American CART IndyCar (now known as Champ Car) series. Mansell had scooped his only F1 championship in the previous season and would secure the CART title in his rookie season, making him the only person to hold both the F1 World Drivers Championship and the American open-wheel National Championship at the same time. Williams drafted in former world title winner Alain Prost to replace him, and Prost would be teamed up with rookie Damon Hill (son of the late Graham Hill, a two-time F1 world champion) for the 1993 season.
"It was a 'floating' Grand Prix, and no one else wanted to sponsor it," former Sega UK marketing director Simon Morris says of the iconic Donington race. "If you ever watch Asif Kapadia's excellent documentary film Senna or indeed anything to do with F1, you'll know that the opening lap that Ayrton Senna recorded during that race – in which he overtook four drivers in the driving rain – is acclaimed as the best lap ever by fans of the sport," explains Morris. "It's impossible to show that lap without showing Sega branding."
The Williams-Renault FW15C was basically a Sega advertisement with an average speed of 150 mph. Logos could be seen all over the bodywork, and on the side of the cockpit, there was even a fake "cutaway" section which showed Sonic's feet where the driver's should be. "We got them to draw Sonic's feet on the side so it would look like he was driving, and we were even trying to sponsor the underside of Damon Hill's car in case he ever turned it over," Morris explains.
Hill and Prost were – amongst other things – contractually obliged to appear in promotional photos with Sonic whilst playing Game Gear consoles. It was proof how just how far video games had invaded popular culture, but for seasoned gamers and Sega fans, it felt like a solid match – after all, Sega had produced the excellent Super Monaco GP and Super Monaco GP 2, the latter of which featured the endorsement of three-time world champion Senna. Taking this into account, it's somewhat ironic that Senna would so comprehensively beat his Sega-sponsored rivals that weekend.
With the typically wet British weather reducing grip and hampering visibility, Senna overtook four other cars on the first lap alone – his wet-weather skills being showcased in dramatic fashion. Senna's rather underpowered McLaren Ford MP4/8 was notably inferior to the cutting-edge Williams-Renault FW15C, yet he managed to lap the entire field except for one car and finished the race over a minute ahead of the second-place challenger, Damon Hill. It was one of the most accomplished performances of Senna's glittering career.
As Morris previously alluded, during the race, Sega's logo could be seen everywhere, from advertising hoardings to the podium backdrop, where Senna was photographed holding aloft a Sonic the Hedgehog trophy at the end of the race. This image has gone down in motorsport (and gaming) folklore, and given the incredible amount of exposure Sega secured during the weekend, one could be forgiven for assuming that the video game giant simply paid to have a unique official rare trophy made to commemorate the win. However, the truth is a little more mundane; The Sonic trophy was merely for promotional purposes, and Senna was handed the real race trophy shortly afterwards (it has since been rediscovered in a McLaren storeroom).
Senna would leave McLaren – where he secured all three of his world championships – to drive for Williams the following year, but without Sega's overbearing sponsorship (ironically, the sponsor who would effectively replace Sega was Italian Espresso producer Segafredo Zanetti). The Brazilian regarded the team as his best chance to claim his fourth world championship, but he was tragically killed at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix following a 145 mph collision with a concrete retaining wall. Widely respected and admired during his life, he is now regarded as one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen.
Despite being given a lesson in wet-weather racing that day, Prost would win his fourth and final world title at the end of the season, with Williams securing its sixth constructor's championship. Sega's fortunes following the 1993 season were mixed. In the video game realm, 1994 was another successful year for its 16-bit platform, but the release of add-ons like the Mega CD and 32X dented consumer confidence in the brand, and the launch of the 32-bit Saturn was overshadowed by Sony's entry into the video game arena with its phenomenally successful PlayStation console.
Sega would dabble in sporting sponsorship a few years later, putting its logo – and that of the Dreamcast console – on the shirt of the Premier League football club Arsenal (as well as several other teams around the world) but the ridiculously grand-sounding XXXVIII Sega European Grand Prix is surely the defining moment in the firm's promotional adventures – and, according to Morris, its impact is still being felt years later.
"I was recently at McLaren, and some of the guys there reminded me that we used to put a Pirate TV insignia on the car for every race Damon won, so they, in turn, started putting a squashed hedgehog on the front of Senna's car when he won!" he recalls. "Can you imagine that happening in the sport today, with the incredible sharing power of the internet and social media? It would go wild! Like so much of our promotional activity at the time, it was one of those things that simply came together."