Sunday, October 22, 32 years ago. When Suzuka opens up to a warm day, the sky chased by fast white clouds as often happens at this time of year, few doubts touch the prediction as to who, in the evening, will be world champion: it will be Alain Prost. For the tenth time this season, and we are in the penultimate of 16 races, he starts from the front row together with his teammate Seine. The pole, however, is not his, it belongs to Ayrton, who has brought home 12 from the start of the championship. These numbers are enough to understand who is the fastest driver of that World Championship. Yet, at the dawn of the penultimate clash of the season, Prost is leading the world champion and his 16 points advantage over the archenemy (it would be 21, if the regulation imposed a maximum of 11 useful results) have already written almost the whole word. ‘end’ to the championship. To crown Senna champion again, duplicating what had happened a year earlier, the World Championship should assign two victories to Ayrton and two off-point placings to Alain, between this Japanese GP and the last one scheduled two weeks later in Australia. Very possible, the two victories. Impossible or almost two misses for a Prost who has been a four-time winner since the beginning of the season, six second, one third, one fourth and one fifth.
But despite the almost absolute certainty of an already written ending, Suzuka vibrates with tension. At stake there is not so much a world champion title, already sewn for nine tenths on the suit by the French champion. There is the final verdict of the boxing match that the two McLaren drivers have been consuming for exactly six months. Since that GP San Marino, the second race of the season, in which, according to Prost, the Great Betrayal was consummated. According to Senna, however, everything is regular. Also in Imola Ayrton and Alain had monopolized, in exactly this order, the first row at the start. Race stopped almost immediately due to a disastrous accident ended in fire by Berger’s Ferrari, saved by a real miracle of the fire commissioners. At the second start, radio McLaren will point out, who of the two contenders will be in command at the bottom of the bend of the Tamburello, will have the right to stay there until the checkered flag. The superiority of the English car is too clear to allow yourself unnecessary risks: you will have the whole championship to play for the title that the year before, after a totally dominated season, had given the young Brazilian his first world championship. Yet, despite a better start than the Frenchman, just at the end Tamburello Senna places a deadly braking on Prost and goes on to win. A championship dedicated to the knife follows.
Maximum tension, therefore, at the start of Suzuka. The stands are all for Senna: he is the object of the boundless love of the Japanese public who in his features and gestures, in his distant gaze, distills sensations from the epic of the samurai. For this reason, then, on the Honda racetrack a blanket of chill falls when Prost sprints better from the front row and takes flight in command. Ayrton, behind him, trudges after an imperfect route. The race is their private business. After the pit stop for the tire change, however, the game changes. Senna starts to reassemble. A second gnawed. Another. Two. Two more. About ten laps from the finish, the tail of the enemy McLaren is in his sights. Six laps from the end the epos reaches its maximum, and to say that both pilots, wizards of the wheel and of mental calculation, men of coldness even under monumental stress, would have everything in order to remain calm: Ayrton, strong at that moment by a much higher pace, it has come as close as a tornado and still has six passes to place its paw; Alain knows that even with a second place, despite the possible overtaking he suffered apart, the title will be his.
The facts, at this point, are so much collective memory that remembering them is almost useless. With a braking beyond all limits, Senna flanks Prost inside the very tight curve that leads to them before the pits. For years we will wonder: if Alain hadn’t closed it, locking it in a tangle of wheels, would Ayrton have managed to slip into that double curve without going straight? The question is also posed by Prost, who in doubt decides not to risk: he closes it. Two stationary McLarens: Prost jumps out of the cockpit as if thrown by a spring; Senna no. With gestures and screams he asks the commissioners for help, gets it, shoots himself again on the track along the escape lane, stops in the pits to change the nose and dives into yet another comeback that leads him to overtake Nannini’s Benetton in extremis and win. Done! Half of the miracle materialized, nine points for him and zero for the enemy, everything will be decided in Australia.
But here politics overflows. Prost rushes to the pits and dives on the FIA president, Jean-Marie Balestre, asking for justice and obtaining, in fact, the disqualification of Ayrton even before the checkered flag descends on his samurai triumph. Then the rest: Champion Prost; Senna destroyed in morale but not in the language with which he accuses the Sporting Power. Words so harsh as to force him to block his license for the following season. Days and weeks and months of psychodrama. Alain raves about the front pages of the planet: three times world champion, like Stewart, like Brabham, like Lauda; Fangio with his five titles is not that far off. Ayrton takes refuge in Brazil, hidden by the family screens of Angra dos Reis, one wonders indeed if he will return, if he will not return. And if he wants to come back, how will he do with that Balestre who is demanding apologies on his knees to give him back the super license? …
“The Monday after the Suzuka race – remember Jo Ramirez, McLaren sports coordinator at the time – I found Alain at the airport and told him: yesterday I saw you commit the two older ones errors of your career. He was amazed, he asked me which ones. I told him that at that speed Ayrton would not be able to enter the corners, and so it was wrong to close it. And then, once the connection took place, since Prost’s McLaren did not have the slightest damage, him he would have had the moral obligation to leave again and fight for the victory on the track, not in the courtrooms of sports justice“.
Can we imagine Prost’s reaction to words like that? He, finally and again world champion and above all winner for technical knockout on the fastest rival he had ever met, how could he have replied to such an accusation, much more human than professional?
“Eh … Alain was disappointed – Ramirez continues -. We had a good relationship, I admired it. He was a great champion. With a perfect car, and he was superior in setting it up flawlessly, he could be faster than Senna. He replied that he understood my words, but that it could only end that way. That season, that constant fight between him and Ayrton, had been exhausting. And I believed him: even for the McLaren team, 1989 had been very heavy, despite being able to count on the much better single-seater and on a couple of perhaps unrepeatable drivers. The climate on the track was nightmare. Everyone was suspicious of everyone: when in July Alain declared at Silverstone that at the end of the year, whatever the world championship verdict was, he would leave, even at the risk of not finding another competitive team (and instead he found the Ferrari with which the 1990 World Cup was played, again against Senna), we all understood it. He loved racing, he loved Formula 1. He enjoyed it; he traveled the world with a company of French friends, including journalists and photographers, with whom he spent hours playing cards, or in the pool, or at dinner. And this he succeeded even if Senna, in many situations, on the track had almost humiliated him: perhaps giving him a second in qualifying on circuits such as Montecarlo, Spa, Monza; situations where the star of Prost was formed making him a great champion. Ayrton, on the other hand, was complex. With even an imperfect car, no one could go 101 percent like him. Yet he was afraid of Alain’s ability to be, at times, a better tester. He suspected a lot. I think as a driver he has taught us all a great deal at McLaren. But as a man, he couldn’t enjoy life. For this reason, when at the end of 1993 we finally saw them hug each other on top of a podium, with Alain champion for the fourth time and ready to retire to give Ayrton that exceptional Williams, we all breathed a sigh of relief. A nightmare ended. And for Senna, perhaps, a new life was beginning. Too bad that Imola, again Imola, decided a few months later his time was up“.
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