1989 – The Greatest Rivalry

After repeated attempts to restrict the power of expensive turbo engines and equalise them with normally aspirated units, the FIA finally banned them outright from the start of the 1989 season.

There was immediately much speculation that this might help reduce the gaps between the mighty McLaren and the chasing teams, but with Ron Dennis retaining his stellar line-up of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost for a second year he still held a very strong hand. By the end of the year the intense rivalry became explosive and the title fight became embroiled in bitter acrimony.

Nigel Mansell had left Williams for Ferrari, and Thierry Boutsen moved up from Benetton in his place. Williams now boasted Renault V10 engines that in just two years would become a major asset to the team. Talented British driver Johnny Herbert appeared for Benetton, despite still hobbling from a terrible crash at Brands Hatch in Formula 3000 the previous year. The US Grand Prix moved from Detriot to Pheonix, but otherwise the 16 venues were the same.

No home win for Senna

The season began under a cloud, however, as amiable Frenchman Phillippe Streiff of the AGS team was paralysed in a testing accident at the Rio de Janiero circuit. It would be the last time Formula One raced at the track. On race day Senna lost his lead from pole in an incident with Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari and Riccardo Patrese’s Williams, leaving Mansell to take a surprise debut win for Ferrari in the first ever F1 car with a semi-automatic gearshift.

39 drivers attempted to qualify for the next Grand Prix at San Marino, a record which still stands. Berger suffered a shocking accident at Tamburello on lap three of the race, his car erupting into a fireball, but survived. After his recovery he asked the circuit whether the wall at Tamburello could be moved back, but they replied that because of the river running behind it, it couldn’t. Five years later Berger would deeply regret not having pursued the issue. The other story from Imola was that Prost believed Senna had reneged on a pre-race pact that they would not pass each other on the first lap.

Berger’s brave comeback

Senna crushed Prost at Monaco, leading him home by 50s as the dominant McLarens lapped the field. Ferrari fielded just one car, having failed to tempt Mario Andretti to drive for them (as he had after Pironi’s crash in 1982). Astonishingly Berger returned at Mexico, his burnt hands still bandaged. Senna won at Mexico too, but thereafter suffered a string of DNFs due to mechanical failures: engines in the US and Canada while leading both times, a driveshaft in France and his gearbox in Britain. Meanwhile Prost took a trio of wins and forged ahead in the title battle.

Boutsen had come through the rain in Canada to score his first ever win. Herbert had finished fourth in his debut race but, having failed to qualify in Canada, was replaced by Emanuele Pirro from France onwards. Herbert would share the second Tyrrell seat with fellow debutant Jean Alesi, in place of Michele Alboreto who had fallen out with Tyrrell in a sponsorship dispute.

Senna was back on top in Germany but Mansell scored arguably his best ever win at Hungary, rising from 12th at a circuit notorious for its lack of overtaking opportunities. He out-fumbled Senna with a classic pass from behind a back marker. At Belgium it poured with rain, and Senna was supreme.

Prost defects

By the Italian race Prost had made known his decision to move to Ferrari, and when he won the race after Senna’s engine blew he dropped his trophy from the podium to the Ferrari-mad Tifosi, to the fury of Ron Dennis. Senna also failed to score in Portugal after an unsavoury incident with Mansell. Mansell had overshot his pit marker during his pit stop and reversed back into place, contravening the rules. While the circuit officials tried to black-flag him Mansell took the lead, but collided with Senna at turn one. Senna was furious, and Mansell was banned from the next race in Spain. This was his second disqualification that season after he and Benetton driver Alessandro Nannini were incorrectly waved onto the circuit before the start of the Canadian Grand Prix, and black-flagged.

Senna struck back in Spain with a win, but needed to win both the final races to take the championship. Prost, as in 1989, would drop lower points scores under the ‘best 11 results to count’ rule. The title race came to a head at Suzuka.

Confrontation at Suzuka, Part One

From second on the grid Prost leapt into the lead and Senna fell back, before reeling his team mate in under traffic. On lap 46 with seven to go, Senna pitched his McLaren down the inside of Prost’s at the Casio Triangle chicane. Prost lazily pulled this car into the path of Senna’s, and the two slid gracelessly out of the race with interlocked wheels. Though Prost later proclaimed his innocence, the replays attested to his guilt – in no way had he tried to take the corner. As Keke Rosberg put it, ?????ǣyou could tell Alain had never done anything like that in his life – he did it so badly!?????? It was the first time a Formula One championship was decided by one driver deliberately crashing into another.

Senna refused to let it end there, and gestured the marshals for a push start which, his car being in a dangerous position, he was entitled to. However he rejoined the circuit via a run-off road in clear breach of the rules. He drove a complete lap, pitted for a replacement front wing, then caught and passed new leader Nannini (at the chicane, ironically) and crossed the line in first place on the final lap. But there followed a long pause before the podium ceremonies began – without Senna. The stewards disqualified him instantly for rejoining the circuit illegally.

While Prost began muted post-championship celebrations, Senna prepared a case against the stewards. But when he and Dennis arrived to put their case to the FIA they found themselves called to answer quite different charges. Senna’s appeal was thrown out.

Adelaide washout

The teams arrived at Adelaide but the final race was not conducted in the same high spirits of previous years. In torrential rain drivers at first refused to race and Prost withdrew after a single lap. Senna charged on in vain, hoping to at least prove that, without Prost’s trick at Japan, he would have won the final races and claimed the title. But on lap 13, blinded by spray, he smashed into Martin Brundle’s Brabham. In all, 16 drivers crashed out of the race. Perhaps the luckiest was Nelson Piquet, who hit Piercarlo Ghinzani’s Osella from behind with such force that the back of the Osella rode up the front of Piquet’s Lotus and he emerged from the crash with tyre marks on his helmet. Boutsen won as he did in Canada.

Senna’s war with the FIA lingered throughout the off-season, while he waited for the new season to resume his more personal battle with his true rival.

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