Ayrton Senna’s defence of his first championship title came to an end 25 years ago today in highly controversial circumstances.Alain Prost, Senna’s McLaren team mate, who provoked a collision between the pair which ensured he would win the championship.
And it began a bitter and personal feud between Senna and FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre, who Senna believed had intervened on Prost’s behalf to guarantee the title went to his fellow Frenchman.
Prost holds the advantage
The 1989 season had served as a continuation of the 1988 campaign. The McLaren-Hondas did not enjoy quite the same level of unparalleled dominance, but from an early stage in proceedings it was clear either Senna or Prost would retain the title.
Senna had arrived at McLaren the previous season and stunned Prost with his speed. He clinched the championship at Suzuka with a race to spare, passing Prost as he rallied from a poor start to take his eighth win of the season.
But while there had been flashpoints of tension between their pair in 1988 – notably in Portugal – it was nothing compared to the hostility which developed in their second season together. Matters had taken a turn for the worse at Imola, where Prost accused Senna of reneging on a pre-race pact not to overtake each other at the start.
Prost also had suspicions about the quality of equipment he was receiving, despite McLaren allocating Honda’s powerful engines to the pair at random to guard against any favouritism. Three months earlier at his home race Prost had announced he would leave McLaren, and later signed a deal to join Ferrari.
The huge gap between him and Senna in qualifying at Monza – decidedly a power circuit – suggested Prost had a point about the quality of equipment he was receiving. But as that race proved, Senna also had legitimate grounds to make the same claim.
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Monza marked the fourth occasion he had retired from the lead of the race in 1989 with a technical problem. Had he not been struck down by faults at Phoenix, Montreal, Silverstone and Monza (and on the first lap at Paul Ricard), it’s very likely Senna would have been leading the championship going into Japan, and entirely possible he would have already won it.
That was not the case, however, and with two rounds remaining Prost headed Senna by 76 points to 60. Victory in the final two races, worth nine points each, was therefore the only way Senna could win the title.
But crucially, two wins for Senna would guarantee him the title irrespective of where Prost finished. Drivers could only count their 11 best finishing results, so two wins for Senna and two second places for Prost would leave them tied on 78 points, Prost dropping fifteen to Senna’s zero (much as had happened the year before) and Senna taking the title by dint of having won more races.
There can be no doubt both drivers were aware of the implications of the complex championship arithmetic as the weekend began.
1989 Japanese Grand Prix qualifying
And it wasn’t just the no-hopers who faced an early end to their weekend. Stefan Johansson, who had put his Onyx on the podium two races earlier at Estoril, was among those to fall at the first hurdle.
Former Ferrari drivers Rene Arnoux and Michele Alboreto also failed to make the cut. The latter did so despite his team mate taking eighth on the grid, a string of technical problems having delayed him during practice.
Ferrari were back to their full driving strength as Nigel Mansell returned from his one-race ban for ignoring a black flag in Portugal. He retired from that race after colliding with Senna, and at Suzuka Mansell let it be known to the press he was firmly on the side of his future Ferrari team mate Prost in the championship contest.
Mansell took fourth on the grid alongisde team mate Gerhard Berger having been inadequately fuelled for his qualifying run. On the next row was sixth-placed Alessandro Nannini, far ahead of his Benetton team mate Emanuele Pirro, who as a McLaren test driver had covered an enormous amount of test mileage at Suzuka.
Also on the grid was Paolo Barilla, making his F1 debut for Minardi in place of the injured Pierluigi Martini. And Bernd Schneider gave the Zakspeed team a timely result by putting his Yamaha-powered car on the grid for the engine manufacturer’s home race. It was only the second time all season he’d made it beyond pre-qualifying and as in the opening round at Brazil he made it all the way onto the grid.
But for Senna and Prost the other 24 competitors would chiefly be encountered as the lapped traffic which occasionally intruded on their personal struggle for supremacy.
1989 Japanese Grand Prix grid
|Row 1||1. Ayrton Senna 1’38.041|
|2. Alain Prost 1’39.771|
|Row 2||3. Gerhard Berger 1’40.187|
|4. Nigel Mansell 1’40.406|
|Row 3||5. Riccardo Patrese 1’40.936|
|6. Alessandro Nannini 1’41.103|
|Row 4||7. Thierry Boutsen 1’41.324|
|8. Philippe Alliot 1’41.336|
|Row 5||9. Stefano Modena 1’41.458|
|10. Nicola Larini 1’41.519|
|Row 6||11. Nelson Piquet 1’41.802|
|12. Satoru Nakajima 1’41.988|
|Row 7||13. Martin Brundle 1’42.182|
|14. Luis Perez-Sala 1’42.283|
|Row 8||15. Alex Caffi 1’42.488|
|16. Andrea de Cesaris 1’42.581|
|Row 9||17. Ivan Capelli 1’42.672|
|18. Jean Alesi 1’42.709|
|Row 10||19. Paolo Barilla 1’42.780|
|20. Mauricio Gugelmin 1’42.880|
|Row 11||21. Bernd Schneider 1’42.892|
|22. Emanuele Pirro 1’43.063|
|Row 12||23. Olivier Grouillard 1’43.379|
|24. Eddie Cheever 1’43.511|
|Row 13||25. Derek Warwick 1’43.599|
|26. Jonathan Palmer 1’43.757|
Did not qualify
Did not pre-qualify
Pierluigi Ghinzani, Osella-Ford – 1’44.313
Roberto Moreno, Coloni-Ford – 1’44.498
Stefan Johansson, Onyx-Ford – 1’44.582
Aguri Suzuki, Zakspeed-Yamaha – 1’44.780
Oscar Larrauri, Euro Brun-Judd – 1’45.446
JJ Lehto, Onyx-Ford – 1’45.787
Gabriele Tarquini, AGS-Ford – 1’46.705
Yannick Dalmas, AGS-Ford – 1’48.306
Enrico Bertaggia, Coloni-Ford – No time
1989 Japanese Grand Prix
The two McLarens were separated by 1.7 seconds on the timing screen but nonetheless they shared the front row of the grid. And when it came to his race set-up, Prost had a plan. After arriving on the grid he quietly asked one of his mechanics to remove the Gurney flap from his rear wing, hoping Senna wouldn’t notice the subtle and late tweak to his set-up which would cost him rear downforce but improve his straight-line speed.
The location of pole position became an explosive point of dispute the following year, and the reason for it could be traced back to Senna’s experience in 1989. Starting on the right-hand side of the track, opposite the racing line, Senna struggled for traction on the dirtier side of the track while Prost shot by into the lead.
While the red and white McLarens vanished up the road as usual, Minardi began packing up their equipment at the end of the first lap. A clutch failure accounted for Barilla, and Luis Perez-Sala crashed out while trying to pass Satoru Nakajima. Schneider’s first start for seven months ended when his transmission failed on lap two.
After that there were no further retirements until the race approached its half-distance point, from when the usual mechanical niggles began to sideline some of the midfield runners. Pirro also dropped out, spinning off at Spoon while trying to lap Andrea de Cesaris.
But it was the fight at the front which commanded all the attention. Prost edged clear at first, leading by 3.8 seconds after five laps while setting a string of fastest times. Senna put an end to that from lap 15, however, and began steadily reducing his team mate’s lead.
Prost made his sole pit stop on the 21st lap. These were not the days of well-drilled two-second tyre changes – the stops took longer and the margin of error was greater, and so it proved for Senna, who lost almost two seconds when he came into the pits on lap 23.
But Senna was flying now, and set the fastest lap four times as he brought Prost into range. But now he faced the difficulty of passing his team mate, whose adjustment on the grid had given him a slight top speed advantage.
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“He had nothing to lose”
Senna had put Prost under sustained pressure from lap 40 to 42, then dropped back slightly. By lap 47 – with just six laps remaining – Senna was back within range. The pair crossed the start/finish line separated by half a second.
Senna’s straight-line speed disadvantage seemed to rule out a pass on the pit straight, where he had overtaken Prost the year before. The tight chicane at the end of the lap looked a likelier spot, and on lap 47 Senna kept his foot to the floor through the ultra-fast 130R corner which preceded it. This was surely his best chance yet to make a move.
After the race Prost gave the following explanation for what happened next, one which he has stuck to ever since. Referring to past occasions where he felt he had backed down while fighting Senna, Prost said: “Before the race here, I said that I was not going to leave the door open any longer.”
But Prost did leave the door open. Senna kept all four wheels on the track as he dived down the inside of his team mate. As video replays later confirmed, Prost not only turned right well before his usual racing line but with a degree of steering lock which suggested he was changing lanes on a motorway rather than swinging into a 90-degree turn.
That had an inevitable result – one which in all likelihood, particularly given the championship situation, was desired by Prost. The two McLarens interlocked wheels at one of the slowest corners on the track and skidded to a pathetic halt.
Senna had no doubt the championship situation explained Prost’s unusual approach to the corner. “What he did was unbelievable, normally,” Senna said afterwards. “But you could understand because he could only gain, he had nothing to lose. He had to make sure that I would not go through because if I had passed him, it was finished for him.”
Prost climbed from his car and began walking back to the pits. The following day McLaren’s long serving engineer Jo Ramirez asked him why he hadn’t carried on. “If the marshals had pushed both of you, maybe the authorities wouldn’t have penalised either of you,” he pointed out. “Your car was completely OK and in one piece, including the nose.”
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“It was a mighty old bang,” Prost replied. “My right wheel was on full lock to the right, and I thought the suspension was broken. I should have looked at the left wheel – that was probably on full lock to the right as well.” This isn’t corroborated by video footage of the crash.
Nonetheless Prost got out of his car, which some interpreted as being an indication that he had achieved what he intended to by stopping his team mate. While Senna implored the marshals to disentangle his car and give him a push start, Prost reassured himself that was forbidden by the rules.
But Senna, aware that a push start could legally be given to a car which was in a dangerous position, successfully lobbied the marshals to get him going again. The Honda V10 re-fired, and he returned to the circuit via the chicane’s escape road.
As Ramirez alluded to, the front wing on Senna’s MP4-5 had been dislodged in the contact. By pitting to have it replaced Senna dropped behind Nannini, who had been over a minute behind the McLarens when lap 47 began.
With just two laps to go, Senna caught and passed Nannini at the very spot where Prost had turned in on him four laps earlier. He went on to take the chequered flag first and wept for joy as he returned to the pits, believing he still had a chance to retain his title if he won the final race in Australia.
1989 Japanese Grand Prix: Ayrton Senna onboard camera
1989 Japanese Grand Prix result
|Pos.||#||Driver||Team||Laps||Time / gap / reason|
|1||19||Alessandro Nannini||Benetton-Ford||53||1hr 35’06.277|
|5||7||Martin Brundle||Brabham-Judd||52||1 lap|
|6||9||Derek Warwick||Arrows-Ford||52||1 lap|
|7||15||Mauricio Gugelmin||March-Judd||52||1 lap|
|8||10||Eddie Cheever||Arrows-Ford||52||1 lap|
|9||21||Alex Caffi||Dallara-Ford||52||1 lap|
|10||22||Andrea de Cesaris||Dallara-Ford||51||2 laps|
|3||Jonathan Palmer||Tyrrell-Ford||20||Fuel leak|
The podium ceremony was postponed while the stewards debated the controversial developments during the final laps of the race. Their eventual decision to penalise the winner of the race before he took to the rostrum was not unprecedented, but significantly this was the last time it ever happened.
Senna’s disqualification handed Nannini his first and only grand prix victory. “I didn’t push because I didn’t know about Senna,” said Nannini, who had been cruising around five seconds off the pace at the time of the crash. “When I knew I started to push again but he was too close to me.”
“I am not very happy for Senna but I am happy for me,” he added.
Controversially the stewards were joined by Jean-Marie Balestre, president of the Federation International du Sport Automobile (FISA – now the FIA). Balestre, whose autocratic approach and voluble temper had been the defining characteristics of his 11-year rule over the sport, surprised no one by voicing his view of the collision and laying the blame at Senna’s feet.
His personal intervention over the Suzuka affair drew criticism. Two years later, Balestre lost the presidency to Max Mosley. In a recent book on Senna, Mosley said his predecessor “didn’t understand about the separation of powers”.
“When Senna and Prost had the coming together, Balestre just fixed the whole thing [by influencing the stewards],” said Mosley. “I was outraged.”
Senna was disqualified from the Japanese Grand Prix on the grounds that by cutting the chicane on lap 47 he had not completed the full race distance. McLaren immediately lodged an appeal against the result of the race, even though it was inevitably seen as them taking the side of one driver against another.
“It is our duty to try and win every race,” explained team director Creighton Brown. “Both drivers understand this, and understand why we are appealing. It is purely to do with the race result and has nothing to do with the world championship.” This was, of course, a potential victory lost at their engine supplier’s own circuit.
Senna dismissed Prost’s attempt at reconciliation immediately after the race. “The results as they stand provisionally do not reflect the truth of the race in either the sporting sense or in the sense of the regulations,” he said in a statement. “I see this result as temporary.”
“A driver who endangers the safety of others”
The facts of the matter indicated Senna had good cause to believe McLaren’s appeal could succeed. He was far from the only driver to have cut a chicane in this fashion, yet none of the others who had done so before him had been penalised. Among them were Prost himself, who had done so at Imola earlier in the season, and gone on to finish in second place.
But when McLaren arrived at the FIA International Court of Appeal hearing, hurriedly arranged for the following Friday to ensure a verdict could be delivered well before the season finale at Adelaide, they were astonished to discover the charge sheet against Senna was no longer confined to the events of Japan.
In a mockery of due process, the court invoked a range of past grievances against Senna, then handed him a six-month suspended ban and a $100,000 fine. “The events which have occurred in the last few months during several grands prix prove that even if A. Senna is a talented driver, he is also a driver who endangers the safety of other drivers,” it noted.
Senna seethed at the injustice. Speaking ahead of the final race of the season in Australia, he said: “I never caused the accident at Suzuka. It was never my responsibility, but I was blamed for everything. I was treated like a criminal.”
McLaren team principal Ron Dennis vowed to take the matter further, even as Balestre gave dark warnings that “there will be a few heads, even prestigious ones, that will risk a fall” if they did not reconcile themselves to his view that “no force, no political or legal power in the world outside the FIA can change this decision”.
The events of Adelaide spared the sport another showdown between McLaren and the FIA. During the rain-lashed race Senna, leading comfortably, smashed into Martin Brundle’s Brabham, destroying whatever slim chance he had of winning the title.
But to some drivers, the very fact the Australian race went ahead made a mockery of the FIA’s claim to have prosecuted Senna on grounds of safety. “It was 100 times more dangerous what we did here than what he did in Japan,” said Berger, who was due to join Senna at McLaren the following year.
This was not quite the end of the affair. Senna’s subsequent claim that Balestre’s interference represented “a true manipulation of the championship” initiated another piece of grandstanding from the president. This time Senna was required to apologise before his superlicence would be granted for 1990. An 11th-hour settlement between the two saw Senna release a placatory statement and Balestre issue his licence – and rescind the six-month suspended ban.
A dangerous precedent was set at Suzuka in 1989. It did not escape the notice of the drivers of the time that the sport’s governing body would not sanction them for purposefully eliminated a rival in order to win the championship. Over an eight-year period, four championships were decided in this way.
Senna extracted a brutal and uncompromising revenge less than 12 months later. Further incensed by a row over which side of the grid his pole position should be placed, Senna seized his first opportunity to ram Prost out of the race and reclaim the title he believed had been unjustly taken from him the previous year.
Michael Schumacher evidently drew the same conclusions about the FIA’s toothlessness. During the 1994 title-decider, having damaged his car by going off the track, he swung into Damon Hill’s passing car to ensure the Williams driver did not take the title from him. The FIA, now headed by Mosley, had already penalised Schumacher and his Benetton team for a string of earlier infringements, but stayed its hand on this occasion.
Three years later things were different. Schumacher’s attempt to do the same to Jacques Villeneuve in similar circumstances at Jerez was unsuccessful. And this time the sport’s governing body stepped in to prevent drivers attempting to decide future championships in the same manner, by retrospectively disqualifying Schumacher from the standings.
Would the FIA do the same to a driver who won the championship by causing a collision? Mosley claimed they would during his time as president, after the Schumacher incidents. But their resolve has not yet been put to the ultimate test.
Postscript: An echo of the past in a race of the future
Nicolas Prost invited comparisons with one of the most notorious episodes from his father’s past during the inaugural round of the FIA’s new all-electric Formula E championship earlier this year in China.
The younger Prost was on course to win the race in Beijing when he made this unsuccessful attempt to keep Nick Heidfeld from overtaking him at the final corner. The symmetry with the events of Suzuka in 1989 would have been complete had Prost been racing Senna’s nephew Bruno, who also started the race.
Grand Prix flashback
- Schumacher seals record-breaking 10th constructors championship for Ferrari
- Strategic superiority clinches Schumacher’s first Ferrari title
- Disaster for Hakkinen brings title within Schumacher’s grasp
- Schumacher turns the tide against McLaren on tragic day at Monza
- Hakkinen stuns Schumacher with three-wide pass for fourth win