Sega is still a key player in today's video game industry, but its position has diminished considerably over the past few decades. 25 years ago, it was one of the undisputed giants not only of the gaming arena, but of mainstream popular culture, having successfully taken on Nintendo with its popular Mega Drive / Genesis and made a global star of its cool mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog.
Sonic turns 25 this year, and now is as good a time as any to look back on an event which illustrated just how enormous Sega was 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 Nintendo Life offices, 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 victory 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 one and 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.
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. Williams teammates Damon Hill and Alain 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 Ayrton Senna - who, incidentally, would claim victory at Donington Park that weekend.
The race itself was a remarkable event, with Senna driving what many pundits regard as the greatest lap ever in an F1 car. With the typically wet British weather reducing grip and hampering visibility, Senna overtook four other cars on this 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.
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.
Senna would leave McLaren - where he scored all three of his championships - to drive for Williams the following year, but without Sega's overbearing sponsorship (ironically, the sponsor which 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, and was the subject of the 2010 BAFTA-winning documentary Senna - which is well worth a watch even if you're not interested in F1.
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.
The Donington Park race would be something of a high-water mark for Sega in terms of pure marketing and exposure; speaking to EDGE magazine less than three years after the race, Sega Europe's Saturn brand manager Jeremy Crisp seems awe-struck at the amount of cash that was thrown at the event:
I've seen video of that, and it's unbelieveable. All the starters wearing Sonic costumes, Sega everywhere - that would have cost millions of pounds.
Sega would dabble in 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.