22 October 1989
From indifferent Spain with its empty grandstands to F1-mad Japan, and a packed Suzuka. Ayrton Senna was a megastar in Japan, not least because behind him both metaphorically and literally was the might of Honda, who had invited some 10,000 guests to witness another triumphant race for their engines and the possible crowning of another Honda World Champion. There were other interests for Japan too of course; drivers Satoru Nakajima and Aguri Suzuki (though the latter had not prequalified all season and was unlikely to give the fans much to cheer about here) and the Leyton House-sponsored March team. Moreover, as a sign of more Japanese involvement to come, the Larrousse Lola team announced that 50% of their shares had been bought by the ESPO corporation and that Aguri Suzuki would drive for them in 1990 alongside Eric Bernard, while Arrows had sold a majority shareholding to the Footwork logistics concern of Wataru Ohashi. Meanwhile, Pierluigi Martini was still suffering from sore ribs after bumping over the kerbs in Portugal and – with nothing left to prove – yielded his place to fellow Italian Paolo Barilla.
23. Paolo Barilla
Heir to the vast Barilla pasta empire, young Paolo started racing karts at the age of 10 and quickly showed talent, winning the 100cc Italian title the following year. He moved through Formula Fiat Abarth into Formula 3 in 1981, finishing third in the Italian series and joining the Minardi squad in Formula 2 the same year. He had little success in F2, but by this stage was concentrating mostly on sportscar racing, winning Le Mans in 1985 alongside Klaus Ludwig and Louis Krages. Returning to open-wheel racing in 1986, he entered Formula 3000, but again found little success with just a 4th place at Brands Hatch in 1988 to show for his efforts. By 1989 he was driving in Japanese F3000 and was offered a test by his old employer Giancarlo Minardi, doing enough to convince him to give him an F1 drive in Japan.
What everyone was interested in though was the contest between the two McLaren drivers for the title. Senna had to win in Suzuka – any other result would give Prost the title. Le Professeur served notice before the race to Ron Dennis that while previously he, for the good of the team, had occasionally let Senna through rather than risk a collision, today he was playing for keeps.
Pre-qualifying saw a welcome surprise as the talented Bernd Schneider hauled his Zakspeed into qualifying proper for the first time since Brazil. He was joined by both Larrousses and Nicola Larini’s Osella. The Onyx team were a surprise absence – Johansson suffering from fuel-pump problems and Lehto having trouble mastering the tricky course he had never driven. Qualifying proper was dominated by Senna, who parked on pole a whopping 1.73s ahead of Prost in second. The Ferraris took up the second row with Berger edging Mansell out by 0.2s. Williams had spent the three weeks between races working intensively on the FW13 and it seemed to have borne fruit – Patrese was fifth and Boutsen 7th, and between them was Nannini, using the latest update of the Ford HB engine. Alliot, having come through PQ, was a fine 8th with Brundle 9th and Larini an excellent 10th ahead of triple champion Piquet. Schneider managed to put his Zakspeed-Yamaha 21st. The Arrows pairing of Warwick and Cheever were a dispirited 24th and 25th – both men driving their penultimate race for the team – and Jonathan Palmer brought up the rear (team-mate Alesi was 18th). Non-qualifiers were Alboreto, Arnoux, and both Rials – Gregor Foitek had walked out of the team in disgust after his shunt in Spain and been replaced by Bertrand Gachot, who didn’t fare much better.
Before the race began, Prost made a risky decision: he would run as little downforce as possible, relying on his skill to keep the car on the circuit around the corners in exchange for all-important straight-line speed. With just one real overtaking spot – the chicane at turn 17 coming onto the pit straight, Prost could force Senna to try a banzai overtaking move if he wanted to get past. It seemed to have worked as the lights went green as Prost streaked into the lead, but Senna was also slow off the line and nearly lost second place to a fast-starting Berger. Mansell had had a dreadful getaway and dropped behind Nannini and Patrese. Prost was driving like a man possessed – though you’d never know it to look at him, with his famously smooth driving style. By the end of the first lap he was already 2.3s ahead. By the end of lap 2 it was 3.2s and already there were already three cars at the side of the road; both Minardis were out on the first lap – Barilla from 19th with a gearbox full of neutrals and Sala after colliding with Nakajima at the start – and Bernd Schneider’s race ended with a broken driveshaft on lap 2.
As the field broke up into a series of battles between two or three cars and Mansell managed to get back past Patrese and set off after Nannini, the world’s attention was still fixed on Senna and Prost, sure that this was the decisive battle of the season being played out. On lap 21 of 53, Prost peeled calmly in for tyres. He was stationary for 7.6 seconds, losing the lead to Senna and returning to the track in second place. Senna stayed out in front for another two laps before coming in himself, with a slightly longer stop putting him back in second place, just under 5 seconds behind Prost and with 29 laps to go. Driving like a demon, Senna carved through traffic to close on his hated team-mate, repeatedly setting fastest lap and breaking the lap record on lap 37 to be right on Prost’s gearbox by lap 40. Berger by this stage had disappeared with gearbox problems and Mansell would only last a couple more laps before his engine gave out.
Prost, with his low-downforce settings, was faster in the straights, but Senna had the edge in the corners and for lap after lap they drew apart and back together, Senna weaving this way and that looking for a way past. On lap 46, Senna was able to stay with Prost through Spoon Curve and the high-speed 130R. Sensing a gap, he pulled out going into the chicane, Prost turned in and they collided, wheels locked, and came to a halt in the chicane escape road. Marshals rushed onto the track to clear the hazard as Prost calmly stepped out of his car, knowing he was World Champion for the third time. Or was he? Because Senna was gesticulating frantically to the marshals who pushed his car forward and he was able to bump-start the engine and get going again.
The McLaren needed repairs though, most notably a deranged nose-cone, and he had just missed the pit entrance so had to go all the way round carefully before stopping, and returned to the track five seconds behind new leader Sandro Nannini. With a red mist descending he flung his car around the track, catching Nannini just two laps later and muscling past shortly afterwards at the chicane to retake the lead. Behind Nannini were Patrese and Boutsen, who had been waging their own private battle all race, with Piquet and Brundle making up the top six, and that was where they finished. Senna had got the win he needed to take the championship to the last round in Australia. But no – the stewards of the course announced that car 1 had been disqualified for missing the chicane on lap 46. So Prost was champion? Well, maybe, because Ron Dennis immediately appealed the decision, “Not because we want to deny Prost his championship, but because we are in the business of winning races”. Clearly, this would rumble on.
One person who wasn’t complaining was Sandro Nannini, for whom the disqualification announcement had come early enough that he could take to the podium to celebrate his maiden win with a visibly delighted Patrese and fellow 1989 first-time winner Boutsen. Nelson Piquet was thus promoted to fourth, Brundle to fifth and Derek Warwick to sixth – the Arrows driver after an inspired drive from 24th on the grid, having done the same as Prost and switched to a minimum downforce setup before the race.
It would be a long and politics-filled fortnight before the Australian Grand Prix, and it appeared that the championship would be settled in courtrooms and meetings instead of on the track.
|1||Alain Prost||76 (81)|
|=||Andrea de Cesaris||4|
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.