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Flashback: Japan '90 - Controversial clash hands title to Senna 09 Oct 2013

Alain Prost (Ferrari) and Ayrton Senna (McLaren-Honda) collide at the first corner, 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka Ayrton Senna (McLaren Honda MP4/5B). 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Alain Prost, Ferrari 641, 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Ayrton Senna (McLaren Honda MP4/5B). 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Ayrton Senna (McLaren Honda MP4/5B) and Alain Prost (Ferrari 641) collide at the first corner of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Ayrton Senna (McLaren Honda MP4/5B) and Alain Prost (Ferrari 641) collide at the first corner of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Alain Prost (Ferrari) and Ayrton Senna (McLaren-Honda) come to rest in a cloud of dirt following their collision, 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka The striken cars of Aytron Senna (McLaren-Honda) and Alain Prost (Ferrari), 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Alain Prost's striken Ferrari 641. 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Alain Prost (Ferrari) and Ayrton Senna (McLaren-Honda) walk back to the pits after their collision at the start, 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka Gerhard Berger, (McLaren MP4-5B - Honda) leads Nigel Mansell (Ferrari 641) early on in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Nigel Mansell (Ferrari 641) leads the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Race winner Nelson Piquet (Benetton B190) leads team mate Roberto Moreno and Williams' Thierry Boutsen, 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka Race winner Nelson Piquet (Benetton B190), 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka A very happy Aguri Suzuki after his 3rd place at his home GP Japanese GP - Suzuka, Japan, 21 October 1990. World ©  Sutton. Race winner Nelson Piquet (Benetton) on the podium with second-placed Roberto Moreno (Benetton), 1990 Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka

Heading to Japan for the penultimate round of the 1990 season, all eyes were on the two arch-rivals involved in an intense battle for the world title: McLaren’s Ayrton Senna and Ferrari’s Alain Prost.

When the duo qualified alongside each other on the front row, the stage was set for a thrilling 53-lap battle to the chequered flag, but little did the Suzuka crowd realise that they’d have to wait barely ten seconds for the fireworks to begin…

The situation hadn’t been all that different heading to Suzuka 12months earlier. Then, Prost and Senna - team mates at McLaren - had also been ensconced in a fight for the drivers' championship, one that would ultimately be decided in Prost’s favour, albeit in hugely controversial circumstances.

On that occasion the duo had tangled at the chicane on the 46th lap, forcing Prost out on the spot. Senna, however, was able to continue and remarkably won the race, only to be disqualified moments before he took to the podium for having used an escape road to rejoin the circuit. It was a decision that incensed Senna and the Brazilian was still feeling the sense of injustice when he returned to the Land of the Rising Sun with a nine-point lead over Prost in 1990.

Perhaps it was Senna’s eagerness to set the record straight that led to him spinning his McLaren into a sand trap during practice on Friday morning. Either way, after a long trudge back to the pits, he would no doubt have been disappointed to see that the Ferraris of Prost and Nigel Mansell had been setting a furious pace in his absence.

Senna responded with some quick laps in the afternoon, but Prost managed to edge ahead on his final run of the day to steal the top spot. Then, just as Ferrari began to celebrate a minor victory, Senna’s team mate Gerhard Berger brought his McLaren round quicker than both of them…

Senna knew that he’d have to perform better on Saturday - and he did. Half an hour into the afternoon qualifying session he clocked a potentially unbeatable 1m 37.541s. Mansell gave his all in his attempts to go quicker but couldn’t quite top that time, and in the end it came down to a final-run battle between Senna, Prost and Berger to determine the front of the grid. Sensing a psychological advantage, Senna made sure he moved his MP4-5B to the end of the pit lane just ahead of Prost’s 641 - even at this stage of the weekend he wanted his rival to get used to being behind his car.

Whether Prost was affected by this behaviour or not is difficult to say, but things did end up going Senna’s way. The man with the bright yellow helmet delivered one of his otherworldly qualifying efforts to record a jaw-dropping 1m 36.996s lap - over two-tenths quicker than the Frenchman could manage.

Senna’s elation soon turned to anger, however, as he was at first granted and then denied his wish to have pole position moved to the cleaner, grippier left-hand side of the track, on the racing line. More than a little upset by the decision, Senna was determined that Prost would not be ahead of him coming out of the first corner…

With all the attention on the big two, it was easy to forget there were 23 other cars and drivers on the grid, with Tyrrell’s Jean Alesi having elected not to race because of the whiplash he sustained in a crash in practice.

Completing the top ten were Mansell in third, Berger in fourth, Williams’ Thierry Boutsen in fifth, Benetton’s Nelson Piquet in sixth, the second Williams of Riccardo Patrese in seventh, the other Benetton of Roberto Moreno in eighth, home favourite Aguri Suzuki in ninth in his Lola, and Minardi’s Pierluigi Martini in tenth.

With so much at stake, the atmosphere on race day was one of high tension and huge anticipation. A collosal crowd watched expectantly from the grandstands as Senna led the field around on the formation lap and then took his place at the front of the grid; Prost lining up slightly behind and to his left.

As the lights changed from red to green both men made smooth getaways, but Senna’s fears soon became reality as Prost used the greater traction available on the grippy racing line to spring in front. Senna jinked in behind the Frenchman and then back to the inside line as they approached the fast, right-handed Turn 1. Prost began to turn in but it was clear that Senna had no intention of yielding the corner to his great rival and as the scarlet car edged towards the apex, the McLaren held station.

Senna’s front wing and Prost’s right-rear tyre came together and in an instant the pair were hurtling across the gravel trap in a cloud of dust. They eventually came to rest with the Ferrari facing the wrong way and the badly-damaged McLaren nestled in the barriers. Their races were over and, once it became apparent that the Grand Prix would not be stopped and restarted, so was the world championship.

Senna, who had almost God-like status in Japan thanks to his Honda connections, waved half-heartedly to his legions of fans as he returned to the pits, but there were few smiles from the new world champion. Prost, meanwhile, was simmering with rage at what he saw as a deliberate and calculated decision by Senna to eliminate them both from the race, regardless of the risk to their safety.

A year later, having won the 1991 world championship in less controversial circumstances, Senna would explain his decision-making process and effectively confirm Prost’s suspicions:

“I promised myself that if after the start I lost first place, I would go for it at the first corner, regardless of the result. Prost wouldn’t turn into the first corner ahead of me and that’s what took place. It was a result of the politicians making stupid decisions and bad decisions (regarding the positioning of pole position).”

In less than ten seconds the fight for the world title had been decided, but there was still a race to be run, albeit in a rather surreal atmosphere.

Berger gratefully inherited an early lead, ahead of Mansell, Piquet, Moreno and the Williams pair. But the Austrian wouldn’t lead for long - at exactly the same point as Prost and Senna had tangled, the second McLaren flew off the circuit and into retirement. Berger was so upset at throwing away such a great chance of victory that he didn’t even return to the pits, opting instead for the sanctuary of his room at the circuit hotel.

With both Honda-powered McLarens out of the race, local interest might have faded were it not for the heroic efforts of Suzuki, who had made his way up to sixth. Meanwhile, Mansell had moved into the lead and steadily extended his advantage, the only obstacle seemingly standing between him and race victory being the fact that he would have to stop for tyres whereas the likes of Piquet, Moreno and Patrese would not, having opted for the harder rubber in Goodyear’s allocation.

Mansell duly made his stop on lap 26, but within seconds it was clear that something was up and the Ferrari soon slowed with a broken transmission. The Briton’s retirement - his ninth in 15 races - handed McLaren their third constructors’ crown in a row and Piquet a convincing lead.

The three-time world champion duly reeled off the remaining laps for his first win in three years, whilst a popular second place went to Piquet’s great friend and countryman Roberto Moreno. ‘Pupo’ had spent most of the year trying to qualify the awful Euro Brun before getting his chance at Benetton when the previous year’s Japan victor, Alessandro Nannini, was badly injured in a helicopter accident.

And there was plenty to delight the home fans as Suzuki took full advantage of a late Patrese pit stop to claim third place and the first Formula One podium finish for a Japanese driver. Satoru Nakajima rounded off a great day for the locals by bringing his Tyrrell home in sixth.

But the headlines belonged to Senna and Prost. The Brazilian had displayed a ruthless, win-at-all costs mentality, but it was one that according to the man himself was brought about by past wrongdoings.

“In ’89 I was robbed badly by the system - and that I will never forget,” he said in 1991. “But in 1990 it went the other way. It was a sad championship in 1990, but that was a result of the politics that we had in 1989 and 1990.”

Whatever your opinion on the incident, few world championships have ever been settled in such dramatic and unforgettable circumstances.

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