Top ten: Suzuka showdowns

Top ten

Suzuka won’t decide the destiny of the title this year but it has seen many world championship showdowns in the past.

Here’s ten of the best title-deciders at the current home of the Japanese Grand Prix.

10. 1990 Japanese Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna vs Alain Prost

Sadly this ‘showdown’ lasted all of about 300 metres. Senna, incensed at not being allowed to have his pole position slot on the clean side of the track, launched a kamikaze move on Prost at the first corner.

He took them both out, meaning Prost could no longer win the championship.

9. 1989 Japanese Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna vs Alain Prost

It’s hard not to see the events of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix as a direct consequence of the one that preceded it. On this occasion the roles were reversed: Prost knew he would be champion if Senna failed to finish.

On lap 47, with six to go, Senna dived down the inside of Prost at the chicane in a bid to take the lead. Prost swung right – well ahead of his usual turn-in point – the pair tangled and skidded pathetically to a stop, wheels interlocked.

Prost climbed out of his car but after the marshals disentangled the McLarens Senna darted off down the escape road and back onto the track. After pitting to replace a damaged front wing he caught and passed new leader Alessandro Nannini at the same place he’d collided with Prost.

It seemed he’d done enough to keep his championship hopes alive. But the post-race podium ceremony was delayed as the stewards deliberated the controversy, eventually deciding to exclude Senna for having used the escape road.

McLaren appealed the decision, pointing out the lack of precedent for it, but it became academic when Senna crashed out in the final race at Adelaide.

The appeal was thrown out, the FIA calling Senna “a driver who endangers that safety of other drivers”, and fining him $100,000. He fumed at the injustice of the verdict, and further skirmishes with the stewards led him to take matters into his own hands 12 months later.

8. 2011 Japanese Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel vs Jenson Button

Today the Japanese Grand Prix is not as close to the end of the season as it once was, so it is less likely to decide the outcome of the championship.

But Sebastian Vettel had such a healthy lead last year that he arrived at Suzuka needing only a single point from the final five races to clinch his second drivers’ title.

As he’d won the previous two Japanese Grands Prix, and put his Red Bull on pole position for this one, it seemed inconceivable he might fail. He drove a conservative race and although Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso beat him across the line, third position was more than enough to get the job done.

The victory doughnuts were on him:

7. 1996 Japanese Grand Prix

Damon Hill vs Jacques Villeneuve

It was an all-Williams contest for the world championship in 1996, with Jacques Villeneuve a long shot to claim the title.

A brilliant win in Portugal had moved him within nine points of team mate Damon Hill, who was driving his last race for the team before being replaced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Villeneuve claimed pole position and Hill joined him on the front row. But Hill got away into the lead at the start, and Villeneuve’s slim title hopes were extinguished when a wheel came off following a pit stop.

With that, Hill became not only a world champion, but the first son of a champion to claim the title himself.

6. 1999 Japanese Grand Prix

Mika Hakkinen vs Eddie Irvine

Michael Schumacher’s absence due to injury thrust Ferrari team mate Eddie Irvine into the role of championship challenger to McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen.

Schumacher returned at the penultimate round in Malaysia and played a supporting role to Irvine, allowing him to win and take a four-point lead into the final race at Suzuka.

Irvine, who spent much of his junior career in Japan, usually performed well at Suzuka and was expected to have a reasonable chance of keeping Hakkinen from the title. But during the race weekend the McLaren driver was in such form even Schumacher couldn’t catch him.

Hakkinen beat Schumacher off the front row to take the lead. He won the race and the championship while Irvine, who crashed heavily during qualifying, was a distant third.

5. 1991 Japanese Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna vs Nigel Mansell

A win in Spain with Senna only fifth had surprisingly kept Nigel Mansell in the title hunt as the teams arrived at Suzuka for the penultimate race.

Unusually Gerhard Berger pipped Senna to pole position, but with McLaren locking out the front row Mansell faced an uphill struggle. The McLarens led away, and as they started the tenth lap Mansell’s car got away from him and he spun into retirement in the gravel trap.

That confirmed Senna as champion for the third time. But the weekend ended on a sour note. Having taken the lead off Berger, Senna inelegantly handed it back to him on the last lap.

Then during the press conference Senna furiously denounced former FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre in a torrent of expletives, accusing him of interfering in his previous championship battles with Prost.

4. 1998 Japanese Grand Prix

Mika Hakkinen, McLaren, Suzuka, 1998Mika Hakkinen vs Michael Schumacher

Hakkinen carried a crucial four-point advantage over Schumacher into the final race of 1998.

Schumacher put his Ferrari on pole position and with Hakkinen alongside the stage was set for a battle royale.

But it all went wrong for Schumacher before the race had even begun. The first start was abandoned when 14th-placed Jarno Trulli stalled.

As the cars lined up again Schumacher raised his right hand, signalling his car had also stalled.

That meant another fresh start – with Schumacher starting last instead of first. While Hakkinen romped to victory, Schumacher valiantly tried to battle his way through the field.

His charge came to an end when he suffered a high-speed tyre blow-out, shortly after Esteban Tuero had rammed into Tora Takagi at the chicane, covering the track in debris.

At that moment Hakkinen was the world champion, and victory was the icing on the cake. After the race he was quick to thank his team for reacting quickly to the first race stoppage by cooling his car.

Ferrari were slow to give Schumacher’s car the same attention, which may have contributed to his disastrous failure.

It was the second year in a row Schumacher had gone into the final round in a position to win the world championship with Ferrari but failed to clinch the crown. The following year saw another disappointment as he was injured mid-season.

But the year after that it finally came good…

3. 2000 Japanese Grand Prix

Michael Schumacher vs Mika Hakkinen

Schumacher had come close to winning his third title in 1997 and 1998. Finally in 2000 he got the job done after a race-long battle with Hakkinen.

The McLaren driver took the lead off Schumacher at the start but the pair switched places when Schumacher ran long at the second round of pit stops, pumping in a series of quick laps during a brief rain shower.

It was a stirring contest between the top two drivers of the day, albeit one largely decided in the pits. They finished well over a minute ahead of their team mates.

2. 2003 Japanese Grand Prix

Michael Schumacher vs Kimi Raikkonen

A controversial FIA ruling on Michelin’s tyres handed the initiative to Ferrari in the final stages of what had been a closely-fought season. Schumacher pulled nine points clear of Raikkonen, and with a maximum of ten on offer at the final race his sixth title looked like a formality before the weekend began.

But mixed weather conditions in qualifying left Schumacher 14th on the grid, Raikkonen eighth, and produced a nail-biting finale.

While Raikkonen worked his way up to second, Schumacher had a scrappy race in the midfield. He clipped the back of Takuma Sato’s car and dropped further back. Later on he was almost taken out by his brother Ralf at the chicane.

But despite these scares Schumacher had made it as far as eighth before the flag fell, enough to secure the championship. And for good measure team mate Rubens Barrichello kept Raikkonen from the victory he needed.

This triumph meant Schumacher finally broke Juan Manuel Fangio’s 46-year-old record of world championship victories. Schumacher raised the bar from five to six – and went on to increase it yet further.

1. 1988 Japanese Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna vs Alain Prost

This was the time they didn’t hit each other. Senna was on pole as usual but he stalled his engine. Fortunately he was able to get it started on the downhill slope towards turn one, but he’d fallen to 14th by the time he got there.

Wasting no time, Senna set about picking his way through the midfielders. Prost held the lead but was grappling with a gearbox problem. From lap 14 rain began to fall and Senna, emerging from the chasing pack, soon had his team mate within range.

As they fought their way through lapped traffic Senna pounced, seizing the lead on lap 28 on the run to turn one. By the end of the race Prost was over 13 seconds behind, and Senna’s eighth win of the year secured his first world championship.

If only all their battles had been decided by pure racing.

Not forgetting…

There was one other world championship-deciding Grand Prix at Suzuka. Unfortunately the title battle was already over before the race began.

Nelson Piquet was crowned champion in 1987 after team mate Nigel Mansell crashed during practice, injuring his back, and ruling him out of the race.

Over to you

Were you at any of these races? Did you watch any of them? Share your favourite memories of Suzuka showdowns in the comments.

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47 comments on Top ten: Suzuka showdowns

  1. I’d rank the 2000 showdown as number one because of the level of competition. Just watch the qualifying and the race: two of the best F1 drivers going absolutely flat out all the time. Schumacher grabbed pole by 9 thousands of a second, and the race could’ve turned out either way.

  2. Broom (@brum55) said on 27th September 2012, 20:20

    Hill’s 96 win was my favourite. Alonso’s 06 was practically a title decider even if it was not. But I have to say 98-00 between Schumacher & Hakkinen (and Irvine) were of the highest quality. Hakkinen was a brilliant driver under pressure.

  3. the limit said on 27th September 2012, 22:05

    I always felt Hakkinen’s success in 1999 as being my favourite Suzuka decider. I always admired Mika Hakkinen for his bravery but also his humanity. Many of us remember the helicopter shots of him crying at the Monza Grands Prix that same year, after spinning off the track. It showed just how much it all meant to him, and the pressure he was under to win his second championship. Many thought, and with reason, that Michael Schumacher’s broken leg at Silverstone would enable Hakkinen to cruise to the title. That was not the case, nor was Eddie Irvine any push over, but Hakkinen did it in the end, the last time he would be champion and one of the true ‘great’ champions of recent times.
    As for the others, everybody cannot think of Prost or Senna without thinking of Suzuka. In some ways its a tragedy, everybit as much as everyone associates Imola with the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger. Its ingrained in us, unescapable, but the events of 1989 and 1990 did not hurt F1’s profile and if anything helped it. I often wonder how many of us started and still watch grands prix today if not for the Prost/Senna feud? I for one loved every minute of it.

  4. I love the Japanese Grand Prix. I started watching F1 in 1997 so for me it always felt normal for the denouement to a championship battle to come at Suzuka. My personal favourite was 1998- having to video the race due to not being allowed up at such an ungodly hour and then hoping that nothing happened to delay proceedings and stymie my plans to watch the whole recording from scratch when I woke up. Then to find that the race was such a cracker put the icing on the cake of my first full season and hooked me forever. The temptation to ‘flick to the last page of the book’ and check teletext once i saw Schumi stall was almost too much to bear for a 10 year old! In terms of the classics I’ve always rated this race alongside Spa, Monaco, Monza and Silverstone.

  5. Ed Marques (@edmarques) said on 27th September 2012, 23:58

    2011 would not be on my list. And my order is different too.
    But great article.

  6. Good of you Keith to point out that the 1989 collision DID NOT cost Senna the title. He still would’ve needed to win in Adelaide to win the title, and he crashed into the back of Brundle in the wet. That point is often forgotten.
    And in 1990, he should’ve been stripped of the title after that crash.
    Favourite Suzuka title deciders 2000,2003,2011
    Favourite Suzuka race 2005

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 8th October 2013, 17:46


      Good of you Keith to point out that the 1989 collision did not cost Senna the title.

      I didn’t say that. Clearly the collision did guarantee the title for Prost. It did not deny Senna the title, but it did guarantee he could no longer win it, which surely is the point.

  7. DC (@dujedcv) said on 28th September 2012, 20:29

    2011 does not deserve to be here. Championship was already decided as Seb had to score 1 point in 5 races, so he could have done it in Brazil and win it.

  8. AndrewTanner (@andrewtanner) said on 29th September 2012, 17:31

    Senna, brilliant driver, but I find it hard to respect him when I remember things like 1990 brought up Same with Prost I guess though! Lack of professionalism and plenty of petulance instead. It’s a shame that the FIA set the precedent with Prost the year before as both of them deserved severe penalties for not only acting reckless but having no sportsmanship or professional qualities about them in either instance.

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