L&T Motorsport

F1 Top Ten – Japan 1989/1990

Part seven sees us look at the most famous and controversial championship finishes possibly in history. The protagonists of todays article also had what has to be the most intense rivalry in the history of the sport as well. Of course its Senna v Prost and the conclusion of the 1989 and 1990 championships.

Coming into the Japanese Grand Prix of 1989 reigning champions Ayrton Senna was trailing his French team mate Alain Prost by 16 points with just two races to go. Due to the scoring system at the time the Brazilian would be champion by winning the last two races regardless of where Prost finished due to the dropped points system that was in place where only the best 11 points scoring races counted. The McLaren pairing had been the only two likely to win the title, especially after the dominance of the team in 88′ winning 15 of the 16 races and leading 97% of all laps through the year. Things looked good on the surface with the best team and the world’s best drivers.

But behind the scenes the situation was much different. Differing opinions and styles had created many clashes between the two. Prost was the thinker, the ‘Professor’. An analytical thinker who considered everything and took calculated risks that had a high chance of success. Being consistent was his forte. Senna was more passionate. Although he would trawl through the data to find any advantage he was, at heart, a pure racer, skin of the teeth, the feeling of the car an instinctive reaction.

The rivalry within the team had been simmering away with a few incidents on and off the track attributing to the growing animosity between the two champions. Portugal 1988 was a good example of this on the track. Senna had took the lead at the start and as the cars came round to start lap 2 Prost went to pass his team mate. The Brazilian made a move across his team mate, taking both cars towards the pit wall and those on the wall to duck for cover. Prost kept his foot in and made the move stick before pulling away but his anger after was apparent and he made it clear at the team brief. He had seen first hand just how ruthless Senna could be.

The aftermath of the crash at Suzuka in 1989

San Marino of 89 was another example when the drivers agreed that whoever was leading at the start would not be challenged. The race was re started after Gerhard Berger’s fiery crash and Prost assumed the deal stood and took the lead, not expecting any attack from his team mate. Senna, who would later state there was not such agreement, passed around the outside of Tosa and would take the win. This further infuriated Prost who would label Senna as ‘dishonest’ on a French TV interview days later. After this the drivers hardly spoke to each other and Prost was worried that Honda, who Senna had good links with, was receiving preferential treatment and better engines.

It all led to Suzuka. Senna was on pole but Prost got the better getaway and took the lead. It was revealed later that Prost set the car up with lower downforce that would allow him to have faster top speed and thus should mean he was far enough ahead into the overtaking spots to avoid all but the most extreme passing attempts. It would work well for the most part. Senna only just maintained second at the start from Berger’s Ferrari and would spend the first part of the race around 6 seconds behind his team mate.

Later in the race however Senna, on fresh tyres after pitting, was catching his team mate. Prost had slowed a bit in the hope of enticing Senna to use up the fresh rubber, the Frenchman using his brain to calculate the best option as always. But no number of calculations can take into equation a fired up, defending World Champion and on lap 46 it happened.

Senna set the move up back at the Spoon corner, using his superior downforce set up to take the corner with more speed and stay right in his team mates slipstream as they powered towards 130R. Coming through 130R Prost lined up to take his normal braking point into the final chicane only to see Senna dive for the inside. Normally Prost would leave it open to avoid collision but he even told media that morning that no door would be left open and moved across to cover the line. The two McLaren’s collided and with wheels locked they came to a stop just past the apex to the chicane. Both engines had stalled and Prost, assuming it was over, got out the car thinking he was champion. Senna had other ideas and got a push start from the marshals and got going again, using the chicane slip road to re join.

One lap with a broken wing he pitted to have it replaced and set off to re take the lead from new race leader Alessandro Nannini in the Benetton. It did not take long for the Brazilian to catch and pass the Italian and he took the flag, the first of the two wins he required in the bag. Or so he thought.

Post race Senna was disqualified from the race results handing the win back to Nannini and the title to Prost. The reason, using the escape road and not rejoining the track where he left it. Senna was furious and put the blame on FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre, a Frenchman like Prost who Senna felt was making the rule up to suit his countryman. This claim was shot down with the stewards stating Balestre wasn’t even present at the time of the decision. McLaren appealed the decision as Senna gained no unfair advantage by taking the escape road but the result stood and Prost took the number one to rivals for Ferrari for the 1990 season.

The following season the teams arrived back at Suzuka for the penultimate round once again with Prost and Senna fighting for the title. The year had been more acrimonious at McLaren with Gerhard Berger replacing Prost who took over the Austrian’s seat at Ferrari. The roles were reversed this time round with Senna leading Prost by 9 points.

As with previous seasons Senna qualified on pole position but this year he was unhappy about the pole slot not being on the racing line and looked for assurances that it would be moved. This request was denied by Balestre in another example that fuelled Senna’s apparent paranoia as with Prost in second it would favour the Frenchman again. It was a strange request when you consider that Senna took pole at Suzuka the pole was on the same, non racing line, side of the track so it made people wonder why he wanted it moved so badly.

Turn one collision in 1990, one of the most famous pictures in F1 history, the point of impact.

And so at the start it happened as Senna predicted, Prost got the better start and took the lead. The Brazilian had already commented that if Prost beat him to turn one he wouldn’t be ahead come turn two. At around 170mph Prost turned his Ferrari into turn one as per the racing line. The White and red McLaren continued onward and the two collided at high speed, both heading into the gravel and the dust. For a few seconds no one could see anything.

When the dust settled it was clear that both cars were out the race and both drivers exited the cars. Senna was World Champion for a second time and had done so at all costs. After the race Prost was so disgusted that he almost retired there and then.  The aftermath seen many pointing at the act being deliberate, an act of revenge for last season. Others seen a racing incident, citing Senna’s own quote ‘if you don’t go for the gap your no longer a racing driver.’ Even today there is differing opinions on the matter.

And so the rivalry petered out a bit with Prost in an uncompetitive Ferrari in 91 as Senna strolled to his third and final title. Prost would retire at the end of the season before joining Williams for the 1993 season where he would win his fourth and final title and retire for good. It was on the Australian GP podium of 93 that the two rivals would share the steps for the last time and time had healed some of the rift that had occurred.

The final podium, Adelaide, Australia 1993.

Senna took over Prost seat at Williams for 1994, looking to take his own fourth title. It was something that would never come to fruition as on May 1st 1994 at the San Marino GP the great Brazilian lost his life during the race, crashing into the concrete wall at Tamburello. He was just 34 years old. But the memories of the fiery rivalry between the Brazilian and Frenchman will live on forever in F1 folklore.

Andrew Campbell
Photo Credit: Main: autoweek.com
1989 collision: Sportskeeda.com
1990 collision: You Tube still
Final Podium in Australia: home.bt.com


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