Japanese GP history 1976-1990 (Video)

Posted on | Author Journeyer

Senna and Honda are synonymous with Suzuka
Senna and Honda are synonymous with Suzuka

The F1 history class is back so sit up straight and pay attention – here’s Professor Journeyer with the first instalment of a three-part video guide to the Japanese Grand Prix.

The Japanese Grand Prix can be best described in two words: championship showdown. Sure, some circuits may be more challenging, some may have better racing, but nothing rivals the tension of a title duel. This is surely helped by the fact that the race is always held towards the end of the season, but take nothing away from the fact that this Grand Prix produces drama like no other.

1976 Japanese Grand Prix

Championship Showdown? YES
Contenders: Niki Lauda (Ferrari), James Hunt (McLaren)

The first Japanese Grand Prix was held at Fuji – not the current version, but the original iteration, which was a very fast track that produced short laptimes. But the weather made sure that they wouldn’t go so quick. Torrential rain meant that visibility was nil.

It became so bad that Niki Lauda – who had been opposed to starting the race – withdrew only after two laps, believing that his life was worth more than a title. Enter James Hunt, who finished third (to race winner Mario Andretti) in spite of the best efforts of the McLaren pitboard, said he was fourth. Hunt was ecstatic, and he certainly looked ready to challenge Lauda even more in future.

Read more about the 1976 Japanese Grand Prix

1977 Japanese Grand Prix

Championship Showdown? NO

One year after that Lauda-Hunt showdown, Lauda had quit Ferrari for Brabham having sealed the title earlier in the year, while Hunt was stuck with an uncompetitive car.

Lauda was replaced by Gilles Villeneuve, but the young Canadian had an ominous start to his Ferrari career when a collision with Ronnie Peterson’s Tyrrell killed a marshal and a photographer who were standing in a prohibited part of the racetrack.

To make things worse, both eventual winner Hunt and second placed Carlos Reutemann (Ferrari) skipped the podium ceremonies. It left Patrick Depailler alone on the podium with the Japanese dignitaries, who weren’t too pleased.

After that, F1 left Japan and didn’t return to Fuji for another 30 years.

Read more about the 1977 Japanese Grand Prix

1987 Japanese Grand Prix

Championship Showdown? YES
Contenders: Nelson Piquet (Williams), Nigel Mansell (Williams)

F1 returned to Japan exactly a decade later. But this time, they raced at Suzuka, a unique figure-of-eight track designed by John Hugenholtz. The new circuit looked exciting and seemed to be a worthy battleground for the title contenders.

Unfortunately, the championship was decided earlier than expected – during Friday qualifying. Nigel Mansell made a mistake at one of the Esses in the first part of the lap while going for pole. He ended up having a huge crash, which resulted in a spinal concussion. He was out for the season – and out of the championship.

Not that Nelson Piquet made much of an impact. The new world champion only qualified fifth and had a lackluster race, retiring five laps from home with a blown engine. Enter Gerhard Berger, who had a lights-to-flag win, the second of his career and his first for Ferrari.

1988 Japanese Grand Prix

Championship Showdown? YES
Contenders: Ayrton Senna (McLaren), Alain Prost (McLaren)

One year after Piquet’s title, both 1987 contenders were stuck with uncompetitive drives – Piquet in the Lotus, Mansell in the Judd-powered Williams. But then again, the only real competitive drives were at McLaren – Senna and Prost’s grip on the championship was firm and unopposed.

Prost needed to win to keep the championship alive, and it started off well for him: he led into Turn 1, while teammate Senna stalled. He coaxed his car into life again on the downward-sloped straight, but was now down in 14th. No matter: on a wet/dry track, the Brazilian only needed 27 laps – just over half the race – to haul his way back up to the front and pass Prost for the lead.

Senna’s pace was peerless, and he went on to win the race and the championship.

The video is in two parts.

Part 1:

Part 2:

1989 Japanese Grand Prix

Championship Showdown? YES
Contenders: Ayrton Senna (McLaren), Alain Prost (McLaren)

Sure, McLaren won fewer races that year than in 1988, but that’s just like saying the perfect team became merely an excellent team. There was still no other team who could touch their pace, so once again, it was Senna and Prost duelling for the title.

However, this time it was Senna who needed to win to keep the championship alive. Prost had other ideas, and turned in on Senna while the Brazilian was trying to make a pass at the Casio Triangle. Prost got out of his car but Senna managed to restart. He rejoined the track via the escape road, pitted for a new nose, and re-took the lead from Allesandro Nannini to win.

But FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre intervened. He disqualified Senna for using the escape road to rejoin the circuit. Balestre effectively handed the title on a plate to fellow Frenchman Prost. Senna was livid.

The video is in two parts.

Part 1:

Part 2:

1990 Japanese Grand Prix

Championship Showdown? YES
Contenders: Ayrton Senna (McLaren), Alain Prost (Ferrari)

The final year of the Senna-Prost trilogy at Suzuka. After 1989’s shocking ending, Senna decided to take it a step further. With pole position being set by Balestre’s FISA on the dirty side of the track, Prost outdragged Senna at the start.

Prost was ahead by half a car-length at turn one, and looked set to take the win and keep Ferrari’s title aspirations alive. But Senna, still livid from 1989, wouldn’t let Prost get away. Senna tried to outbrake Prost at turn one, and Prost shut the door. Senna didn’t budge, and both cars flew off the track. Both cars were out of the race, but Prost was also out of the championship.

Amid the chaos, Nelson Piquet led home a Benetton one-two with protege Roberto Moreno right behind him. And to the delight of the Japanese crowd, Aguri Suzuki finished third in the Larousse – the first time a Japanese driver had finished on the podium.

1991 Japanese Grand Prix

Championship Showdown? YES
Contenders: Ayrton Senna (McLaren), Nigel Mansell (Williams)

Another year, another title showdown. But for once, Senna had a different foe: Nigel Mansell in the resurgent Williams. Mansell wasn’t quite on the McLaren’s pace in the race and while trying to keep up with Senna and his team mate Gerhard Berger, Mansell spun off at turn one. There was no coming back for him – in the race and the championship.

Senna and Berger then played like gentlemen at the front. First, Berger let Senna through so that the Brazilian could seal the title with a win. But then Senna waved Berger by on the last lap to win. Senna, Honda, and McLaren were on top of the world, and Senna let the world feel that, heavily criticising the outgoing FISA president Balestre, who was set to be replaced by Max Mosley.

By then, F1 was big in Japan – and looked set to stay. But would future races turn out to be as good as these? Find out as we continue looking back at the 1990s tomorrow.

This is a guest article by Journeyer. If you want to write a guest article for F1 Fanatic you can find all the information you need here.