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Racing With Ayrton Senna: 1989 Japanese Grand Prix

Frozen in Time: 1989 Japanese Grand Prix

“Ayrton Senna is of course famous for his ruthlessness and dramatically capable passing manoeuvres. He’ll just dive in where very few other people will dare to tread, and people move over when they see Senna approaching in their mirrors.”

— Murray Walker while commentating on the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix

What

Japanese Grand Prix

Where

Suzuka, Japan

When

October, 1989

“To be very honest, you know, I was absolutely sure that I am going to win the race, or an accident like this. Because I knew he wanted to win the race absolutely. And you know the problem with that is he can’t accept not to win and he cant accept that somebody resist his overtaking maneuvour. And a lot of times, if you remember last year and this year, I opened the door, and if I did not open the door, we crash like this. And I said before the race if that happens, I don’t open the door any more. The way he drives is very good, I must say. It’s absolutely unbelievably quick. But for me he’s driving so hard. And if you have two drivers like this in Formula 1, you have an accident like this every race.”

— Alain Prost to BBC after winning the 1989 World Championship

Ayrton Senna preparing for Qualifying at Suzuka. (Image: screenshot from qualifying coverage, editorial use only)

Ayrton Senna preparing for Qualifying at Suzuka. (Image: screenshot from qualifying coverage, editorial use only)

Race Brief

Suzuka was becoming the most exciting circuit in a Grand Prix season – a place where champions were decided and championships created or destroyed. 1989 was something like that. Ayrton Senna was defending his title, desperate to win at Honda’s home track, while Alain Prost was determined to take his 3rd world champion crown. It boiled down to race day where Senna was at pole – the 41st pole of his career. Prost was second on the grid, with Gerhard Berger and Nigel Mansell (both driving Ferraris) at 3rd and 4th.

The race started and shockingly, Prost made a quick and fast getaway, leaving Senna to follow in his wake. The McLarens shot off into the distance, extending the gap between them and Berger’s Ferrari. Mansell managed to find himself at 6th place, with Alessandro Nannini at 4th place. The order stayed stet for most of the race with Senna trying to reduce the gap between him and a fast-disappearing, confident, yet aggressive Prost.

Things changed after the pitstops. Senna on fresh tyres, gained over Prost, keeping him in his sights. Behind him, Berger had retired, pitting with technical issues. By lap 42, the distance between the two had reduced to 0.418s. Mansell meanwhile had a smoking Ferrari to deal with and finally pulled over to one side, with barely nine laps to go.

Senna meanwhile was waiting for the right moment and attacked, at the corner after 130R. It was tight spot. Prost spotted Senna diving in, and blocked, refusing to give way. The two stalwarts, stubborn to the very end, collided, wheels locking and engines stalling, and stopped at the entrance to the partially blocked chicane escape road.

Prost got out. But Senna gestured at the marshals asking them to push start him. The car started and Senna made it back out on to the circuit via the escape road. He pitted with barely five laps to go, for a nose cone change before going back out for a win. Prost walked back to the pits.

There would be trouble, Murray Walker and James Hunt, the BBC commentators said. There would politics and trouble. Would Senna be disqualified? Or was his maneuver, the one where he joined back the race via the escape road, legal? The questions were forgotten temporarily, as Senna passed Nannini in an expert stroke, at that exact same place, going on to win the race.

Senna’s joy though was short-lived, as he received news that he had been disqualified, not as Murray Walker later said, for being push-started from a dangerous position, as that was a legal maneuver. He was disqualified for avoiding the chicane after getting started. Nannini took 1st place with Riccardo Patrese and Thierry Boutsen in the two Williams finishing 2nd and 3rd.

Alain Prost was crowned 1989 World Champion.

Senna goes for the gap, but Prost doesn't give way. (Image: Screengrab from the race, editorial use only)

Senna goes for the gap, but Prost doesn’t give way. (Image: Screengrab from the race, editorial use only)

The Ayrton Moment

1989 ended on a very different note, from when it had begun. The brewing Senna-Prost war had bubbled over many times. In so many ways, the confrontation and subsequent ugliness, at Suzuka had seemed some time in coming.

McLaren appealed Senna’s disqualification ruling. He had gained no competitive advantage after all. The team very clearly said in a statement that the appeal was about an incorrect ruling and not about Prost winning the championship. Things got worse at the FIA hearing in Paris later that week. Senna’s disqualification was upheld, yes, but an additional fine of $100,000 was imposed on him, as was a suspended six-month ban. They also called him a “dangerous driver”. FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre said he was convinced Senna was wrong. But Senna felt that there was a conspiracy. The Brazilian’s disqualification and fine is a matter of debate even today.

Adelaide, the last race of the season, came up on the racers. It was here that Senna said to the media, “…What happened in Suzuka was unfair, unrealistic and took place because the people who had the power decided to do so. Afterwards you wonder why you should do this on and on when you’re not being fairly treated. But racing is in blood and I know that the situation we face only motivates me deep inside to fight against it and prove what I’m doing has values. I will do here (Australia) exactly the same I’ve done all my life and drive the way I feel is right. If I have my licence taken away then probably the values that keep me going in Formula One will go with it, and I will not be in Formula One any more. But I refuse to walk away from a fight. That is my nature. I will fight to the end whatever happens, whatever the cost so that for once we can bring justice to our sport…I am a professional, but I am also a human being, and the values I have in my life are stronger than many other people’s desires to influence, or destroy those values.”

But things would be different in 1990. Prost was shifting to Ferrari, there would be a new teammate and a new championship to look forward to. It would be a beginning of some fabulous racing!

NEXT: 1990 Japanese Grand Prix

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