21 October 1990
In the three weeks since the Spanish Grand Prix, the F1 community had again been shocked by a terrible accident – this time one not racing-related. A week after the race, Sandro Nannini had been involved in a helicopter accident at his vineyard near Siena, which had severed his right forearm. Although the arm was successfully reattached thanks to microsurgery, it was clear that it would be some time before he was able to step back into a racing car.
With the close of the European season, both the Life and EuroBrun teams – to no-one’s great surprise – withdrew from the championship rather than make the expensive and pointless long-haul trips to Japan and Australia. This meant that Pre-Qualifying was cancelled – good news for the AGS, Coloni and Osella teams, less so for the hardworking employees made redundant. One at least fell on his feet – Roberto Moreno was a childhood friend of Nelson Piquet, and with Benetton suddenly in need of a driver, he got the seat and his big break. Lotus filled their empty seat with reserve driver Johnny Herbert.
12. Johnny Herbert
The young British driver had been hotly-tipped for stardom during his F3000 days, but may feel he’d rushed into F1 with Benetton at the start of 1989 following his horror crash and hadn’t done himself justice. Since then he had been competing in Japanese F3000 to limited success, but would be looking forward to a second chance in F1.
Elsewhere, Brabham confirmed that they would be using Yamaha engines for 1991 and that Martin Brundle would be rejoining the team, while Derek Warwick would be leaving F1 to drive for Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguar sportscar team and Minardi replaced Paolo Barilla with Ferrari test-driver Gianni Morbidelli, who had substituted for Pirro at Dallara earlier in the year. Brabham were just one of several Japanese-owned teams hoping to impress the money men here at Suzuka: Leyton House, Arrows (which would become Footwork in 1991) and Larrousse Lola. And of course there was Honda; the owners of the circuit had only seen their own engines win once in the three races since its reintroduction in 1987. Last year had of course seen Senna and Prost’s controversial title-deciding collision and Nannini’s maiden win and once again the race could decide the title.
Qualifying saw Senna and Prost first and second with their teammates Mansell and Berger behind. Boutsen and Piquet were on row 3, Alesi and Patrese on row 4 and Roberto Moreno qualified a fine ninth after his last-minute switch to Benetton. Aguri Suzuki lined up tenth in his Larrousse to complete the top ten. The four cars excused pre-qualifying – Gachot, Dalmas, Tarquini and Grouillard – were the four non-qualifiers. However for the third race in a row there would be just 25 starters – Jean Alesi withdrew after wrenching his neck in a crash on Saturday.
As he had done successfully in the past, Senna asked the stewards to change the pole position from the right side to the left – on the racing line and therefore with better traction from the rubber laid down during qualifying. His request was originally approved by the course stewards but FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre intervened to reverse the decision, to Senna’s outrage. The Brazilian had happily started from a right-hand pole in 1988 and 1989, so there were some suggestions of mind-games being played, but he certainly seemed furious about it and said that if Prost ended up getting the advantage into the first corner, he’d feel justified in going for the position regardless of the consequences.
And that’s exactly what happened. In a virtual replay of their 1989 crash, Senna and Prost went into the first corner together from the start, made contact and both came to a stop in the gravel trap – this time there was no push-start for Senna but it didn’t matter: he was the 1990 World Champion before a lap had been run.
Almost unnoticed as hysterical commentators the world over replayed the collision, Berger swept into the lead with Mansell chasing, followed by the two Benettons of Piquet and Moreno who had made a cracking start. Berger led over the line, but coming into the first corner to begin lap 2, he slid on the gravel from the Senna/Prost incident and spun out, leaving Mansell leading Piquet and Moreno, the three tucked up closely together and followed closely by Boutsen, Patrese and Warwick. With Prost, Senna and Berger all out, things looked good for Mansell to take a second win if his car would go the distance.
Knowing that the Benetton team had often used a non-stop strategy, Mansell got the hammer down and began to try and pull out a lead over the Benettons ready for his own stop, For lap after lap, he gradually pulled out while the order behind him remained stable; Boutsen (Ligier-bound for 1991) pitted on lap 20 allowing Herbert up into the top six and then on lap 27, with a lead of eight seconds, Mansell came in. The Ferrari mechanics had a great stop and changed the tyres in a sniff under 6 seconds and as the rear wheels hit the ground Mansell was already accelerating away – unfortunately, in the process his universal joint broke and he trailed to a stop, beating his steering wheel in frustration, before he reached the end of the pit lane. The Constructors’ Championship was thus also decided in just as unsatisfying a manner as the Drivers’.
So Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno were left running in formation leading the race with just under half-distance to go. The Benetton team had come to Japan with the mission of securing third place in the Constructors’ race over Williams and so far Boutsen and Patrese were not really giving them any trouble at all. The Italian was currently running third, seven seconds behind Moreno, and yet to stop, while a non-stopping Aguri Suzuki in the Lola-Larrousse was looking very tidy on a circuit he knew well and indeed set the fastest lap on lap 27. Behind him was Boutsen, then Warwick, Nakajima and Herbert in a Lotus-Tyrrell-Lotus sandwich. At least until Herbert’s engine packed up on lap 31. Warwick was having gearbox trouble, too, and lost sixth place to Nakajima (to the delight of the crowd) not long before retiring himself on lap 38.
Patrese soon had to stop for tyres too, emerging behind Boutsen, but on fresh rubber he quickly regained fourth but could make no impression on Aguri Suzuki and after trading fastest laps for a while they both settled back to see out the race.
And that was how it ended, after a Grand Prix that would be remembered for some time for its first-lap incident but not for much that came after, Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno came home for a 1-2 win; Benetton’s best-ever performance, a fine reward for Roberto Moreno’s dogged determination over years of plugging away in dreadful cars and a breath of fresh air after a year of McLaren-Ferrari domination. As he climbed out of his car, Moreno was in tears of joy as he embraced Piquet. In third, to the wild delight of the crowd, was Aguri Suzuki: the first Japanese driver – indeed, the first Asian of any description – to stand on a Formula One podium. Patrese and Boutsen were fourth and fifth and Nakajima sixth to make a double points finish for Japan. Not a bad day for Brazil either, with Senna crowned champion and a 1-2 finish in the race.
That said, not everyone in Japan was happy: of the McLaren-Honda, Leyton House, Footwork Arrows and Brabham teams, only Alex Caffi had finished, in 9th out of 10, for a Japanese owned- or supplied team.
The championship was over, and in an unsatisfying and controversial manner just as in 1989, most of the driver merry-go-round for 1991 was complete, and there was still one race to run – luckily, then, everyone loved an end-of-term jaunt to Adelaide and with the pressure off everyone could relax and enjoy themselves. Hopefully.
* Top 11 finishes only are counted.