20 years since Senna took out Prost at Suzuka

1990 Japanese Grand Prix flashback

One of the most notorious moments in F1 history happened 20 years ago today.

Ayrton Senna clinched the 1990 world championship in a deeply controversial Japanese Grand Prix. He rammed into rival Alain Prost at the first corner at Suzuka, taking both of them out of the race.

For the third year in a row the world championship was between two men: Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. And for the third year in a row the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka decided the outcome of their personal battle.

Senna claimed the 51st pole position of his career, a feat that was central to the weekend’s controversy:

Pole position at Suzuka had been on the right-hand side of the track – off the racing line – for each of the three previous F1 races at the track.

Senna had started there in 1988, bogged down badly, fallen to 14th, yet recovered to win the race and the drivers’ title.

He started there again in 1989 and as he struggled for grip at the start Prost charged into the lead from second place. Senna caught and tried to pass his rival at the chicane later in the race, but Prost swerved into the side of Senna’s car, taking both out, denying Senna the championship.

Before qualifying for the 1990 race had even begun, Senna lobbied track officials for pole position to be moved to the left and onto the racing line. He believed he’d got their consent – but after claiming pole position he was told he would start from the right-hand side of the track once again.

Senna saw the hand of FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre in the decision. The same person he blamed for his disqualification from the 1989 race, after he had disentangled his car from Prost’s and driven through the run-off at the chicane to re-join the track.

In the drivers’ briefing before the 1990 race the drivers were told they would not be disqualified for using the run-off at the chicane, as Senna had 12 months previously. He stormed out of the room:

1990 Japanese Grand Prix grid

Row 1 1. Ayrton Senna 1’36.996
McLaren-Honda
2. Alain Prost 1’37.228
Ferrari
Row 2 3. Nigel Mansell 1’37.719
Ferrari
4. Gerhard Berger 1’38.118
McLaren-Honda
Row 3 5. Thierry Boutsen 1’39.324
Williams-Renault
6. Nelson Piquet 1’40.049
Benetton-Ford
Row 4 7. Riccardo Patrese 1’40.355
Williams-Renault
8. Roberto Moreno 1’40.579
Benetton-Ford
Row 5 9. Aguri Suzuki 1’40.888
Lola-Lamborghini
10. Pierluigi Martini 1’40.899
Minardi-Ford
Row 6 11. Derek Warwick 1’41.024
Lotus-Lamborghini
12. Ivan Capelli 1’41.033
Leyton House-Judd
Row 7 13. Satoru Nakajima 1’41.078
Tyrrell-Ford
14. Johnny Herbert 1’41.588
Lotus-Lamborghini
Row 8 15. Mauricio Gugelmin 1’41.698
Leyton House-Judd
16. ??ric Bernard 1’41.709
Lola-Lamborghini
Row 9 17. Nicola Larini 1’42.339
Ligier-Ford
18. Emanuele Pirro 1’42.361
Dallara-Ford
Row 10 19. Gianni Morbidelli 1’42.364
Minardi-Ford
20. Philippe Alliot 1’42.593
Ligier-Ford
Row 11 21. Stefano Modena 1’42.617
Brabham-Judd
22. David Brabham 1’43.156
Brabham-Judd
Row 12 23. Alex Caffi 1’43.270
Arrows-Ford
24. Michele Alboreto 1’43.304
Arrows-Ford
Row 13 25. Andrea de Cesaris 1’43.601
Dallara-Ford

Jean Alesi, Tyrrell-Ford, qualified seventh but withdrew from the race weekend due to injuries sustained in an accident during practice.

Did not qualify

14. Olivier Grouillard, Osella-Ford – 1’43.782
17. Gabriele Tarquini, AGS-Ford – 1’44.281
18. Yannick Dalmas, AGS-Ford – 1’44.410
31. Bertrand Gachot, Coloni-Ford – 1’45.393

Over in nine seconds

As the race started Prost instantly pulled ahead of Senna and into the lead. Senna briefly tucked in behind his rival.

Turn one came up on them quickly. Prost moved towards the middle of the track, then feinted back to the left as Senna lined himself up for a look at the inside.

Prost lifted the throttle and turned into the corner. Senna slammed into his right-rear wheel at a speed of no less than 130mph, probably much higher.

The two wrecked cars hurtled into the gravel trap where they were briefly obscured by a cloud of grit. As the dust settled two figures climbed from their cars and made their way back to the pits separately.

Senna asked: “They’re not stopping the race, are they?” and was told they weren’t. With that, he was the 1990 world champion.

A race to forget

As lap two started the other McLaren of Gerhard Berger joined Senna’s in the gravel trap at turn one. Berger, who had inherited the lead, slid sideways off the track and out of the race.

That promoted Nigel Mansell into the lead. He ran around at the head of the field unchallenged for the first half of the race, gradually leaving Nelson Piquet’s Benetton behind.

The only prospect of a competition for the lead arose from the fact that Mansell would have to change tyres and Piquet, who had started on a harder compound, wouldn’t (there was no requirement to use two compounds of tyre during a race then).

But Mansell never made it out of the pits after coming in on lap 27. Once again, the Ferrari’s semi-automatic transmission let him down.

His ninth retirement from 15 starts ended Ferrari’s hopes of winning the constructors’ championship. For the third consecutive season the trophy went to McLaren.

Piquet now held an unchallenged lead. Alesi, who had been due to start behind the Benetton driver, was left to wonder what might have been.

Behind Piquet was his new team mate Roberto Moreno, who had been drafted into Benetton after Alessandro Nannini lost his arm in a helicopter accident.

Moreno had spent the year up to that point campaigning the hopeless EuroBrun, qualifying just twice in 14 attempts, and admitted it had been quite an adjustment to get used to the higher levels of downforce the B190 offered.

The Brazilian driver wept after taking the chequered flag behind his compatriot. Piquet’s victory ended his own three-year win drought and headed Benetton’s first one-two.

The early demise of the two Honda-powered cars did not end local interest in the race. Aguri Suzuki took the final podium place, the first Japanese driver ever to finish in the top three in a world championship event.

The Lola driver used his extensive local knowledge of Suzuka to qualify ninth on the grid. He picked off Derek Warwick early in the race and, running to the end without making a pit stop, inherited places from both the Williams drivers to claim third.

Satoru Nakajima made it two Japanese drivers in the points by bringing his Tyrrell home sixth.

1990 Japanese Grand Prix result

Pos Car Driver Team Laps Difference
1 20 Nelson Piquet Benetton-Ford 53
2 19 Roberto Moreno Benetton-Ford 53 7.223
3 30 Aguri Suzuki Lola-Lamborghini 53 22.469
4 6 Riccardo Patrese Williams-Renault 53 36.258
5 5 Thierry Boutsen Williams-Renault 53 46.884
6 3 Satoru Nakajima Tyrrell-Ford 53 1’12.350
7 25 Nicola Larini Ligier-Ford 52 1 Lap
8 23 Pierluigi Martini Minardi-Ford 52 1 Lap
9 10 Alex Caffi Arrows-Ford 52 1 Lap
10 26 Philippe Alliot Ligier-Ford 52 1 Lap
11 Derek Warwick Lotus-Lamborghini 38
12 Johnny Herbert Lotus-Lamborghini 31
9 Michele Alboreto Arrows-Ford 28
2 Nigel Mansell Ferrari 26
21 Emanuele Pirro Dallara-Ford 24
29 ??ric Bernard Lola-Lamborghini 24
24 Gianni Morbidelli Minardi-Ford 18
16 Ivan Capelli Leyton House-Judd 16
22 Andrea de Cesaris Dallara-Ford 13
15 Mauricio Gugelmin Leyton House-Judd 5
7 David Brabham Brabham-Judd 2
28 Gerhard Berger McLaren-Honda 1
27 Ayrton Senna McLaren-Honda 0
1 Alain Prost Ferrari 0

The aftermath of the crash

What drove Senna to commit one of the most outrageous acts ever witnessed in Formula 1? His frustration with the sport’s governing body – Balestre the focus of his fury – combined with a growing sense of desperation that the championship was slipping away from him.

The Ferrari F1-90 had clearly been quicker than the McLaren MP4-5B in the previous two races.

Senna knew he had been fortunate to take points off Prost at Estoril. At Jerez Prost had out-manoeuvred Senna in the pits, driven away from him on the track, and to make matters worse a damaged radiator left Senna point-less.

Heading into the two remaining races Senna had a nine-point lead over Prost in the championship. There were nine points available for a win, then 6-4-3-2-1 for the remaining places, but drivers could only count their 11 best scores, making the situation more complicated.

It’s likely two things were weighing on Senna’s mind: if Prost won both the remaining races, there was nothing Senna could do to stop him from being champion.

But if Prost failed to finish one of the remaining races, Senna would definitely be champion.

It’s not hard to imagine how the row over the location of pole position affected Senna’s state of mind. As he walked back to the pits following the crash he told reporters that was the reason why the collision had happened:

When F1 returned to Suzuka in 1991 pole position had been moved to the left-hand side of the track. Senna won his third world championship that weekend, and in the press conference afterwards launched into a tirade against Balestre:

I said to myself, “OK, you try to work cleanly, and you get ****** by certain people. All right, if tomorrow Prost beats me off the line, at the first corner, I will go for it and he better not turn in because he’s not going to make it.” And it just happened.
Ayrton Senna

Following the Suzuka collision in 1990 a furious Balestre told the world:

It is a scandal that a world championship should be decided on such a collision and I leave everyone to be their own judge of who is to blame.
Jean-Marie Balestre

It’s true that what Senna did to Prost in 1990 only differed to what Prost did to Senna in 1989 by degrees. In principle, Prost’s actions were every bit as cynical as Senna’s.

And by allowing Prost to go unpunished after taking Senna out of the 1989 title-decider, what could FISA do about Senna in 1990? According to Balestre, nothing:

Last year the race stewards disqualified Senna because he cut short a chicane. This time, they told me on the telephone, that there were no elements to allow Senna’s disqualification.
Jean-Marie Balestre

The governing body’s failure to act against a championship-deciding crash in 1989 left them powerless in 1990.

More followed in later years, courtesy of Michael Schumacher, in 1994 and (unsuccessfully) again in 1997. Since then Balestre’s successor Max Mosley has suggested the FIA would step in were it to happen again but that has not yet been put to the test.

The extreme tactics Senna was prepared to used to win the world championship – risking his own life as well as Prost’s and potentially others’ – was not lost on his arch-rival, who said:

I’m not prepared to fight against irresponsible people who are not afraid to die.
Alain Prost

The horrendous consequences which Senna’s actions could have had were demonstrated in a tragic crash two years later.

Hitoshi Ogawa and Andrew Gilbert-Scott collided at the same corner during a Japanese Formula 3000 race in 1992, at comparable speeds to Senna and Prost, perhaps a shade higher.

Ogawa was killed when his car was launched over the barrier. Gilbert-Scott, a cameraman and two photographers were also injured.

On many other days Senna’s otherworldly driving ability – not to mention his intense personal charisma – won him legions of supporters. His greatest drives have inspired a further generation of fans since his death.

But there was a dark side to his character which the events of October 21st 1990 make impossible to ignore.

His life is the subject of a new film documentary, already released in Japan, which is due to open in many other countries next year. Surely the most difficult chapter of his life to relate is the actions that made him the 1990 world champion.

Did you see this race?

Were you at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix? Did you watch it live? If so, please tell us about it in the comments.

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137 comments on 20 years since Senna took out Prost at Suzuka

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  1. Cesar said on 21st October 2010, 0:36

    Great article Keith.

    Unfortunately, I think Formula 1 has not learn the biggest lesson of the 1989, 1990 incident, let me explain.

    1989 shown all the F1 fanatics that there was a lot of politics in the series (even more than any other sport) and that never helps because drivers and fans wants the drivers to decide the race and titles in the track, not in the offices with lawyers and phone calls.

    Unfortunatelly after 1989 aftermath, Senna decided to give it all and win whatever in takes, even risking his own life. You can see that in MS 1st championship or 1997 collision with Villenueve. Also in 2003 Ferrari`s championship with the “last minute” ban of Michellin tyres, etc.

    The sport can`t reach the glory of 1980s and that`s not a problem regarding the drivers or teams, is most related to the politics that are killing it.

    • spectator said on 21st October 2010, 0:49

      Cesar the 03 “last minute” ban should have been made long time ago anyway i agree with you despite that there a lot of people that still watch f1 believing that f1 is a sport and its driven by drivers and than by teams but that isnt the truth f1 is a show like any other and if we were going to let it by it self it would have already been “canceled”

  2. DamionShadows (@damionshadows) said on 21st October 2010, 0:36

    This page is getting bookmarked. For someone who’s been watching F1 for only 3 years, it’s nice to read such a detailed and thorough article on one of the most controversial incidents in Formula 1!

  3. David-A (@david-a) said on 21st October 2010, 0:43

    Two Japanese drivers in the points? In the same race? Not just the same decade? :P

  4. Hare (@hare) said on 21st October 2010, 1:10

    Curious, because Senna kept his foot in and Prost shut the door… Kind of similar in principle if not actual events to Webber and Hamilton.

    • spectator said on 22nd October 2010, 1:36

      you were watching the wrong car prost did the usual trajectory senna planned that and i dont blame him

  5. Alexi (@alexi) said on 21st October 2010, 1:11

    Ah, back in the days of ruthless motivation.I wonder how many drivers would dare such a move nowadays to win the title – Schumacher and Alonso for sure, Vettel probably and Hamilton could try it out of desperation but considering his present luck and how soft his McLaren is the move would likely backfire. All of this supposing there would be no ban after.

  6. Fer no.65 (@fer-no65) said on 21st October 2010, 1:16

    Love the brakes going red @1:00, while braking for Spoon!

  7. judo chop said on 21st October 2010, 2:51

    I used to be a Senna fanboy and make every excuse for that crash but looking back I now consider it worse than anything Schumacher did. Senna was so reckless that he tore off his own front wing before he even made contact with Prost.

    • Todfod (@todfod) said on 21st October 2010, 8:55

      You obviously missed Adelaide 94, where after wrecking his car Schumacher gets back on track just to take Damon hill out. I agree that Senna was no saint, but this was a move just in retaliation to what happened the previous year. Schumacher’s moves in 1994 and 1997 were inexcusable.

      • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 21st October 2010, 8:56

        Schumacher’s were less dangerous than this one, surely?

        • David B said on 21st October 2010, 9:08

          Schumi at Jerez ’97 did exactly what Prost did at Suzuka ’89. And Senna in the ’90 did something Schumi has never done…
          I think what Senna and Prost did to each other was not fairer at all than Schumi moves. But Schumi has been generally blamed, with too much severity.

      • Daniel said on 21st October 2010, 11:31

        Sorry, still can’t agree that ’94 was a take out. I’ve watched it many times. Schumacher, makes an error them moves back to cover the racing line, he can’t yet know if his car is broken or not. Hill went for a gap that wasn’t completely there, if he’d waited Schumacher’s car might have been broken, but he can’t be sure either, so he goes for the gap. It’s a racing accident.

        • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 21st October 2010, 11:35

          After Jerez ’97 I can’t believe anyone still takes Adelaide ’94 at face value.

          • Daniel said on 21st October 2010, 12:11

            They are two separate incidents. I always try and judge each situation on its merits.

            I could believe that Adelaide ’94 had an influence on Jerez ’97 but not the other way around.

          • Daniel said on 21st October 2010, 12:25

            Also, I’m in good company. Murray Walker expresses the same opinion in two of his books: ‘My Autobiography: Unless I’m Very Much Mistaken’ (2002), and ‘Murray Walker’s Formula One Heroes’ (2001). Murray is a good friend of Hill’s so you’d think he’d be critical of Schumacher if the evidence pointed that way.

  8. wasiF1 (@wasif1) said on 21st October 2010, 3:08

    I didn’t saw, I wonder even anybody from my region watch F1 back then, but one thing I have to say that races in the mid 80’s & 90’s were awesome, Star Sports in Asia will show some of those races in December,hope people watches those.

  9. Regis said on 21st October 2010, 3:10

    I think winning the title by crashing purposely into your oponent is a disgrace. And for that i think Senna is just as bad as Schumacher; Great drivers but horrible competitors.

  10. DaveW said on 21st October 2010, 3:58

    I vaguely remember watching, but remember well the many years of fall-out.

    The story here also emphasizes how much F1 was about these top personalities back then, so the drama among them was more emphasized. Look at the qualifying times. A full 3 seconds to row four! Those who point to some golden age of competition and passing better than the current era need to examine the time sheets from earlier days.

    Anyway, Senna was never seen as a swell guy. I guess he is romanticized in current days, like Blackbeard, or Bonnie and Clyde.

  11. I can’t help but think how good would it be if all the race briefings were televised. It would certainly let the fans can get insight into the personalities of their favourite drivers.

  12. ed24f1 (@ed24f1) said on 21st October 2010, 4:59

    Great article! If such a move happened today the reaction would be most definitely different

    By the way, this was the last race not to feature a European driver on the podium. Quite an incredible fact!

  13. Terry Fabulous said on 21st October 2010, 5:16

    “Go! And Senna sprint away, BUT ALAIN PROST TAKES THE LEAD, it’s happened, Alain Prost has taken the advantage, Senna is trying to go through on the inside AND ITS HAPPENED IMMEDIATELY This is amazing!”

  14. Terry Fabulous said on 21st October 2010, 5:19

    Gooness how I enjoyed reading this article Keith. It was one heck of a day.

    My recollection at the time was that Prost had reaped what he sowed. He drove into Senna at the Chicane the year before and had exactly the same thing happen to him in return.

    DaveW makes a good point, Senna is revered these days, but back then we were only ten years on from guys routinely dieing in F1 cars…. he was considered a dangerous nut. I liked him though.

  15. Scottie (@scottie) said on 21st October 2010, 5:21

    I can see readson behind his actions though, it’s not as crazy as some others make it out to be…

    He goes and gets pole, only to be:
    a) places on the dirty side of the grid
    b) gets given false information from the governing body in the previous years title decider

    everything the governing body (read Balestre) did was against him and all he’s done is his best, which so happens to be the fastest man in the competition.

    everything seemed to be going against him despite the best efforts.

    • But you could make broadly the same argument for Alain Prost in 1989 – there was a degree of logic and reasoning behind what happened but that doesn’t make it right. I’m not aware that Prost has ever admitted that he intentionally crashed into Senna in ’89. But he has often said he was sick of making allowances for Senna’s take no prisoners “let me past or we both crash” approach. In ’88 Senna nearly pushed Prost into the pitwall when both McLarens were running at top speed in Portugal.

      Incidentally, Senna had long had form for behaving in this way (i.e. expecting drivers he was passing to get out of his way). In British F3 in 1983, Martin Brundle had had a very similar experience to Prost’s. At Snetterton, Senna tried to pass Brundle who closed the door and both cars crashed. There was a great deal of similarity to the Suzuka crash with Prost six years later – Senna thought there was a gap, went for it and the door was shut. In the aftermath Brundle described Senna as being utterly shocked that another driver had dared try to stop him from passing. If I remember rightly, Senna had his licence endorsed for the incident. Prost’s position was that crashes with Senna had only been avoided by him (Prost) giving Senna room. Come Suzuka ’89, he simply wasn’t prepared to give ground to Senna any more because Senna had never given him any. One point of view about the Suzuka crash in ’90 is that Prost reaped what he had sown in ’89 – but equally, Senna had long sown the seeds for the events of Suzuka ’89.

      Unless you were watching F1 at the time, it’s very easy to get caught up in the Senna mythology. His abilities behind the wheel of a racing car were absolutely sublime – I had the privilege to be at the ’93 European GP, one of his best drives. Senna was deeply religious and did a lot of good work for impoverished Brazilian children. But strangely that part of his personality never seemed to prevent him taking enormous and unnecessary risks with the lives of his on-track rivals. Prost certainly thought at the time that Senna’s religious views meant he wasn’t afraid of dying, which contrasted sharply with Prost’s ultra-rational approach.

      As the old saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. Whatever the provocation from Suzuka ’89 or earlier in the weekend, that does not excuse Senna’s actions in the 1990 race. Not only did Senna crash into a rival, he did so at high speed in front of 23 other cars, closely bunched at the start of the race, endangering his life, the life of other drivers and track workers in an action he later admitted was entirely premeditated.

      • Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 21st October 2010, 9:57

        Tim, you’ve written everything I wanted to say. This incident is the top reason I’ll never consider Senna the greatest of all time or even his era. Prost has said he was always scared of the way Senna looked at him like he wanted to destroy him; he nearly did that day. I wonder what Senna’s standing would be today had someone died in that accident, to serve his own failing ambitions.

      • BasCB said on 21st October 2010, 13:03

        Thanks for going into detail, i think Senna was an amazing driver, but had he been there we would still see some very dangerous driving between him and his prime follower in this aspect, Michael Schumacher.

        I take it Prost just was not into going for so big a risk by himself (hammering it in the rain or these kind of tactics). Although most winning drivers have shown their own dirty driving at times.

      • Brilliant comment Tim. You’ve summed everything up perfectly.

      • Antifia said on 21st October 2010, 16:45

        Well, I happened to have watched those races live. But if you want to make up your mind yourself about the 1989 accindent, you can see it on YouTube. Prost did throw his car on Senna’s. It is very easy to come up afterwards and blablabla about not accepting a “no prisioner’s” approach, but Prost knows what he did – and was never enough of a man to come out and say it (the same way MS still denies having parked his car at La Rascasse, not to mention 1994 and 1997) And the detail: Senna still won that race and Prost needed J.M. Ballestre to come up to his aid and disqualify Senna on the grounds that got an advantage for cutting the chicane! He was stoped there for almost 2 minutes and had to change his front wing because of Prost’s cheating and still got disqualified. It is funny that you talk about mythology: Due to Senna’s rivalry with Brundle and Mansel (and the Derek Warwich affair), he never got any good publicity in the British media.

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