1989 Japanese Grand Prix race report

1989 JAP GP thing

Alain Prost was declared a controversial 1989 World Champion

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A Flash in Japan

Would Benetton unwittingly have played a role in influencing the outcome of the World Championship? That was one of the intriguing questions spewed out of the volcano that was the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, an event that capped one of the most acrimonious and controversial seasons motorsport’s supposedly glittering prize has had to endure.

Cut away, for a moment, anything to do with Honda Marlboro McLaren and its warring drivers. Divorce yourself, too, from arguing over the culpability for that inglorious clash at the end of lap 47. Think, instead, of the one external influence that might have affected the situation and saved F1 from further unseemly polemics.

As the two McLarens enacted their impromptu mating dance, Sandro Nannini was the best part of a minute adrift, not exactly nursing his Benetton B189, but certainly not asking of it as much as he had during the early stages, when he had sprinted past Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari off the line and then settled into a steady if fruitless chase of its sister in Gerhard Berger’s hands.

Sandro, in fact, never saw Senna as he approached the chicane. All he saw was Prost’s stricken MP4/5. Senna was away up the road, pit-bound with tattered nose fins. As he completed his 47th lap, Sandro was 35 seconds behind the Brazilian. The latter, he was all too aware, had been way ahead of him throughout the race, and he had no way of knowing he had tangled with Prost, so that was nothing to get unduly worked up about. Good; he was up to second on Prost’s demise, that was all he thought. What he didn’t know, because nobody at Benetton spotted it, or thought it worth telling him, was that Senna’s car was damaged and that he would thus have to pit.

1989 JAP GP start

The race gets underway

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Ayrton duly did that at the end of his 40th lap, which he had spent slithering round in a car that understeered like mad as its front wings fell off altogether. He collected a new nose in a very slick stop, and was then out again, apparently going as hard as ever. The official gap was 16.9s in his favour as came to a halt in the pit road, but as they came round to finish lap 49, with the Benetton in the lead, Sandro had converted that into a 4.68s advantage. However, the Italian would not be relayed that information until the end of the following lap, when he saw it on its pit board.

By then it was way out of date, as a glance in his mirrors revealed. The Big Bad Wolf was already breathing hard on his door, having successfully blown down Alain Prost’s. Just one little piggy sat between the Brazilian and his 21st victory, and his jaws were heavily salivated.

Sandro knew his lead was doomed the moment he caught the flash of red and white in his mirrors. In the time it had taken Benetton to signal him of his lap 49 advantage, Senna had gobbled it up. He was then a mere 0.661s adrift.

Why, you had to ask, hadn’t Benetton used its pit-to-car radio? Why not tell Nannini much, much earlier that Senna and Prost had tangled? Why did nobody on Benetton’s pit wall relay the information that he had damaged his front wings and must surely pit? Nannini had rolled off his pace by a massive five seconds a lap as lap 47 approached, easily settled in third place and under no threat. Four more points would be just reward for a big stride forward in qualifying and a sensible, attacking race.

You didn’t need to be Einstein to work out that Senna’s job might have been a lot more difficult had Sandro picked up the pace again and been in a better position to fight for his sudden lead.

The Italian certainly thought so. “Had I known earlier I’m sure I could have held him off,” he asserted. “We didn’t want to risk getting him over-excited,” said team manager Gordon Message in a comment that appeared to place little faith in his driver’s ability to cope with pressure.

In fact, Nannini did hold Senna off for the best part of lap 51, only to have him come barrelling aggressively down the inside into the chicane. We’d all seen where that had got him before, but Sandro capitulated and gave him just enough room. In doing so he had to stay out wide and lock his left front Goodyear for a long, long time, but Senna wasn’t going to be denied his right. The other guy would find the room somewhere. And if he didn’t… tough.

Sandra did find the room, just, and duly finished second, just over a couple of seconds behind. Ruthless precision is something you can admire. Leaving a guy less than sufficient racing room isn’t. It makes you wonder how Senna would fare in a more competitive environment. Maybe NASCAR, Cart or sprintcar racing, for example. I’d go a long way to watch that, come to think of it.,

The point is, had Nannini been in a better position to cling on to his lead, to take those nine Japanese points by crossing the line first, the World Championship would have been settled and that would be that.

Oh, but it wouldn’t have gone to Ayrton Senna, would it? and that would never do. After all, he thinks of nothing else, eats, sleeps and breathes it, where other mere mortals simply race for it and live less esoteric lives away from it.

In Suzuka, the stewards screwed up. Let’s be clear on that. Let’s also be clear that Senna drove with the sort of gusto and never-say-die determination that made everybody love Villeneuve. Remember Zandvoort ’79, or Silverstone ’81? But let’s also remember that he had precious few two-car accidents, whereas Senna has now had full-blown incidents with the other three top F1 pilots. Berger in Rio; Mansell in Estoril; Prost in Suzuka. Coincidence? Or is the rest of the world out of step?

In Japan he broke the rules, plain and simple, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the overtaking incident. After his car had been pushed clear of the track, and into the escape road, he then signalled frantically for a second push, which allowed him to restart his dead engine and resume the race. That is not legal. His car was no longer in a dangerous area, so that counts as outside assistance. Whether he missed the chicane or not is irrelevant. The latter was the sole point on which the stewards chose to exclude him, however.

As you can imagine, that went down like a lead balloon with Honda, McLaren and Senna. On the face of it, of course, the former two parties should have been satisfied anyway, since if Senna’s chances of remaining in the title hunt had thus been negated, Alain Prost was nevertheless the new World Champion. After all, we’ve been told often enough this year that there is no favouritism, even if Alain is off to Ferrari.

Senna, however, couldn’t accept the result. Couldn’t accept that he had broken the rules. Wouldn’t accept that his championship crown had gone to Prost. And so McLaren lodged an appeal. It cited other occasions — without naming them — when other drivers had missed chicanes this year without being penalised. Rather ingenuously the urbane Creighton Brown explained how it was McLaren’s job to try to win every race, that that was why it was appealing, not because it wished to prolong one of its driver’s chances of the title at the expense of the other.

1989 JAP GP crash

Senna and Prost’s fateful collision

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“We think there is a possibility that Ayrton’s disqualification is not consistent with some of the things that have happened during the rest of the year,” he said. Consistent? Since when has F1 been consistent? One driver is fined $50,000 and banned for a race for missing what amounted to three black flags. Another then ignores eight black flags and is fined a mere $20,000…

Further down the pit lane, Benetton was being cautious about its success, almost as if it daren’t believe it. “I wish I had won it a different way,” said Nannini of his maiden F1 success. Chez Minardi, however, the happiness was overflowing in an endearingly Italianate manner as the Faenza team watched its former driver mount the top slot of the rostrum.

In other areas, the cynical were asking what would happen if McLaren won its appeal. By the rules, were that to happen, there seemed little to prevent the immediate reinstatement of Senna as victor, even though he had been push started illegally. More than an hour after the event, by then too late to do so, neither Benetton nor Williams had lodged the protests they had threatened as Senna prepared to take the laurels. “Why should we have done that?” a Benetton representative demanded to know. It was difficult to fault his logic when he added; “The stewards have made their decision and he’s excluded. We’re hardly going to protest our own success now, are we?”

Yet the feeling nevertheless persisted that a loophole had been left unplugged… And Prost? What of the man at the very epicentre of this motorsport earthquake?

The Frenchman had largely been written out of pre-race equations. After his lacklustre performances in Portugal and Spain he was simply expected to rely on fate and the actions of others to win or lose him the title. To keep Senna out he had to win either in Suzuka or Adelaide, but few expected that. Most expected the returned Mansell, in aggressive mode and just itching to embarrass Senna and McLaren on Honda’s home ground, to pose the greatest threat to the Brazilian. Prost, however, had something up his sleeve. Qualifying, as it nearly always does these days, surrendered itself entirely to Senna’s lavish attentions. On Friday he set times on Goodyear’s C compound race tyres few others dare dream of on their qualifying Es, and then went faster still when he donned a set of the latter. An oil leak on his spare car, equipped with the same modified Specification Five V10 as Senna’s, prevented Prost getting a run on qualifiers that day.

Then on Saturday Ayrton wove his magic yet again with a sensational 1m 38.041s on qualifiers. It was so far ahead of anyone else that the rest might as well not have bothered. Prost, however, was content with second fastest time after a reasonable run on Saturday, and freely admitted that the pole was much less important to him than a slot on the front row. So long as he started alongside Senna, he might just have a chance.

This year there was no drama with Senna stalling on the line, but it was Prost who made the superior getaway and who strode away in the early laps. Driving as he did in his twenties, the Frenchman pulled out 4.9s by lap 11, moving so far ahead of his astonished team-mate that he was actually out of his immediate sight. For the first 10 laps none of Ayrton’s laps was faster than Alain’s.

It was exactly the sort of denouement to the championship tale that everyone had harboured as a secret hope they dared not voice, and when they began to come across traffic and Senna began to slice into Prost’s margin, it became a gripping thriller.

Strangely, however, it was Prost who generally seemed to handle the traffic better for once, exploiting to the full the lower downforce set-up that had helped him to the fastest time in the morning warm-up. Senna had more wing, which made him faster into and through the corners, but on the straights Prost’s advantage would prove telling.

Even their scheduled tyre stops didn’t affect the outcome unduly. Prost’s took 7.86s at the end of lap 21, Senna’s 9.89s two laps later. In their aftermath, the gap stabilised momentarily at 4.673s, in Prost’s favour.

The beauty of Senna’s character as a race driver is that he never accepts second best. Bit by bit he kept chipping away at Prost, making a tenth here, a couple more there. Up front, Alain felt confident he had the situation under control, but by lap 31 Senna’s persistance had shaved the gap dramatically, to 1.756s. To prove his point, Prost opened it back out to 2.9 by lap 37, but then came Senna’s flurry of fast laps, culminating in his fastest on lap 38.

By lap 40 he was a bare 0.42s adrift and it looked for all the world as if the 1989 World Championship was going to be settled, after all, in a glorious battle between the two that would go right down to the chequered flag. It was going to be Hockenheim all over again, but this time without the late drama. If Prost won, he would clinch his third title in the best possible way, by proving he could still beat Senna. If Senna won, he had proved once and for all that he was top dog. Prost had the gap out to 1.059s on lap 43, and then it began to slide down again. Going into the chicane two laps later Prost was having to compromise his line, pinching it in tight to be sure Senna had no gap to slip into.

1989 SPA GP Nannini

Benetton’s Alessandro Nannini inherited the win from Senna

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Two laps later still he felt Senna was far enough behind to take his normal line, and that was when Ayrton thought he saw his chance. It was more than obvious to him that the chicane represented his one realistic opportunity to pass, and leaving his braking later than ever he slammed up alongside Prost, just as Alain realised his error and prematurely began to slam the door. Contact then became inevitable, and to onlookers’ astonishment the Great Battle evaporated frustratingly into an undignified tangle, both Honda V10s stilled. Prost stepped out immediately; a curious move in the circumstances. Senna stayed in his car, was momentarily pulled back to disentangle his car from Prost’s, and then called for and received his illegal push-start. How he must now wish he had turned his wheels right when first he was pushed towards the escape road, as then he could legitimately have stayed on the track and benefited from the assistance.

Prost walked back, convinced he was World Champion. It was a view shared by FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre, who delighted in showing the press his opinion of events on the post-race video.

“I knew if I won the start it would come to this,” said Prost reflectively. “I was sure I was going to win or have an accident, because I knew he wanted to win absolutely. He can’t accept that somebody might resist one of his overtaking manoeuvres.”

He explained how tired he was of making room for his “team-mate”, of being the one to avoid the almost inevitable contact. How at Monza during testing, even, he had been passed as if they had been racing.

“This time I said before the race that if this happens I would not open the door.”

Senna, tearful, emotional, shunning Prost’s post-race apology that either should have been involved, hissed: “Somebody who was there closed the door. I was the moral winner.” He could not bring himself to mention his team-mate’s name.

And so the Japanese Grand Prix passed acrimoniously into history. That history was barely interested in anyone else. It cared little that Riccardo Patrese and Thierry Boutsen raced each other to the flag in the reliable if under-paced Williams FW13s, or that Nelson Piquet made it home fourth despite a red light that warned him for most of the race that his oil pressure was in a precarious state. It paid little heed to Martin Brundle’s charge to fifth on soft compound Pirellis, except to note his aggression when Prost tried to lap him, and barely noticed that the final point fell to Derek Warwick. That in particular was a shame, since the Briton drove a brilliant race from 25th on the grid. After an awful qualifying he simply took off all his downforce and raced his way to a well-earned point, that suggested his 1990 season might well reap all the rewards for which he is overdue.

Neither of the Ferraris finished, Berger succumbing to the loss of fourth gear after two morning over-revs had taken the edge off his V12. Mansell was affected by the slow gearchange problem that he encountered at Monza, and eventually retired when his V12 blew out all its oil and then broke. Neither, in any case, had been in the McLarens’ class at Suzuka.

Gugelmin rode his bronco March to seventh as team-mate Capelli broke his front suspension, and Cheever, who ran more downforce than Warwick and was slower as a result, was eighth. Caffi and de Cesaris struggled throughout on Pirelli’s hardest compound, which was all the Dallaras would tolerate, for ninth and tenth.

The Minardis were first-lap retirements through transmission failure (Paolo BariIla, deputising for the rib-sore Martini) and a collision with Nakajima (Sala), while Palmer’s last race for Tyrrell brought fuel leaks in both his race and spare cars.

There was hope for Benetton in the manner in which Emanuele Pirro hauled himself from 22nd on the grid to eighth in his B189, which ran a development version of the Ford V8. He lapped the impressive Jean Alesi into a half-spin before later hitting de Cesaris and ending his race in a gravel bed. Jean retired minus fifth gear.

Other contenders for the final point were also out of luck. Philippe Alliot again bolstered Larrousse hopes by qualifying well and running seventh until his Chrysler-Lamborghini V12 broke, Nakajima was mighty on his home ground but ultimately succumbed to Judd breakage, and Modena was stranded with electrical failure.

1989 JAP GP Nannini

Nannini celebrates his win

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History noted in passing that Bernd Schneider performed wonders to qualify the Zakspeed, even if it expired with early driveshaft failure, and would do well to remember Nicola Larini’s brilliance in qualifying the Osella tenth before brake balance problems dashed his race hopes.

Ultimately, though, only two things mattered as the first victory for the Ford V8 in Honda’s backyard was overlooked: the intoxicating tension of the Prost/Senna duel, and the acrimony that its conclusion sparked. A sport? Not for a long while, old boy. Not for a long while. DJT