October 22 1989, Suzuka Circuit
The atmosphere on race day was thick with anticipation.
The drivers had to be flown into the Suzuka Circuit by helicopter to protect them from the surge of excitable fans many of who had queued overnight to witness the Japanese Grand Prix.
The fast and unforgiving track was set to stage a world title showdown between two of Formula One’s biggest stars — Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
“Senna and Prost were global icons,” Martin Brundle, who drove in the race for former F1 constructor Brabham, tells CNN. “They were almost bigger than the sport.
“They definitely felt able to, and empowered to, take things into their own hands within the team and within the sport.”
Now into their second season as McLaren teammates any “friendly rivalry” between Senna and Prost had long since escalated into open hostilities, as the pair duked it out in the best car on the grid.
“The McLaren was so dominant that they were the only two drivers capable of winning a race,” Tony Dodgins, author of “Ayrton Senna: All His Races,” tells CNN.
“Prost was perceived as being very much the man back in those days. And that was Senna’s target, he wanted to be the man — so Prost was the guy he had to beat.”
In 1988, Senna had won the world title, taking eight wins to Prost’s seven, but in 1989 the Brazilian’s title defense was battered by a series of retirements, and Prost moved into a 16-point lead in the championship with two grands prix in Japan and Australia to go.
Flying into Japan for Senna the mission was clear, he had to win, he must win.
Prost was ready to be on the defensive. He told reporters gathered at Suzuka: “There’s no way I’m going to open the door to him any more.”
‘In Japan, Senna was a god’
On race day, an enormous crowd gathered to watch the showdown, such was the anticipation that many of them had queued overnight even though they had tickets.
“I remember we stayed in the circuit hotel, which is just across the road, and all the drivers were helicoptered in from the hotel to the track, which took about 30 seconds,” recalls Brundle.
“There were so many people around. There had been a ballot for tickets and then a waiting list.
“Senna was a god there. They were mad about him. It was incredible.”
Senna was on pole position, but Prost made a lightning start off the line to snatch the lead. For lap after lap the red and white McLarens circled the track at high speed, locked in a duel.
With 10 laps to go, all eyes were fixed on the battle for the lead; Senna’s focus fixed on Prost, Prost’s focus fixed on the checkered flag.
Just six laps from home, on Lap 47, Senna made his move and dived down the inside of Prost through the chicane.
For a split second they sailed side by side. But the gap shrunk, the two McLarens collided and came to a halt, noses pointed forward, down an escape road.
“It was such a tiny little contact at a very slow corner that it’s easy to see it as a racing incident,” says Dodgins. “But Prost probably intended to do what he did.
“There is only one place where you are going to overtake anybody at Suzuka, and that’s into the chicane after 130R. Prost knew that. He knew that was the one place they might have contact, and he said ‘I won’t open the door for him’. And then he didn’t.
“The bottom line is that Prost could afford a contact and Senna couldn’t. The minute there was contact Prost was world champion.”
After the collision Prost had jumped out of the car, but Senna stayed in the cockpit, frantically waving to the marshals to push him back into the fray.
While Prost released his leonine curls from his helmet at the side of the track, Senna had weaved his way down the escape road and returned to the track.
After a pit stop to change the car’s damaged front wing, the Brazilian hunted down Alessandro Nannini to take the lead and with it the win.
But that was not the end of the story played out at Suzuka 30 years ago.
The race stewards quickly disqualified Senna for cutting out part of the track when he rejoined the race.
“I remember walking back and you could sense the tension,” says Brundle, who had finished fifth for Brabham behind the drama. “There was a lot of scuffling going on just after the race.”
Brundle recalls the collision as “clumsy.” He adds: “It was almost Laurel and Hardy rather than Prost and Senna.”
McLaren, led by Ron Dennis, appealed against Senna’s disqualification but FISA, the sporting arm of governing body the FIA, upheld its decision.
There were accusations that Jean-Marie Balestre, the hard-nosed FISA president, had influenced the stewards’ decision, particularly from Senna himself.
“The thing that really wound Senna up was the fact that he perceived that Balestre, who was French like Prost, had acted almost like a Prost guardian to make it happen,” explains Dodgins. “He was livid.”
At the next race in Adelaide, Senna was still seething, and Brundle inadvertently found himself at the brunt of the Brazilian’s ire on a treacherously wet race day.
“Senna called a supremely emotive press conference at the next race in Adelaide,” Brundle explains. “Ayrton was quite an emotionally driven man. He felt the whole world was against him.
“Then the great irony was that he was driving like a man possessed in Adelaide, when a lot of people didn’t want to start the race because it was so unbelievably wet, and he ran into the back of me.”
Crashing into Brundle’s Brabham left Senna’s McLaren with three wheels and put him out of the race.
The world championship fight was now definitely over. Prost could not mathematically be caught, Suzuka could not be appealed again — Prost was a triple world champion.
But the tension between the two simmered, and the following year Senna served up his Suzuka revenge at 150 mph.
Prost, now driving for Ferrari, needed a good result at the Japanese Grand Prix to stop Senna being crowned champion. But the hot-blooded Brazilian quickly quashed that idea on the opening lap at Suzuka.
“They got down to the first corner and Senna just kept coming,” recalls Dodgins. “He rammed Prost at 150 mph and they both went off into the gravel trap.
“As far as Senna was concerned that was one-all. It was absolutely pure revenge for what happened in 1989.
“Throughout their rivalry, he almost wanted to humiliate Prost, rather than just beat him — and that was probably a personality flaw in Senna.”
Brundle, who famously lost the 1983 Formula 3 title in a heated head-to-head with Senna, reflects: “The 1990 incident was scary because it was premeditated and it had intent.
“It involved emotion way ahead of common sense, and that’s the sort of thing that could have ended up hurting or killing drivers, marshals and even spectators.
“That was the very scary end of that kind of tension between two drivers with similar opportunities.”
Decades have passed since those momentous Sundays at Suzuka when two of F1’s greatest stars played out a drama like Shakespearean actors.
“You have to be careful not to look back with rose-tinted glasses,” says Brundle, a respected F1 commentator and presenter with Sky Sports. “But I think the characters were allowed to be bigger back then.
“The drivers were more their own people and ruled the roost a little bit. Some of them were every bit as strong as the teams.
“There were great characters … and those big moments do stand out, there is no doubt about it.”
Suzuka, still fast, narrow and bumpy, continues to act as a stage to F1’s latest racing rivalries.
“The track is so rewarding,” says Brundle, with a discernible racer’s relish in his voice. “Every time you finish a lap at Suzuka you feel you’ve just done something special.”