30 October 1988
In the four weeks between the Spanish and Japanese races, there had been more developments for 1988. Honda had announced that they would not be supplying Lotus in 1989, to no-one’s great surprise. Andrea de Cesaris was moving on again, this time to the Scuderia Italia team who were to lose designer Sergio Rinland to a newly-reconstituted Brabham team.
In more short term news, Yannick Dalmas had come down with an ear infection, so his place was taken by Japanese F3000 series leader Aguri Suzuki. This was done at such short notice that Suzuki had not even sat in the car before Friday practice began…
29. Aguri Suzuki
A Tokyo native, Suzuki began racing karts at the age of 12 and at 18 in 1978 won the Japanese karting title and moved up to F3, while continuing in karting at the same time and taking the 1981 title as well. In 1983 he won the All Japan F3 title and was rewarded with a drive for the Nissan factory team in touring car racing, a title he won in 1986 – the year he also moved into F2 and entered Le Mans for the first time. In 1987 he was runner-up in Japanese F3000 and in 1988 was a leading the the series when he was offered Larrousse-Calmels seat.
Qualifying on this high-speed circuit saw the Honda-powered McLarens take their usual place at the head of the grid, with Senna heading Prost by 0.3s. This suited Senna, who would secure the championship with a win. It suited Honda too, as did Lotus who took fifth and sixth – their best qualifying result in some time with home hero Nakajima posting an identical time to triple champion Piquet despite having heard of his mother’s death just half an hour before Friday’s session. In third was Berger and alongside him was Ivan Capelli, another storming qualifying session to please Japanese sponsors Leyton House. Aguri Suzuki had done a sterling job in the car he’d never driven (pictured) to qualify 20th, just 0.4s off Alliot in the other Lola. The slow end of the grid had a similarly familiar look: both EuroBruns, Tarquini’s Coloni, Ghinzani’s Zakspeed and Johansson’s Ligier. Julian Bailey would thus make his sixth appearance on race day from 26th and last spot on the grid.
As the lights went green, disaster struck for Senna – he stalled. Fortunately for him, the start-finish straight at Suzuka is on a slight downward slope, so he was able to bump-start and get going, albeit in 14th place with it all to do. Prost, meanwhile stormed into the lead closely followed by Berger and Capelli, while Warwick and Mansell collided on row 4 and had to come in for repairs. By the end of lap 2, Senna was already up to eighth and still charging. In the next two laps he overtook Patrese, Boutsen, Nannini and Alboreto to go fourth. The following lap, Capelli overtook Berger to take a fabulous second place – the Austrian already having fuel consumption worries – and put up the fastest lap to boot.
On lap 6, Alboreto was accidentally nudged by Nannini and ended up spinning into the gravel on Spoon Curve, and now two exciting pursuits were developing: Capelli was chasing Prost for the lead while Senna was chasing Berger for third. On lap 11, as Piquet (who had been feeling ill all weekend) put his Lotus into the sand trap and trundled back round to the pits to gratefully retire, Senna found a way past Berger into third place. Still some way from the win he needed, but then three laps later it began to rain on some parts of the circuit.
As teams looked nervously at the sky, wondering whether to bring in their drivers for wet tyres, Aguri Suzuki had a spin at the chicane as Prost was approaching to lap him. Prost slowed and Capelli closed right up, then got past as Prost, having gearbox problems, missed a gear. The Frenchman turned up his boost and was back past by the end of the straight, but it was the first time a normally-aspirated car had led a Grand Prix since 1983. Capelli tried again to get past, but three laps later he was heartbreakingly out with an electrical fault, putting Prost back in the driving seat for the race he needed to win if he was to stand any chance of being champion.
But with a dodgy gearbox, a wet circuit in places and traffic holding him up, it wasn’t long before Senna was right up under his rear wing and on lap 27, as the pair came up to lap a trio of backmarkers, he dove through a gap that didn’t seem to be there and took the lead. Once past and secure in his lead, Senna began gesticulating to stop the race due to the hazards of the wet/dry conditions, but to no avail. Nonetheless, the second half of the race was not quite as exciting as the first as Senna and Prost held station to the end of the 51 laps.
Senna’s win secured him the title as well as the all-time record for wins in a season and the all-time record for points in a year, with Prost’s six points for second cancelled out by having to discard his next lowest finish – he had never finished lower than second all year. Despite scoring more points than Senna and still losing the championship, Prost seemed remarkably upbeat, saying “I’m not disappointed to have lost the championship. I knew it was going to be difficult. Today reflected the season and Ayrton deserved to win”. Both McLaren drivers had harsh words for the backmarkers who they felt had blocked them unduly.
Thierry Boutsen took third for the sixth time this season (another record) with Berger, Nannini and Patrese taking the rest of the points-paying places. Both local drivers finished, with Nakajima just outside the points in 7th and Suzuki three laps down in 16th but still running nonetheless.
|1||Ayrton Senna||87 (88)|
|1||Alain Prost||84 (96)|
|15||Andrea de Cesaris||3|
* Top 11 finishes only are counted. Total points scored in brackets.