The Wolf at the Door
In the end, the slope on Suzuka’s grid worked against Alain Prost, not just once, but twice. It allowed not only Ayrton Senna to roll his stalled McLaren forward sufficiently to restart twice, but also Satoru Nakajima to do likewise. Senna, of course, was the more significant threat to the Frenchman, but the Japanese Lotus driver was also to play a significant role . . .
Suzuka is a funny kind of place, its confines including an amusement park with overhead monorail and about a million of the concession stands from which the fanatical Japanese racegoers buy endless sets of team overalls. Turn up to a European race dressed as Nakajima and you’re “out”, but in Japan it’s decidedly chic.
Here is a nation that takes its motor racing very seriously, and the debacle in last year’s race, when Honda was disgraced in its own backyard, was sufficient to cost public relations man Sakurai his job. This time, then, there weren’t going to be any mistakes from Tadashi Kume’s troops, especially as Senna could clinch the World Championship if he won.
The Brazilian dominated qualifying (after Prost had been fastest in Friday’s free practice session in the morning), but Prost was right in his wheeltracks as the two Steve Nichols-designed MP4/4s yet again proved in a class of their own. Yet at the start, incredibly, Senna fluffed it, partly because he made a mistake, partly because his clutch was ultra-sensitive.
There he sat, arms aloft, his initial momentum on the green light all but sapped. With the downward slope he just managed to squeeze what remained of it to keep the McLaren rolling. The Honda V6 coughed, fired, coughed and fired again, and as Berger and Piquet took avoiding action he staggered away to finish the opening lap eighth. Prost, meanwhile had surged confidently into the lead, no doubt scanning his mirrors and trying to suppress a grin. It looked all over bar the shouting, even at this stage, when his advantage over his principal rival was 13 seconds.
The Japanese GP was, however, to be an extraordinary race. For a start the weather, as overcast as the 1987 event, was threatening rain. Indeed, there had been a few serious spots 15 minutes before the off. Then there were the backmarkers who, if you believe Senna, Prost and Boutsen, were the worst they’ve been all year. Certainly, a combination of the two cost Prost his chance.
As Senna was left to carve his way up to third place in spectacular style, taking chances galore without overstepping the mark, and moving past Patrese, Nannini, Boutsen, Alboreto and Berger with almost insolent ease by lap 11, Prost was busy coping with a different threat.
For some time now the rise and rise of the Leyton House March team has been one of the most gratifying sights of the 1988 series, and here, just as in Estoril, Ivan Capelli was proving a real star. Fourth on the grid alongside Berger, he followed the Ferrari for five laps before slipping neatly by, and then the gap between the March and the leading McLaren simply shrunk. By lap 14 it was drizzling, and Capelli was right on Prost’s tail, seeking a way by.
In the McLaren pit Ron Dennis spoke of the 881 running on only half tanks, as if Akira Akagi’s team was simply “grandstanding” on its home turf. The suggestion, when put later to Capelli, brought forth the enraged response: “Sure, just like I was in Portugal!”
The situation fell well for Senna. Just as he gained a clear track between himself and the two leaders, so Prost was totally occupied fighting Capelli. By lap 15 the two of them were nose-to-tail. On lap 16 Ivan actually led the McLaren over the line. Coming out of the chicane Prost had had to lift momentarily to avoid the spinning Lola of new boy Aguri Suzuki, and the slight loss of momentum was enough for the March to nose ahead. It was the first time one of the Bicester cars had headed a GP since 1976, but it wasn’t to last. Prost had the inside line down to the first corner, and exploited it ruthlessly as they slithered round side by side on a track that had become perilously slick.
Capelli wasn’t flustered, and continued to sit on the McLaren’s gearbox, but by now Senna was within striking distance, and when the March’s Judd engine cut suddenly exiting the chicane on lap 20, the wolf was at Prost’s door. Capelli had over-revved the CV8, just as he had in Friday free practice, but it had fallen victim this time to electrical failure. Frustratingly, it fired first time when the team got it back to the pits after a race it might just have won.
With the interloper gone, the battle was now as it should be, Prost and Senna mano a mano. Not just for the lead, but for the World Championship. The drizzle had stopped by now, and Prost looked capable of maintaining his advantage even though he was experiencing occasional gear-selection trouble (the cynical might suspect that was a measure of excuse thrown in later, but that is not Alain’s way and inspection would reveal a damaged dog-ring within the box). However, just down the road Mauricio Gugelmin and Andrea de Cesaris were locked in battle for twelfth place, having run in close proximity from the start, and as the leaders came up to lap them the cards fell badly for Prost.
He caught them just by the chicane, once again lost that vital measure of momentum, and could do nothing as Senna spurted alongside on the inner line to turn one. At this stage it seemed his penchant for taking greater risks in traffic had won him the day. But in truth at this stage he had mainly been luckier than Prost with the back markers. Only later would the Frenchman’s traditional bogey become a factor.
But had Senna been risking his fuel economy and tyres in his brilliant recovery? Prost suspected he might have, and stayed close. The battle wasn’t won just yet. By lap 31, three after Senna had taken the lead, the gap was 2.5 seconds. A lap later it was halved. Then Prost got caught behind Philippe Alliot’s Lola, and it opened again to 3.3. And then it began to rain again.
Now, said the pundits, Senna would paralyse Prost. Remember how he can’t race in the rain? On lap 37 the gap was 5.5 seconds. Two tours later it was 2.9. “I can race whenever I can see,” said Prost pointedly. It was back to 1.5 seconds on lap 42, but that was when Nakajima’s ability to restart an engine stalled by selection of third rather than first gear at the start truly became significant.
Up to that point the local hero had run desperately, trying to make good the mistake which had wasted a sixth-place qualifying effort rendered all the more poignant by the news of his mother’s death only minutes before Friday’s action had commenced. Now, he was head down, in no mood to use his mirrors. Senna got him going into the chicane, Prost didn’t. In fact, it wasn’t until the approach to the same corner next time round that the McLaren finally speared ahead, by which time Senna was another second further ahead.
Prost trimmed that to 2.3 seconds on lap 43 as the rain continued to spit, but it was 5.4 three laps later and it was all over. On a track more slippery than Richmond ice rink, and littered with truculent backmarkers, it was too much for him, and he finally settled for second. Senna settled for nothing less than first.
Further down the field, the Japanese Grand Prix rapidly developed into a bad temper race. The scene was set as early as the hairpin on lap one, when Nigel Mansell augered into the back of Derek Warwick. The two were fourth and fifth at the time after Senna’s startline drama. Mansell blamed Warwick for turning in too soon; Warwick, livid, was adamant that the Williams driver simply hadn’t braked hard enough. The net result was a pit-call for both, Mansell for a new nose, Warwick new tyres.
Nigel returned in customary fighting mode and dragged the FW12 as high as 17th before his second, and terminal, controversial incident. Early in the race Piquet, fifth fastest qualifier with an identical time to Nakajima’s, had run seventh before spinning in the wet in turn one. Now a lap behind after a stop for new tyres, he was ahead of Mansell on the road, and inflamed his former team-mate’s temper further by refusing to accommodate his wish to pass. Going into the chicane on lap 25 Mansell thought he saw a gap as Piquet ran slightly wide after turning into the right-hander.
It was one of those stupid accidents that happens at virtually zero speed. The Williams slid wide into the Lotus, both seemed to come to a stop, and then the FW12 was flipped over the 100T’s right-hand wheels. For a moment it seemed Mansell was about to land on his head, but it came down the right way up and he rolled down the hill to retire. Piquet lasted little longer, pulling in to quit on lap 35 still suffering the nausea that had dogged him throughout the meeting.
Warwick, meanwhile, had returned to the fray and upset Riccardo Patrese by steadfastly staying ahead of the Williams even though he was a lap down. The Italian cursed the Arrows’ aerodynamic turbulence, and eventually rooted his front tyres thanks to the understeer he suffered running in its downforce-robbing slipstream. Derek lasted only until lap 17, however, when he dropped it in the wet in turn one and went a long way off into the gravel. By the time he’d recovered it was barely worth continuing as he was four laps down.
Those incidents were but pale shadows of that between Michele Alboreto and Sandro Nannini, however. The Ferrari driver made the most of the chaos on the grid and was a handy fourth until Senna deposed him on lap four and Boutsen followed suit on lap five. He was thus defending sixth place from the second Benetton when the two touched going into turn one on lap eight. Nannini admitted a slight misjudgement that had the serious result of spinning the Ferrari across his bows; Alboreto clearly felt the move was deliberate and, having recovered in 25th place, logged the incident in his memory. As the race progressed Boutsen emerged a clear third, unable to hold the McLaren but easily able to out-distance Berger as the Austrian drove yet another race on his fuel read-out. Steadily, Nannini reeled him in and deprived him of fourth on lap 33. His progress, however, brought him up to Alboreto at the same time.
For lap after lap Michele refused to let him through, and on a circuit where genuine passing places are limited, Sandro began to lose ground to Berger again, until the Ferrari was able to reclaim its place on lap 47. The Benetton was then kept behind the other Ferrari to the end, even running into the back of it in the chicane at one stage, and there were hard words and one or two blows exchanged in parc ferme afterwards. . .
Accordingly to Gunther Schmid, the good Andrea de Cesaris, a driver born under a lucky star if ever there was one, has cost Rial a million dollars-worth of fibreglass this season, although it is possible the German’s view of his volatile driver was tainted by his .attempt to steal his room booking on Wednesday evening! Certainly, the tiny Rial team had work to do patching up one tub after the Italian stuffed it on Friday, and again on Saturday when he claimed that the suspension broke. After Prost lost time lapping him, which was just one of those things, Andrea became yet another ill-humoured runner when Suzuki inadvertently held up his chase of Gugelmin. As if he knew his own race was to be limited, de Cesaris decided he could, after all, afford time off in his chase. As he finally nailed the Japanese debutant going into the hairpin, he came to a complete stop on the inside after forcing him to wide he had to brake the Lola to a standstill as well.
The idea of de Cesaris giving a driving lesson is as laughable as a sadist lecturing in human rights, and fortunately he lasted only until lap 37 when he quit with overheating. Surprisingly, his Cosworth DFZ’s efforts to breathe had been restricted by the unexplained ingress of mud and grass into its cooling system apertures . .
There were some meritorious midfield drives despite all this, Gugelmin no doubt suffering unwanted deja vu as he coped throughout with a loose drink-bottle. On the face of it that seems a silly reason to be hampered, but consider piloting a vehicle which already has a cramped cockpit, when a heavy litre bottle full of liquid is rolling around the footwell, just out of reach. He spent the majority of his straightline running desperately trying to puncture it with his foot, eventually succeeding so the liquid could drain away. Even so the lighter container continued to roll around and foul the pedals intermittently, and he had to be satisfied with tenth in a race in which a strong result would have done a lot for a morale bruised of late by his team-mate’s impressive performances.
Jonathan Palmer also deserved markedly better than 12th. Qualifying brought him nothing but grief as his race car persistently ate its gearbox oil-pump, but there was a silver lining. Both his and Julian Bailey’s race cars were fitted with the new front suspension that had worked so well in tests after the Spanish Grand Prix, whereas JP’s spare had the old set-up. However, the latter seemed better suited to Suzuka and Palmer made electrifying progress from 16th on the grid to eighth on lap 11. He couldn’t quite fend off Eddie Cheever (on a charge in the Arrows after also suffering in qualifying), but was looking good for eighth overall when he picked up a puncture on lap 34. He at least had the consolation of sixth-fastest lap, even if it was the result of his fresh rubber after a pit-stop.
Bailey also showed well, both Tyrrells getting into the race for the first time since Silverstone in July. He repeated his Monza battle with the ever-awkward but ever-quick Rene Arnoux and finally found a way past the Ligier on lap 32. If you put Arnoux in a top car he would still be quick, so Bailey’s performance fell into favourable perspective.
Cheever, like Palmer, deserved better than retirement on lap 36. He’d qualified only 15th after a series of dramas with his race car’s engine, but looked good for at least seventh when the metering unit went haywire and dumped so much fuel through that the turbo caught fire.
Like Bailey, Bernd Schneider has had a lousy debut year in which to prove himself, but when things go half-right he looks good. He scraped in 25th on Saturday, despite a shunt that wrecked his race-intended Zakspeed, and took over non-quaffing teammate Piercarlo Ghinzani’s. From 24th on the opening lap he stormed past Sala, Larini, Bailey, Suzuki, Caffi and Arnoux without trouble and was closing fast on Martini when he finally had to quit. He’d hurt his left arm in his shunt and as the race progressed it became so numb he couldn’t keep his hand on the steering wheel, and on this occasion discretion was the better part of his unquestioned valour.
Caffi struggled to pass Arnoux ( and then uncharacteristically fell off just after he’d found a way by, the twin Minardis were unspectacular finishers, and Larini pulled off as the left front wheelnut worked dangerously loose, while Philippe Streiff and Alliot engaged in war towards the end as they headed for eighth and ninth slots after upturns in fortune.
And Suzuki made it home 16th after two spins and his enlightening episode with de Cesaris. Thrown into the shark-infested deep end as a last-minute replacement for Yannick Dalmas (who had reported sick with an ear infection), the Japanese Formula 3000 ace did a respectable job.
Ayrton Senna gave few outward indications of his inner elation in the immediate aftermath of a quite superb victory, but his success was won the hard way, fought for every slippery inch of the way. It was a record eighth win in a season, finally erasing Jimmy Clark’s long-standing record which he shared with the vanquished but ever gracious Alain Prost, and it was a fitting climax to 1988. Compared to Prost, Senna still has some things to learn, but as far as the title is concerned, the hungrier man won. DJT
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