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MARGIT MOTTA and I witnessed one of the most dramatic—and controversial—moments of Formula 1 racing at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix. The drama was a high point of the intense rivalry between F1 drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Our vantage point, one of the best in F1, was a grassy hillock of the Suzuka Circuit.
Suzuka International Racing Course is part of a Motopia amusement park complex, located 240 miles southwest of Tokyo, 40 miles southwest of Nagoya. It was designed as a Honda test track in 1962 by race track specialist John Hugenholtz (who also laid out Belgium’s Zolder track and the Motodrom section of Germany’s Hockenheim circuit). With only a few exceptions held at the Fuji Circuit, Suzuka has been the home for the Japanese Grand Prix since 1962.
Bill Motta, R&T’s Art Director at the time, his wife Margit and I attended the 1989 event. (I am blessed with a mid-October birthday often coinciding with the Tokyo Motor Show and Japanese Grand Prix.) Bill’s role as photographer had him roaming the circuit, but I knew to bring Margit to my favorite spot from which to do a lap chart: a grassy hillock that overlooks simultaneously the Dunlop Curve and Casio Chicane.
The hillcock gives a view into F1 cockpits as drivers negotiate the Dunlop Curve at 150 mph. Turn around—and even closer—is the 35-mph Casio Chicane leading into the last corner.
The 1989 Japanese Grand Prix was the penultimate one of the season, with only it and Australia left in deciding the championship. Prost and his McLaren-Honda had a 16-point lead over Ayrton Senna, his McLaren-Honda teammate—though the term “mate” was decidedly not the case. The two were in the midst of a rivalry that makes today’s team squabbles seem like mild disagreements at the Kiwanis.
Senna was on pole, but Prost got away much better and built up a lead of almost 6 seconds by mid-race. Senna lost another 2 sec. in a long pit stop, but then he started to reel Prost in. My lap chart got more scribbly as the gap diminished and the excitement rose. I ignored my camera.
In fact, the photos that follow aren’t from real time; they were shot afterward when a paddock bigscreen ran its replay.
Senna caught Prost on lap 40 of 53. They ran in this order until lap 47 when Senna made his move—this close to our grassy hillock! Prost closed the door—as he had threatened he would—and the two cars collided.
Yellow flags were flourished as corner workers untangled the two cars. Prost unbuckled and got out, but Senna motioned to the workers to push his car down the escape road.
Senna bump-started his McLaren on the escape road, reentered the circuit, made another lap to gain pit access, pitted to replace the car’s nose cone and then took off after Alessandro Nannini’s Benetton-Ford which had inherited the lead.
Two laps later, Senna caught and passed Nannini—again, directly in front of our grassy hillock! Three laps more and Senna took the checker.
But it wasn’t over until FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre—hardly a fan of Aryton Senna—had his say. In a controversial decision, Senna was disqualified for missing the chicane after the collision. Nannini was awarded the win. Senna’s mathematical chances for the 1989 drivers’ championship evaporated; his rival Prost clinched it.
It still wasn’t over. Senna and McLaren appealed the ruling. At an FIA hearing in Paris later the same week, not only was the disqualification upheld, but Senna was given a six-month driving ban (suspended) and a $100,000 fine (which was not).
By the way, that’s Nannini’s car in front of the paddock bigscreen. This time, the car is in focus, even with my happy-snap. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013