The 1989 Formula One Japanese Grand Prix was held at the superb Suzuka circuit in Japan on the 22nd of October 1989. It was the fifteenth round of the World Championship and the penultimate race on the schedule.
This race was to ultimately become one of the most dramatic and notorious races in the history of the entire Formula One World Championship.
As the 1989 season drew to a close the rivalry between McLaren teamates Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna was at fever pitch. Both had been paired at the McLaren team since the start of the 1988 championship, and the tension of having two highly motivated and aggressive drivers was beginning to cause serious problems within the team.
Going into the Japanese round Senna was very much at a disadvantage trailing Prost by twelve points. The Frenchman had managed to chalk-up 72 points on the board compared with Senna's 60. To ensure that he still held a mathematical chance of claiming the title as they went into the final round in Australia two weeks later Senna had to win at all costs in Japan.
Throught the 1989 season the McLaren team had once again been dominant. This followed an even more successful 1988 season when the Mclaren MP4/4 achieved 15 victories out of a possible 16. This tally would in fact have been 16 had Ayrton Senna not been knocked off the circuit during the Italian Grand Prix by a slower driver.
Qualifying for the race saw the two McLaren drivers completely dominate as they topped the timesheets. Qualifying specialist Senna managed to edge-out his McLaren teamate by a staggering one and a half seconds! The second row of the grid was taken up by the two Ferraris of Gehard Berger and Nigel Mansell, with Riccardo Patrese in the Williams placed fifth. An excellent qualifying lap had seen the Italian Alessandro Nannini manage sixth spot in his Benetton, who would have a large part to play in the race as it developed.
1989 Japanese Grand Prix Grid - (top six positions)
Ayrton Senna - McLaren Honda - 1.38.041
Alain Prost - McLaren Honda - 1.39.771
Gehard Berger - Ferrari - 1.40.187
Nigel Mansell - Ferrari - 1.40.406
Riccardo Patrese - Williams Renault - 1.40.936
Alessandro Nannini - Benetton Ford - 1.41.103
With tension rising the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix got underway and saw Alain Prost take an instant advantage after managing a much better getaway from the grid than rival Senna. Senna was also nearly overtaken by the fast charging Ferrari of Gehard Berger, but managed to keep the Austrian at bay into the first corner.
Prost charged off into an early lead and managed to pull out a comfortable six second gap over Senna. As the race began to settle into a pattern the Brazilians misery was compounded after a problem with a routine tyre stop cost him an additional two seconds. However, with fresh tyres now bolted to his McLaren and with his Honda engine running impeccably the Brazilian ace began to reel in the lead that Prost had created.
The following laps were pure drama with Senna driving at the absolute limit knowing that he had to win this race at all costs to keep his championship hopes alive. By lap 40 Senna had managed to overhaul Prost's advantage and now sat a tantalising one second from the Frenchmans rear wing. Catching his championship rival was one thing but overtaking was going to be a whole different challenge.
For the next five laps Senna pressured Prost hoping to force the Frenchman into a mistake. This error did not come and the need to overtake his teamate was getting ever-more urgent.
Despite being identically manafactured the two cars were setup slightly differently. Prost had opted for a setup that gave him a greater straight line speed, whilst Senna had opted for more downforce to pin his McLaren that little bit harder to the ground during cornering. It was this setup that was to line up one of the most controversial moments in the sports history.
On lap 46 Senna used his greater cornering speed to exit the daunting 130R corner that approached a tight right-left chicane at the end of the lap, and lined up to attempt to pass his teamate. Then it happened.
Senna dived to the inside of Prost in a move that was brave but also a little optimistic. Prost, who was on the outside of the corner turned in to take his line and can clearly be seen looking in his mirrors to see where the Mclaren of Senna was positioned. This turning in by the Frechman and the positioning of Senna's Mclaren caused a collision bringing both cars to a standstill at the side of the circuit locked together.
It was a matter of seconds before the marshals at the circuit were flocking around the cars as Alain Prost got out and removed his crash helmet ending his days work. Senna's attitude was in strict contrast to this as the Brazilian frantically waved to the marshalls to push his car along the escape road to re-fire the Honda engine. This they achieved, and Senna roared back onto the track to attempt to still win the race now his main rival was eliminated.
The front nose of Senna's car had been seriously damaged in the incident and with a major loss of downforce he was forced to make his way back to the pits to replace it. Senna struggled around for one whole lap before the chance to enter the pitlane became available, even sliding off the track onto the dirt at one point. Once at the pits the team quickly set about replacing the damaged front wing.
After several seconds this was complete and Senna raced back onto the track to haul down Alessandro Nannini in the Benetton Ford that had taken the lead. An example of the pace that the McLaren's had been running was only too apparent as despite the incident, spending an entire lap running at a reduced speed due to a damaged front wing and the subsequent pitstop, Senna re-joined the race only five seconds behind the car of race leader Nannini.
The opportunity to reel in the lead of Nannini and keep his championship hopes alive was overwhelming for Senna and he embarked on two laps of pure guts and grit to decimate the Italians lead. Only two laps after making his pitstop for the damaged nosecone Senna moved to pass Nannini in exactly the same place as he had attempted to pass Prost.
The Italian offered considerably less resistance than Prost, as he had a lot to gain from a second place finish. With only three laps to go Senna settled down and protected his lead putting no further stresses or strains on his car ensuring that he would not be robbed of the win due to a mechanical failure.
Sure enough Senna crossed the line in first place to ruptuous applause from the predominantly Japanese crowd and punched his fist in the air at his fantastic achievement. But bad news was to come for the Brazilian almost straight away.
Almost as soon as the race ended Senna was disqualified for missing the chicane after the incident with Prost. He was not permitted to attend the podium celebrations and instead Nannini was awarded the victory with Patrese and Boutsen in second and third places respectively.
The disqualification was appealed by both Senna and the Mclaren team as he had actually gained no advantage by missing the chicane. An FIA hearing followed the appeal in which Senna's disqualification was upheld with a further $100,000 fine imposed on the driver as well as a six month suspended ban. Senna was extremely vocal in his response to the way he felt he had been treated, and made suggestions that all was not fair in the sport towards him.
Despite the incident being nearly twenty years ago is is still a source of much contention as to the reasons for the crash. Some feel that Prost may have deliberately run into Senna as he knew that if the Brazilian failed to finish the championship decider would not have to take place at the final race in Australia two weeks later. Others have commented that Senna may have been too ambitious in his attempt at overtaking Prost.
Today we only have one side of the argument to listen to when we debate the reasons for the crash. Tragically Ayrton Senna was killed five years later at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix after crashing into a concrete wall at nearly 200mph whilst leading the race in his Williams Renault.
The 1989 Japanese Grand Prix was a true nail-biter and unfortunately did not award viewers with the opportunity to see the two drivers battle for the chamionship at the Australian Grand Prix two weeks later. However, as that race turned out to be in torrential rain maybe this was a good thing as the risk of injury with the odds so high could have been serious.
Final 1989 Japanese Grand Prix Classification (top six positions).
1st - Alessandro Nannini - Benetton Ford - 1:35:06:277
2nd - Riccardo Patrese - Williams Renault
3rd - Thierry Boutsen - Williams Renault
4th - Nelson Piquet - Lotus Judd
5th - Martin Brundle - Brabham Judd
6th - Derek Warwick - Arrows Ford