1989 Japanese Grand Prix: The Height of Controversy

Written by Sasha Macmillen

Last year's fiery rivalry between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton prompted many fans and members of the F1 community to liken it to the era of Senna vs Prost, in the late 80s and early 90s. Both saw fierce on track battling, at times extending beyond an acceptable limit, and a war of words off the track, with major FIA involvement necessary. Whilst we may be familiar with the present day feuds, and the tale of the 2021 season, it's worth looking back at the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix and its aftermath, which was the boiling point of the Senna-Prost rivalry.


Ayrton Senna joined McLaren in 1988, thus becoming Alain Prost's teammate. Prost at this point was a double world champion, but Senna won the 1988 world championship in Suzuka, with a race to spare. Their relationship began to turn sour through the 1989 season, with a series of in-team clashes. Ayrton Senna, as per usual, would utterly dominate Prost in the qualifying sessions, but one way or another Prost would win more races, with Senna suffering far more retirements. We reached round 15 in Japan with Senna needing to win both of the final two rounds to stand a chance of the 1989 Drivers' Championship.

Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost being friendly with each other, something that would develop to be a rare occurrence (Image: AFP)

The qualifying session saw Senna outqualify Prost by a mammoth 1.7 seconds, yet Prost took the lead and controlled most of the race. As they approached the end of the race, Senna was chasing, and he was closing fast. Prost was under pressure and their fierce rivalry was certainly playing on their minds as to their approach. Lap 47 arrived, and Senna was ready for the move into the final chicane. The Brazilian pulled significantly alongside his teammate in the braking zone, but Prost began to turn into the corner, and consequently barged into Senna. Whilst I always remain neutral in my writing, the anatomy of this collision was obvious. Prost turned into Senna, with little awareness for such an experienced driver.


The two McLarens were blocking the track, and Prost, thinking that the championship was won, got out of the car, and retired from the race. Senna meanwhile, required the help of marshals to push his car down a gentle slope, allowing his engine to restart and Senna to get going in the race again. He pitted for a change of front wing, and charged back to pass Alessandro Nannini for the race lead with two laps remaining. The Brazilian won the race and was still in the championship - or so he thought.


The stewards decided that Senna had not respected the race distance, as he cut the chicane in the act of restarting his car. They disqualified him from the race, and Senna lost his chances of the championship. If Senna had respected the race distance, and taken the chicane, as the stewards said, he would've had to go backwards to rejoin the track, another dangerous offence. So the stewards decision was very one-sided, and many would argue that the influence of Jean-Marie Balestre, FIA President at the time, took a part in their decision. In 1996, Balestre would go on to admit that he acted to favour Prost in the aftermath of the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix, his fellow countryman. Does this mean that the result of the Grand Prix could be labelled as "fixed" - due to Balestre's admission?

Balestre, pictured here with Senna, admitted later to acting in favour of Prost. (Image: Motorsport Images)

The off-track drama didn't end there though. McLaren protested the FIA's decision, as they had felt they had been stripped of a legitimate race victory. The FISA hearing later that week went even further. Not only did they uphold the original decision, but they handed Senna a $100,000 fine, branding him a "dirty driver" and giving him a six-month suspension of his super licence. In Brazil, Balestre was painted as the ultimate villain, with fans outraged by the sporting prosecution of their hero.


The winter of 1988-89 passed, and Senna viciously criticised Balestre in the media. Eventually, the then one-time world champion had his ban suspended, and he was allowed to race in 1990, and he made himself a double world champion, once again in dramatic circumstances at Suzuka. Balestre remained in his position as president of FISA until 1991, where he was elected out by the late Max Mosley, and stood down as president of the FIA in 1993. Ayrton Senna would go on to become a three-time world champion, before his tragic death in 1994.


To this day, fans reminisce of the glorious Senna vs Prost rivalry, with its extended bouts of controversy and on-track excitement, whilst also opting to discuss the incidents themselves, such as Suzuka 89. We now have our excellent battles between Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, as well as 2021's fight with Lewis Hamilton, but many could still argue that Senna vs Prost was the peak of Formula One drama and controversy.

Senna and Prost would heal their relationship as the years passed (Image: Motorsport Images)