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1989: Senna and Prost collide at Suzuka


You shouldn't try to give up smoking before you go to Japan. After the easy life of a Grand Prix summer in Europe, for Formula 1 folk Japan offers raw fish and raw nerves. Here no one speaks English, signs are rarely written in any comprehensible form. If you can navigate your way to Suzuka, you deserve a medal; if you can get there on time, you're brilliant.
There are countless traps for European visitors on the roads and the seasoned campaigners nave resorted to travel by train, limousine or helicopter (depending on the budget). Trains do not get lost and, even if you cannot read the signs, arrive when they are due. Efficiency is one European word that the locals do understand.

Another useful word is 'money'. Without it in Japan, you are a lost soul, so even when you have negotiated your way through Tsuruhashi, Muroguchi-Ono and Sakakibara-Onseguchi and Edobashi, you have to be able to afford to live.

Hotels are not built for Euro-sized folk so such things as fitting yourself into a shower become rather like experimenting with the advanced chapters of sex manuals. Still there is much to keep you amused in this strange - and, after a few days - rather wonderful land.

A favourite pastime for the jet lagged is reading hotel regulations at weird hours of the day and night and finding that: "hang from windows" is not allowed.

Some resort to the easy way and tramp down to the nearest McDonalds, which is able to report a massive increase of profits over the Grand Prix weekend. The profit, however, is nothing compared to that made by the stalls behind the Suzuka grandstands.

Formula 1 is BIG business in Japan. Last year Benetton had four such stalls. In the course of three days these made US$600,000 on clothing. This year it was $1.4 million. Not bad from selling a few clothes...

Yet the lure of profit is restricted to those selling T-shirts or to the race teams. To most Europeans, life in Japan is too much of a struggle. Fewer travel to Suzuka than to any other race, and most are only too keen to get out of the confusing jungle and head on to the delights of Adelaide.

On a cool, sunny and crisp Friday morning we began to understand just how big BIG business is. In the hours before pre-qualifying, traffic tailed back for miles. 'The European lane' - the orange line down the middle of the road - did fair business as the F1 regulars tried to make up for lost time. The law-abiding locals were content to wait. When there are 50,000 people trying to squeeze in to see Aguri in pre-qualifying, you might see what we mean.

At least six security guards were required to keep the locals from tearing Aguri's clothes from his back. Satoru Nakajima may be famous here, but Aguri is a star of Lobert Ledford-like proportions.

He didn't pre-qualify, poor chap, but the biggest surprise of the 60 minutes was that Bernd Schneider did, the Zakspeed-Yamaha driver blasting through in the dying seconds of the session. The team insisted that nothing major had changed with the cars, but a cynic might suggest that Yamaha made a rather special effort in Japan.

The Pirelli tyres clearly helped. Nicola Larini was quickest for Osella, chased through by Alliot (a point scorer last time out), Schneider (another Pirelli user) and Michele Alboreto in the second Lola.

This meant that we had no Onyxs for the first time since Monaco. Stefan Johansson was the victim of an unfortunate fuel pump problem and JJ Lehto, who had no experience of the track, hit traffic when he put on his qualifiers. "I just wasn't quick enough," he said with alarming honesty.

Piercarlo Ghinzani underlined the Pirelli qualifying potential by only being bounced out at the very last minute, while Roberto Moreno would have done better but for the misfire he has had since the Portuguese GP.

Still, Roberto's fortunes were better than those of team mate Enrico Bertaggia, who had his suspension break while he was on his first lap. The Coloni team had no spare. Oscar Larrauri had a pair of Euro-Brun ER189s, in a natty new black colour scheme, but these still need testing and Oscar could not do it. Nor could the two AGS men, who struggled with their Goodyears against the Pirelli heroes.

The 50,000 fans stayed on to watch the exploits of Naka-san and the folk from Honda.

McLaren was making something of an effort for the two World Championship aspirants, Alain and Ayrton, with five chassis on hand - two for each star and one in a box, lest one of the other chassis was damaged.

The team also had two different specifications of Honda engine, not to mention some useful testing by Emanuele Pirro at the track a week before the event. It was no surprise then to see Ayrton heading the timesheets in all four sessions and, indeed, being in a class of his own throughout.

It was sensational viewing too, for Ayrton was charged up like a Duracell and ready to go. Having warmed up with a string of fast laps in the morning, there were interruptions with red flags to remove various bits and pieces left by those which trailed in his wake.

By Friday afternoon there was little doubt that Ayrton would take pole but, of course, he not only did it, he did it in style.

To begin with he warmed himself up with a string of fast laps on C tyres, each one chipping a little off the last. Tyres were important, for many were having trouble getting their Goodyears to last a full lap of the sinuous and testing Suzuka track.

As the minutes ticked away towards the end of the session and all around were banging in their quick times, no one was getting close to the Brazilian and, when Ayrton bolted on his Q tyres in the dying seconds, there was trepidation. It was not a question of his keeping pole - purely by how much he would do it. It was a great lap which stopped the clocks at 1m39.493s. The only man under the 40s barrier and a full 1.11 seconds ahead of nearest challenger Nigel Mansell.

"I missed second gear coming out of the hairpin," said Ayrton, putting fear into the hearts of those who thought he had reached the maximum of his potential. "Without that problem I think I could have managed a 1m39s dead.

"I also blistered my right front midway round the lap and understeered over a kerb on the return leg," he added, twisting the knife.

Was he merely playing at psychology? No way. On Saturday afternoon, in cooler conditions, Ayrton wound himself up again. His first set of tyres had resulted in a 1m39.079s just 11 minutes into the session but, at the 24-minute mark he went again. Now this was special, as good (no, as great) as any lap we have seen from the ace qualifier. It was not what you would call a tidy lap. but the result was a startling lm38.041s. It took a double-take with the timesheets to make sure it was reality. It was 2.3 seconds ahead of everyone. Two point three seconds - a lifetime in Fl racing.

Gerhard Berger, sitting in his Ferrari waiting to go out, could do nothing but smile incredulously. He improved minutes later to take second slot, but he was still more than a second behind.

Yes, if the tyres had lasted he would have been closer, explained the Austrian later, but not that much.

"It wasn't smooth," said Senna, fast becoming the master of understatement, "but it was quick, believe me. I fumbled a couple of gearchanges, but it was a great lap."

A great lap indeed. Prost didn't take it sitting down, of course, for he was going to be fighting this weekend, but the best he could wring from his MP4/5 was 1m39.771s. Ayrton was on pole by 1.7 seconds. In such circumstances the others become a sideshow.

The Ferrari boys were up there behind the McLaren front row, of course, and both had given their all in spectacular fashion, but no one could get near Ayrton.

Once again it was Gerhard Berger who squeezed the better time, but it was as close as ever it has been. Behind the symmetrical front two rows, we might have expected to see a Williams third row, but this was different. Riccardo Patrese was there.

"Today was free of mechanical troubles," he explained. "The car is not handling well. It's not an easy car to drive."

Thierry Boutsen would have been next, but for the efforts of Sandro Nannini and the boffins at Ford, who had produced a new tweaked up V8 for Sandro to try. It gave him fifth quickest on Friday, but a mysterious misfire meant a change back to the standard on Saturday and it was with this that he set his best time.

So where was circuit expert Emanuele Pirro? His practice sessions were what might be described as fraught. On Friday morning he had been up there, mixing it with the big cheeses, but thereafter things began to go wrong. A mysterious handling problem and spin was followed by misfires in both race and spare cars. "I'm not very happy," he said, trying to rival Senna in the art of understatement.

Philippe Alliot was up there too, in eighth place, and he too knew there was more to come from his Lola-Lamborghini. His team mate Michele Alboreto was not there, for incredibly he had failed to qualify, the victim of problems at the wrong moments and poor use of qualifiers. Michele was not a happy butterfly on Saturday night.

Two men who were happy were Stefano Modena and Nicola Larini. The two leading lights of the Italian new wave were mixing it in fine style. An Osella has made the top 10.

Of the rest special mention should be made of Paolo Barilla, standing in for Pierluigi Martini at Minardi. After an accident on Friday, he had not qualified overnight, but he pulled out all the stops to claim his first GP start.

Bernd Schneider, too, had done a good job for Zakspeed, although his performance added to the widely-held belief that the present pre-qualifying system is worse than absurd. If a Zakspeed - seen to be the disaster of the year - can make the cut, all the pre-qualifiers could do it.

Not so the Rial team. This has gone from being a bad joke and has become a nightmare. Three seconds off the pace of the nearest car was ridiculous.

Still, the ridiculous was much in evidence. As darkness fell on Saturday one could wander up the pitlane listening as a brass band played Andrew Lloyd-Webber songs which were danced to by Japanese pom-pom girls and flag wavers. Attempted sabotage by a growling Ford V8 being tested could not drown out this spectacle.

Ayrton was still knocking about, watching the in-car footage of his qualifying lap. Away behind the gates of Suzuka was the most extraordinary sight. Upwards of 5000 local fans were camped out by the circuit gates.

"Woodstock comes to Honshu," muttered a passing cynic. "Just imagine what it would be like if they had a winning driver."

Aguri may not have made it, but there was plenty to stay awake all night for. It was going to be a Honda victory - unless of course the Alain and Ayrton show went off the rails. But that seemed most unlikely.

Still no rain. All the gloomy predictions of wet days at Suzuka were dismissed finally on race morning. There was not the heat of Friday, nor the blue skies, but the day was warm enough, dry. Perfect for a day of reckoning, with no wild card in the elements.

He may have been unable to cope with Senna on a qualifying lap, but Prost comfortably topped the times in the morning warm-up, with Mansell second and Senna - eight-tenths away - third. Warwick's Arrows, 25th on the grid, was fourth fastest, prompting the doubtless uncharitable thought it may not have been carrying a full fuel load. In fact, Del-Boy was trying a different low-downforce set-up for the race, and this he decided to use: "The car had been so hopeless in qualifying, I thought I'd at least be quick on the straights..."

After the warm-up, Prost was calm and confident, quite satisfied with his race set-up. Not so Senna, though, who had tried both his cars, and didn't much like the balance of either. They went different ways on set-up, Alain running less downforce than his team mate.

It was to be another tyre stop race, with all the Goodyear runners, save Gugelmin (Bs), going for Cs. And it wasn't beyond the bounds of possibility, therefore, that the World Championship could hang on a mechanic's deftness of hand as readily as a driver's inspiration for 53 laps.

So round they came, then, on the final parade lap for the 1pm start, with everyone in position, save Palmer, who would leave from pit lane in the spare Tyrrell, his own suffering from an oil leak. Before long, he would retire for the same reason.

Prost made a peach of a start. There was a very short interval between red light and green, and Alain was perhaps a little more alert than anyone else. Senna's own getaway was good, but his team mate led into the first turn. Berger ran third, and Nannini fourth, the Italian getting the drop on Mansell.

It was an unhappy opening lap for the Minardi team, in that neither of its cars actually made it round, Martini-sub Barilla pulling off with broken transmission, Sala doing the same after an altercation with Nakajima, who was able to continue.

"All I can do today," Prost said in the late morning, "is attack, attack, attack. There's nothing else for it: Senna has to win to keep a chance of the championship, and the best way to stop him is to beat him. Second place won't help either of us. In the past, you know, I've left the door open for him sometimes - otherwise we would have crashed; I won't be doing that today..."

Alain drove a magnificent opening lap, in the style we have come to expect from Ayrton. It was almost a second and a half faster than the Brazilian's, and for 14 laps the gap between them was ever wider, at that point reaching 5 clear seconds. Senna, usually peerless in the art of blistering away from cold, must have felt somewhat bemused, maybe even a little panicky. This wasn't in the script at all.

Inside three or four laps it was obvious that this was to be a McLaren race, period. All Mansell's optimism about the Ferraris' superiority on full tanks was washed away by Honda horsepower. Berger, in third place, looked lame as the red-and-white cars sped away, but Mansell was in worse shape still. Hampered, as at Monza, by what the Ferrari drivers refer to as a 'lazy' gearchange, he was having some difficulty keeping pace with Nannini's Benetton.

Sandro found that his car was working well, even though running with a regular Ford V8, rather than the more accelerative revised motor he had used in Friday qualifying. The team had decided its reliability might be suspect, and had given it instead to Pirro - who was himself making fine progress through the field from his poor starting position.

Everyone's eyes, though, were on Prost and Senna, the two men fighting for the title, as well as the race. And at the 15-lap mark Ayrton began to whittle down his 5 second deficit. It was the old story; on a clear track, Prost pulled away a little; in traffic Senna reeled him back. But Alain was showing an assertiveness we haven't seen in quite a while, and he didn't lose much as they started working through the backmarkers.

Mansell was the first of the front runners to come in for tyres, on lap 18, temporarily dropping from fifth to seventh in the process. Two laps later Nannini was in, and on lap 21 the world held its breath as Prost peeled off into the slip road for pit lane. It was a good stop (7.8 seconds), but Senna inevitably took the lead, which he lost again when he pitted, at the end of the 23rd lap.

Again, a tyre change competently done, albeit a second and a bit longer than Prost's. Out Ayrton blasted once more, and at the end of his next lap he trailed Alain by 4.6 seconds.

The Williams pair, who had circulated virtually in tandem since the beginning of the race, had also been in for tyres by this time, so that the revised order now was Prost, Senna, Berger, Nannini, Mansell, Piquet (yet to come in), Patrese, Boutsen, Pirro and Alliot.

For a while, Senna trimmed away at Prost's lead, but as soon as any real threat materialised, the Frenchman was able to respond. At lap 30 he led by a little over a second, but by the 35th the gap was out to 3.4 seconds.

What made the contest yet more fascinating was that the McLarens' different set-ups gave their drivers clearly defined strengths and weaknesses. Alain definitely quicker in a straight line, Ayrton visibly superior under braking and into corners. This showed every sign of going to the flag.

"I felt very comfortable," Prost said later. "In control of the race. I knew that to have any real chance of winning I had to lead from the start, which I managed to do. Once I was in front, I felt calm. The car was fantastic - I had an occasional problem with the engine cutting out, but it wasn't bad enough to be a big worry."

If Senna were going to get by, therefore, it would have to be by acrobatics, capitalising on the major advantage of his high-downforce set-up; into corners. And it wouldn't be easy, for Prost's straightline advantage would make it difficult to be close enough for a tidy attempt. Ayrton pondered his problem.

Others had more immediate difficulties, however. Berger's lonely run in third place ended after 34 laps when he pulled in, fourth gear missing. That elevated Nannini to third place, Mansell to fifth, Patrese into the final points-scoring position.

Alliot, after another good run in the Lola-Lamborghini, retired with engine failure on lap 37, and clearly Mansell's Ferrari wouldn't be long in meeting the same fate. A wisp of smoke from the back of the car became a trail, and finally the odd flame spat out. On lap 44 Nigel pulled off, leaving behind him a line of oil through the flat-in-sixth uphill left-hander midway round the lap... Fortunately, it wasn't enough to bring anyone to grief.

By this time Prost and Senna were running close together, the gap never more than a second, usually rather less. Nannini, left breathless by the McLarens and going on half a minute clear of Patrese, decided to back off, lapping as much as 5 seconds slower than he had been. It was a prudent course to take, but later we were all, Sandro included, to wish he had kept up the pace; it would have prevented a great deal of controversy. Stay tuned...

So mesmerised was the huge crowd by the intensity of the lead battle that even the retirement of Nakajima went virtually unnoticed. This was a day when a single lapse in concentration, missed opportunity in traffic, muffed gearchange, could settle the outcome of the World Championship; a day when driving for points meant driving for nine points or nothing.

At the end of lap 46, with seven to go, Prost led by half a second; if Senna were going to make a move - and we assuredly knew, if nothing else, that Senna would make a move - it had to be soon. Ayrton chose the entry to the chicane.

It is a ludicrous chicane, this one, totally out of place at this magnificent race track. Necessarily taken in first gear, it has quite high kerbs, and is calculated to make the most svelte and nimble of Fl cars look clumsy and awkward. But coming as it does, at the end of a straight, it is the primary overtaking spot on the circuit; what you need to do is take a gulp of air, flick right, leave your braking to the very latest. Then you go down the inside, relying on the other driver to back off, give you a clear run, for there simply isn't room for two. You'll go in on the wrong line, probably get crossed up, let your revs drop away, and it will all be very messy, losing time for both of you. But usually you'll be through.

A year ago, Prost might have spared the blushes of McLaren, Honda, Marlboro et al, given way to Senna rather than walk back to the pits with him, there to explain to Ron Dennis how there were two damaged McLarens up the road, out of the race. But Alain has learned a thing or two, and one of them is that you don't beat Ayrton with kid gloves.

He had said in the morning, had he not, that no doors would be left open today? And this one was unequivocally closed. Senna, already well over the pit lane slip road line in his passing manoeuvre, found himself with nowhere to go. They hit, slid straight on across the road, came to halt, wheels interlocked. And engines dead. Alain turned his head briefly towards Ayrton.

Marshals sprang into action to push them from the track, for the McLarens indubitably were dangerously parked. Prost popped his belts, and climbed from the cockpit even before his car was shoved into the escape road. But Senna stayed aboard, and once into the escape road began gesticulating furiously for another push, which he got. Down the hill the engine caught, and he threaded his way back to the track - now, for the first time, in the lead of the Japanese GP! Prost looked on, shrugged.

As Senna rushed round, his damaged nosecone breaking up, then dropping off, Prost ran across the road, and set off for the pits. He wasn't angry, just disappointed - albeit fairly sure he was the new World Champion. "He had a push, yes?" Yes. "And he rejoined the race from the escape road?" Undoubtedly. "Well, then..." and he relaxed.

"I felt sure to win, you know, once I got in the lead. And somehow I always thought the race would be decided one of two ways; either he would lead from the start, or it would finish like this. I looked in my mirrors, saw where he was, and thought he was too far back to try anything - he had been closer than that before, and stayed behind. Then he came down the inside. You know Ayrton's problem? He can't accept not winning, and because of that he can't accept someone resisting his overtaking manoeuvres - too many times he tries to intimidate people out of his way."

As he spoke, Senna flashed by, now with a new nosecone, in pursuit of the new leader, Nannini. Alain grimaced; he was sure to be disqualified, wasn't he?

Ayrton's spirit was undimmed, his car now perfect again. And though Sandro gamely fought him for a lap and more, there was no way to resist the McLaren driver. Into the chicane Senna made the same move as he had on Prost, but this time he was closer - and this time the man being overtaken made no issue of it.

That left him with another couple of laps to the flag, and these passed without incident. On the road, anyway, Ayrton had won the Japanese GP and all round his slowing down lap he seemed to be wiping tears from his eyes. An emotional race was over. No one took much notice as Nannini, Patrese, Boutsen, Piquet and Brundle came in for the rest of the points.

When the drivers mounted the podium, though, of Senna there was no sign. It was Nannini who mounted the top step, opened the champagne first; and with him were the two Williams drivers. Senna - as expected - had been disqualified, specifically for not completing a full lap when he took a short cut down the escape road after the incidente.

He didn't take the news well. When Prost tried to shake his hand, say he was sorry it had all ended this way, Senna declined the offer, said he didn't want to see him. Alain fought off his disappointment.

Then McLaren appealed the Stewards' decision, claimed there was a lack of consistency in officialdom here; there had been other occasions this year when a driver had missed a chicane, not suffered consequent disqualification. Inevitably, this prompted cynics to point out another example of recent inconsistency in application of the rules - the one which had Mansell banned for a race for ignoring black flags in Estoril, but let Senna of with a fine for doing the same in Jerez.

And they remembered, too, Ron Dennis's words about Mansell's reversing in the pits; how it was up to the drivers to know the regulations, how Nigel should have known he'd be disqualified as soon as he selected reverse. And they thought that Senna, too, should have reached the same conclusion when he implored the marshals to push him, then rejoined via the escape road, rather than drive back to the point at which he'd left the circuit. But perhaps this line of thinking was naive.

Whatever, the thing is now in the hand of bureaucrats and lawyers, a messy and unsatisfactory state of affairs. McLaren director Creighton Brown stressed there was no attempt in their appeal to favour one driver against another; simply, McLaren were in business to win races, and this one had been taken from them.

On Sunday evening about the only happy face was that of Warwick, who benefited from Senna's disqualification, to the tune of a point. But will he get to keep it? Alain Prost really hopes so.

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