With this years Japanese Grand Prix set to hold another enthralling round in the 2014 Formula One Drivers Championship, I look back in the history books to the great championship battles Suzuka has previously held.
You can actually go all the way back to the first Formula One event held at Suzuka in 1987. Here the history books were already being broken into as a World Title was decided.
The ’87 championship battle involved Nigel Mansell and his Williams-Honda team-mate Nelson Piquet. But for Mansell, a heavy crash in practice aggravated a back injury and forced him out of the race. And handed the championship to Piquet.
But it was the three subsequent years that really put Suzuka on the F1 map with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost’s legendary battles.
The ’88 championship was a nail-biting end to a dominate year for McLaren as their Honda engines proved far greater than the rest of the fields (much like Mercedes this year). But for Senna, he got off to a poor start when he fell back to 14th off the grid. Luckily for the Brazilian sensation, when the rain began to poor he began to stride and soon made his way whizzing through the field before catching up and overtaking his team-mate and championship rival Alain Prost for the lead of the race. Ayrton went on to keep the lead and with it, he won the ’88 Formula One championship.
Then in the following year the championship battle once again lasted until the Japanese Grand Prix when the same two drivers sought battle once more within McLaren for the F1 world championship.
That year all Prost had to do was take the chequered flag behind Senna and he would be the F1 world champion. But Alain refused to allow Ayrton to win and fought tooth & nail to stay ahead. After a heated fight throughout the race, Alain held the lead once both had pitted for tyres but knew his would wear faster and opted to preserve his tyres more than Ayrton. This incidentally allowed Senna to close in on Prost and the Brazilian attempted to gain the lead of the race into the Casino Chicane. Unfortunately for both, Alain stuck to his race plan and refused to allow Senna through and in that moment caused an avoidable collision and took them both out of the race.
Well that’s what Alain thought as he exited his car, but Senna frantically waved his arms to the marshals in order for them to free his McLaren and allow him to rejoin the race. Which the marshals were able to do but once they had freed Senna’s McLaren from the entanglement between him and Prost, the Brazilian laid in a dangerous position and was pushed back into the escape road.
After managing to restart his engine following the incident, Senna speed away down the escape road and into the pits for a new front wing. The original had been damaged in the earlier contact and later fell off when Senna began to move.
Whilst he sat dormant in the pits with his McLaren engineers frantically mending his broken car, Nannini was able to gain the lead of the race. But with Senna knowing he needed the win, Nannini would only be able to stay in front for a short time. In fact it was just two laps before Senna had found his way in front.
Ayrton went on to take the chequered flag in first place and win the race, but there would be a delay to the podium celebrations. A delay caused by the FIA investigating Senna with the possibility and then the outcome of his disqualification from the race.
In the FIA investigation, a meeting between Senna, Alain Prost, the McLaren management and FIA officials including the FIA and FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre was held and in this the decision to disqualify Senna was made.
At the time, many believed he was about to be disqualified for the marshals aid when he was stuck on track. But the FIA investigation found him guilty of cutting the final chicane following the incident. This disqualification, and Prost already leading the championship before the race, saw Alain crowned the 1989 Formula One drivers champion.
Now after two years with Prost and Senna taking the championship battle between the two all the way down to the Japanese Grand Prix, you would be mad to think it would be the same case in 1990, right?
Well think again as in 1990, the F1 drivers championship was once again going down to the wire between Senna and Prost. Except this time, Senna was the driver going into the race with the points lead over Prost.
But not only was the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix a title deciding race between Prost and Senna, it was also steeped in controversy. Even before a wheel had been turned in anger.
During the pre-race drivers’ briefing for the 1990 race, all the drivers were discussing what was to be done if a car was in a dangerous position at the final chicane. The spot where Senna and Prost collided the previously year and where Senna then received help from the Marshals. Disgusted with the events of the meeting, Senna in fact stormed out in anger but his anger at the officials would not stop there as the grid slot for pole position was on the dirty side of the grid meaning, after qualifying on pole, he would be handicapped off the line to his championship rival in Prost.
Then as the race began, Prost got the expected better start and swiftly moved ahead of Senna for the lead. But Senna was not going to allow Prost to have it that easily and made a late, and stupid, move down the inside of Alain’s Ferrari resulting in both drivers crashing out of the race. This also meant Alain would be unable to overtake Senna’s points and Ayrton won his second Formula One Drivers Championship.
After five years of the championship being decided at Suzuka, three of which between Prost and Senna, the 1991 Japanese GP again saw the title decided. But following the previous year, the heat still remained.
The race itself was a title decider between Senna and Mansell but came to a swift end when Mansell ran off on the 10th lap at turn one, handing Senna another world championship. Unfortunately, it was in the post-race press conference when the previous years heat rose and Senna admitted to purposely crashing into Prost in 1990 to prove a point to the FIA president Balestre.
These were the least of Alain Prost’s concerns however as he went on to be fired by Ferrari after criticising the car for the last time.
Over the next ten years, Suzuka continued to keep the history book pages turning with more & more championships decided and more & more epic racing unfolding in Japan.
However these were unlike the controversial battles between Prost and Senna, instead these highlighted great racing. Especially the battle between Schumacher and Hill in 1994 and Alesi’s drive in 1995 despite everything going against him that day.
So there we have a few of the best examples of the joys and triumphs the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka has held for us in the past. But as for this Sunday’s race, hopefully we will have a great race without any controversy as the 2014 Formula One season claws to an end.