F1's most dramatic Suzuka showdowns
- Suzuka first held F1 race in 1987
- Prost and Senna clashed at circuit
- Japanese GP takes place on Oct 8
With its mix of flat-out speed, sweeping corners and tight technical turns, the former Honda test track provides F1’s elite with a forensic examination of their driving skills.
“It’s one of the classics and its configuration is completely unique. It has a bit of everything — it’s demanding, fast, and a big challenge for a driver and for the engineers, so it’s the perfect racer’s circuit.”
But it is the high-speed duels for championship glory that has cemented Suzuka’s reputation as one of the must-see races on the F1 calendar.
1988, 1989 & 1990: Prost vs. Senna
Few F1 rivalries have matched the intensity between France’s Alain Prost and Brazilian Ayrton Senna.
A three-act drama began in 1988 when the two were teammates at McLaren. It was first blood to Senna who despite stalling his car at the start recovered to win the race, before going on to seal a first world title at the final race in Australia.
Twelve months later it was Prost in the driving seat at Suzuka. The Frenchman had a 16-point advantage going into the season’s penultimate race and led the Japanese GP with six laps to go when Senna, desperate for the win, dived down the inside at the Casio Triangle chicane.
Prost shut the door, the pair clashed and rolled to a halt at the side of the track. The Frenchman hopped out of his car, but Senna got going again and took the checkered flag only to be disqualified for using an escape road to rejoin the track.
The Brazilian was also hit with a $100,000 fine by world motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, for dangerous driving.
Senna was incensed by the FIA’s decision and it would light the touch paper for one final explosive title showdown at Suzuka.
The 1990 race turned out to be pair’s shortest duel as Senna plowed into the back of Prost — who was now at Ferrari — as they sped down to the first corner at lights out.
Both cars slewed into the gravel trap and out of the race before Senna and Prost trudged back to the pits.
With a now unassailable championship lead, Senna was crowned champion for the second time of his career.
1998: Hakkinen storms to maiden title
Hunting down a first world title, Mika Hakkinen arrived at Suzuka with a slender four-point championship lead, and Michael Schumacher breathing down his neck.
And when the German stuck his car on pole, Hakkinen could have been forgiven for cracking under the pressure, but it was Schumacher who blinked first, stalling his car before lights out.
The mistake meant Schumacher was sent to the back of the grid and with a mountain to climb.
Ever the fighter, Schumacher set off in search of the summit and by the middle of the race was up to third.
But on Lap 31 disaster struck as a puncture ended his race and Schumacher’s championship hopes. Hakkinen was free to speed away towards the checkered flag and clinch Finland’s first world title since Keke Rosberg’s in 1982.
Hakkinen would repeat the trick 12 months later — this time fending off Schumacher’s teammate Eddie Irvine.
2000: Schumacher’s red-letter day
After three near misses, Schumacher finally clinched his first title in the red of Ferrari at the penultimate grand prix of the season.
Hakkinen was once again his nemesis but this time the German had the upper hand going into the race.
Protecting an eight-point lead, Schumacher was made to work all the way to the line with Hakkinen finishing just two seconds behind.
Schumacher’s relief was palpable.
“We have been working for this for five years and three times we got close,” an emotional Schumacher said after opening up an unassailable 12-point championship lead over Hakkinen.
“This is simply outstanding and special because it is with Ferrari and means much more to me than my other titles.”
2006: A final agony for Schumacher
Schumacher was tied for the championship lead with Alonso — then driving for Renault — heading into the Japanese Grand Prix but an engine failure all but ended the German driver’s title hopes, as the Spaniard took the checkered flag and ultimately his second title.
If Schumacher was disappointed he didn’t let it show too much, preferring to act as comforter to distraught Ferrari mechanics in the pit garage.
“He was a great team player, Michael,” Ross Brawn, Ferrari team boss at that time, told CNN last year.
“He loved the team environment. He loved being part of the team, he loved spending time with the mechanics and engineers. All of those things are part of the process of creating a team.”