Suzuka, more than most circuits, tends to see F1 titles settled. We take a look at the best deciders from the Japanese track.
With four races to follow it, and in a season where almost every race has been fiercely contested, we really have no right to expect an F1 World Champion to be crowned at Suzuka, but most people expect precisely that to happen on Sunday.
While everyone likes to see the title fight go down to the wire there’s something reassuring about the idea of things being settled at Suzuka, tying the 2011 F1 season into a grand tradition which has seen great champions crowned at this great circuit.
1987 Mansell vs Piquet
Suzuka’s debut as a Formula One venue came in 1987 when it was the 15th of 16 races that year. Williams were dominating the season, having won nine of the previous 14. Nigel Mansell had six wins, Nelson Piquet three, but it was the Brazilian who led the championship by 12 points going to Japan. The pressure was on Mansell to pull something out of the bag, but in the end he never started the race. A high-speed practice crash in the S-curves left him battered, bruised and with suspected spinal injuries. Unable to race, he went home, gifting Piquet a third world championship.
…and here’s it again in slo-mo followed by Nelson Piquet explaining that he didn’t win by default… so there.
1988 Senna vs Prost
The following year, Ayrton Senna needed to win at Suzuka to become world champion with a race to spare. He got the first bit right and qualified on pole – but then stalled when the lights went out. Thanks to the slope down the first corner Senna managed to bump-start his McLaren but by the time he got going he was 14th. Prost led away from second – but Senna wasn’t done and began ruthlessly dicing his way through the field. Prost was battling at the front with Ivan Capelli’s March and a gearbox gremlin of his own, and soon enough Senna was up with his team-mate and through to take the lead, the race and the world championship.
Watch Senna stall 10 minutes into the video…
1989 Prost vs Senna
Possibly the granddaddy of them all. Again Suzuka was the 15th of 16 races, but this time Prost held a 16-point lead over his team-mate Senna. In the run-up Prost hadn’t minced his words, suggesting he’d find it perfectly acceptable if neither McLaren finished the race. Senna had pole but Prost took the lead at the start. The advantage was never large and Senna began to hound Prost in the final 10 laps. On lap 46, coming into the final chicane Senna made his move, Prost stayed true to his word and slammed the door shut. Both went off, Prost got out but Senna managed to get a push-start from the marshals, threaded his way through the barriers and rejoined the track. He caught and overtook Alessandro Nannini’s Benetton to retake the lead, and win the race on the track – only to face disqualification for having cut the chicane – Prost hadn’t been idle after walking back to the pits. He won the championship, Nannini collected his only F1 victory and Senna was left to fume.
And this is one of the best bits of onboard footage ever.
1990 Prost vs Senna Part III
With Prost now with Ferrari, the position was reversed. This time is was the Brazilian with nothing to lose should the two crash out. Senna qualified on pole, though Prost in second was on the racing line. McLaren tried unsuccessfully to get the grid flipped for Senna to start on the clean side of the track. The maths were complicated but if neither man finished, Senna would be champion – and he made it pretty clear that if Prost got the better start he would be making a move into the first corner, however small the gap. When Prost made the better start, Senna collided with him and took the title. Cue acrimony, accusations and celebrations.
1999 Irvine vs Hakkinen / Ferrari vs McLaren
By 1999 the Japanese Grand Prix was installed as the final round of the F1 season with both championships coming down to the wire in Suzuka – helped by the FIA’s decision to overturn Ferrari’s disqualification at the Malaysian Grand Prix. It meant Eddie Irvine led Mika Hakkinen by four points in the Drivers’ Championship and Ferrari led McLaren by the same margin in the Constructors’. In Japan, Michael Schumacher put his Ferrari on pole, but Irvine struggled, qualifying only fifth. He needed to make up ground and hope Schumacher could keep ahead of Hakkinen. It wasn’t to be: Mika got the better start, led into the first corner and never looked back. After David Coulthard damaged his nosecone, Irvine climbed to third and secured the Constructors’ Championship for Ferrari, but Hakkinen was able to retain his drivers’ title.
Here’s Mika getting the start he needed…
…and here he is on the podium celebrating his second world championship.
2000 Schumacher vs Hakkinen
After winning in Indianapolis, Michael Schumacher went to Japan with an eight-point lead over Mika Hakkinen, safe in the knowledge that a third victory at Suzuka would give him a third drivers’ title or, perhaps more significantly, Ferrari’s first since Jody Scheckter in 1979. Schumacher was on pole – still on the wrong side – but Hakkinen jinked past to take the lead. As had been the case in qualifying, there was little between them. The weather couldn’t make its mind up, and with spotting rain, the surface got progressively more greasy, but Hakkinen and Schumacher seemed unfazed and went away from the field. Their first round of pit stops didn’t change anything, but Schumacher managed to crowbar his way into the lead at the second and run all the way to the chequered flag. Everyone shook hands, Schumacher had a big cigar clenched in his teeth and the party that began in the paddock gradually migrated to the famous Log Cabin for famous inebriation and terrible karaoke.
…and Michael Schumacher’s reaction? “Shit!”