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Racing With Ayrton Senna: 1991 Japanese Grand Prix

Frozen in Time: 1991 Japanese Grand Prix

What

Japanese Grand Prix

Where

Suzuka, Japan

When

October, 1991

“If I finish 2nd place tomorrow, the championship will be over. If Mansell does not win, then it is almost certain that the championship will be over tomorrow. So, it is an open situation, but it’s being slowly coming to our way the championship, particularly in the second half of the season. Bit by bit, step by step, and let’s hope that tomorrow is the last bit that we are missing from it.”

— Ayrton Senna before Race Day

Race Brief

And so it was, as it had been the past few times, the arena for deciding round of the championship was the stunning Suzuka. There was change in the air with Max Mosely taking on the role of new FISA president.

There was a buzz of excitement in the McLaren garage. All Ayrton Senna had to do was stay ahead of Nigel Mansell, and the championship would be his.

There was a sense of guarded anticipation in the Williams garage. All Nigel Mansell had to do was win. The British driver, it looked like, would proceed with extreme caution. He was still in the running for world champion.

The qualifying and practice sessions weren’t the most pleasant with many accidents peppering the two events. So, by the time the race came around, the tension in the air was enough to give everyone a bit of heartburn. The grid had Gerhard Berger at pole, with Senna at 2nd spot. Mansell and Prost took the next two slots, with Riccardo Patrese in 5th place.

The race was going to be about teamwork, so as the lights went off, Berger took off into the distance, as Senna set about blocking Mansell and staying ahead of the British driver. The first lap ended with Berger in the lead, followed by Senna, Mansell, Riccardo Patrese and Prost. Things continued like this till the 9th lap, when Mansell started closing in on Senna. He started trying to pressurize the Brazilian into letting him through. Down they went, past the start-finish straight. And then it happened, the unforeseen. Mansell ran wide and into the gravel trap. He kept the engine running, but the race was over, his Williams bogged down. As a defeated Mansell climbed out of the car, Senna looked into the rearview mirror, and saw a cloud of dust. He knew what had happened. The championship was his.

Nigel Mansell (Williams FW14 Renault) retires from the race after spinning off at First Curve. He had been right behind Senna into First Curve, lost a bit of downforce and ran wide over the kerb putting him into the gravel. His brakes had also given him a problem most of the weekend. World Copyright - LAT Photographic; Image courtesy Williams F1 team (editorial use only)

Nigel Mansell (Williams FW14 Renault) retires from the race after spinning off at First Curve. He had been right behind Senna into First Curve, lost a bit of downforce and ran wide over the kerb putting him into the gravel. His brakes had also given him a problem most of the weekend. World Copyright – LAT Photographic; Image courtesy Williams F1 team (editorial use only)

He later said, “In that moment I thought, “Yes, now I can race the way I like to: in high gear and to win”. I was focused on the title. That was the opportunity I had been waiting for. There was no better way to win the world title than that: winning the Grand Prix as I did in 1988, in Japan. And I was just about to do so when (Ron) Dennis called me on the radio. I asked him to repeat the message and, once again, I couldn’t hear it very well. Then I decided to take my foot off the gas and let Berger pass.”

The gesture didn’t go unnoticed. It was appreciated, critiqued and criticized. But, none of it mattered. After all, as Senna climbed out of the car that day, he had become the youngest three-time champion in F1 history.

The Ayrton Moment

Ayrton was Japan’s favourite son, but the races there had always been bittersweet. 1991 was a chance to make things right. And Ayrton did just that, sealing the championship title for the 3rd time and joining an elite group of world champions in the process. But things went a bit sour during the post-race conference.

Screengrab from the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix post-race press conference (editorial use only)

Screengrab from the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix post-race press conference (editorial use only)

With his arch-nemesis, FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre, out of the way, the newly crowned champion finally chose to speak about the events of the past, especially his confrontation with Alain Prost in 1990. His comments were nothing short of controversial.

“I have in this year a lot of excitement, a lot of pressure, a lot of stress. It’s been the most competitive world championship that I have ever competed (sic), because we fought with different cars, different engines, different drivers not inside the same team. Therefore, it was really tough. We start well the year, and then we had a tough time from the 4th race onwards, as you all know. And it was a result of a lot of push from myself, from Gerhard to the team, to McLaren and to Honda and to Shell that we managed to step forward time after time, bit by bit, and we caught Williams Renault slowly, got closer to them, put pressure on them, won a couple of races at a critical part of the championship in Hungary and Belgium; score the right result when we couldn’t compete with the winners at all. And when it came really to the time, we were able to do 1 in 2 again, which was fantastic. Therefore it has been a memorable championship, not only for me but I think in Formula 1 over the past few years. It’s been an exciting one for me. I won here in 88, it was memorable for me too.

89, I was robbed badly by the system and that I will never forget. But 1990 it went the other way. It was a sad championship in 1990, but it was a result of the 89 championship and the result of the politics that we had in 1990 and 89.

Then 1991 we were fortunately able to have a clean championship without politicians, without people playing any game. It was technical and a sportive championship this year and hope it will be example not only for myself but for everyone who is competing in Formula 1 now and in the coming future.”

His comments continued – responding to journalists’ questions – and he indicted Balestre, saying that the former president and the politics in F1 at that time, had directly contributed to the incident between him and Prost at turn 1.

A few days later, responding to Balestre’s complaints, Ayrton apologized for his statements.

NEXT: 1993 Brazilian Grand Prix

PREVIOUS: 1990 Spanish Grand Prix

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