1 November 1987
Japan had not hosted a Grand Prix sine 1977, won by James Hunt at the Fuji Speedway where he had secured his title the previous year. Now, with the ascendancy of Honda engines in the Williams and Lotus cars – and for next year in McLaren with Prost and Senna at the wheel – the time was right to come back. Rather than the grey, unpopular Fuji, however, the race would be held at Honda’s own track; the Suzuka circuit in the rural southwest of Japan’s main island of Honshu. Its unusual figure-8 configuration would add something new to the championship, and the facilities were top-notch. Japan was mad for motorsport and with the draw of Honda and Nakajima, so many people wanted race tickets there had to be a lottery to allocate them!
Soichiro Honda was looking forward to a triumphant race for his firm, culminating in the crowning of one of his drivers as World Champion. Looking to crash Honda’s party would be Alboreto and Berger, whose Ferraris had been improving apace, and Fabi and Boutsen could be dark horses in the Benettons as well with sufficient mechanical reliablity. There was one change to the entry from Mexico: Pascal Fabre was replaced at AGS by Brazilian Roberto Moreno.
14. Roberto Moreno
Roberto Moreno had last been seen in Formula One at the 1982 Dutch Grand Prix, where as Lotus test driver he substituted for an injured Mansell but failed to qualify the dire car. His stock fell somewhat in the interim but the ever-cheerful Moreno tried his hand at Formula 2, Formula 3000 and IndyCar, albeit without much success – though he did win the Australian Grand Prix in 1981, 83 and 84 in the years before it became a Championship race. His determination was finally given some reward in the shape of a call-up by the struggling AGS team. Could he make the most of this second chance?
Friday morning and the drivers headed out to the track for the first-ever F1 qualifying session at Suzuka, but proceedings were brought to a halt as the red flags went out midway through the session. Nigel Mansell had gone off at the S-Curves and smacked the tyre wall hard while trying to put in a fast lap to beat Piquet’s provisional pole time.The Brit was conscious and had no broken bones, but was complaining of pain in his back and legs and Professor Sid Watkins made the tough but correct call, ruling him out of the race. And just like that, Nelson Piquet was World Champion for the third time.
Qualifying went on, though, and it didn’t go entirely to script. Gerhard Berger on pole in the Ferrari. Prost second in the McLaren-TAG. Thierry Boutsen third in the Benetton-Ford. Michele Alboreto fourth in the other Ferrari. Finally, Nelson Piquet the first Honda runner in fifth. Fabi was sixth, then Senna seventh in the Lotus-Honda. Local hero Satoru Nakajima was 11th – his best qualifying performance yet, thanks to being the only man who already knew the circuit – and Roberto Moreno snuck onto the grid in last place courtesy of Mansell’s absence.
The starter held the grid for what seemed like an age before finally releasing them. Alboreto’s clutch slipped and he stayed put, but everyone else got away, with Berger roaring away into the lead chased by Prost and Boutsen, while a fracas at the back caused by everyone avoiding Alboreto’s stationary Ferrari chucked Alliot into the pit wall. Berger started to build a cushion, aided by Prost who picked up a puncture and had to tour back to the pits for a change of tyres.Lap 3 saw Berger now six seconds ahead of Boutsen who was likewise six seconds ahead of a 4-way scrap for third between Senna, Piquet, Fabi and Johansson. Further back, Alboreto had got moving and was charging up the field; it looked like it would be a good day for Ferrari if they managed to keep running. Boutsen, on the other hand, was experiencing clutch and fuel consumption problems and was slowly dropping back into the clutches of Senna & co, who passed him in short order. Benetton’s woes continued on lap 17 as Fabi toured in with engine problems.
Berger now led Senna and Piquet by 12 seconds as Johansson peeled in from fourth for the first of the scheduled tyre stops on lap 21, while Prost was still flying up the order, setting a lap record at 1:47.98 seconds. The Swede rejoined sixth behind Alboreto, who had monstered his way up into the points already. Berger came in from the lead on lap 25, putting Senna out front, but he and Piquet both pitted the next lap and Berger was ahead again, with Johansson now second and the battling Brazilians scrapping over third. Berger broke Prost’s lap record on lap 34, just as Roberto Moreno’s AGS debut came to an end with electrical problems.
Piquet had been following Senna so closely for so long, it transpired, that rubber debris from Senna’s tyres had been accumulating in his radiators, and on lap 46 his engine finally gave up the ghost. He guided the smoking Williams back into the pits and climbed out – disappointment for Honda but Piquet didn’t mind too much, already secure in the title. By that time, there were only five laps to go and nothing much changed; Gerhard Berger cruised to his second career win to break Ferrari’s 38-race losing streak. Senna spared Honda’s blushes by finishing second to take their 60th podium finish and Stefan Johansson (who, lest we forget, had driven the Spirit-Honda with which they had made their comeback) finished third. Alboreto took a fine fourth after his spirited comeback drive, with Boutsen a disappointed fifth and Nakajima a delighted sixth, his third points finish of the year. Alain Prost was seventh after another remarkable comeback drive, and in eighth place was Jonathan Palmer, who thereby clinched the Jim Clark trophy from his team-mate Philippe Streiff.
And so all four championships were now decided: Piquet and Williams in the main stakes and Palmer and Tyrrell in the 3.5l category. Australia would be a “dead rubber”, but with drivers putting themselves in the shop window for 1988, teams looking to score or secure sponsorship, tyre and engine deals, and a general end-of-term party feel, there was still much to look forward to.
|14||Andrea de Cesaris||4|
* Only best 11 scores counted
|Jim Clark Cup|
|Colin Chapman Trophy|