Top ten: Suzuka showdowns

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Suzuka won’t decide the destiny of the title this year but it has seen many world championship showdowns in the past.

Here’s ten of the best title-deciders at the current home of the Japanese Grand Prix.

10. 1990 Japanese Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna vs Alain Prost

Sadly this ‘showdown’ lasted all of about 300 metres. Senna, incensed at not being allowed to have his pole position slot on the clean side of the track, launched a kamikaze move on Prost at the first corner.

He took them both out, meaning Prost could no longer win the championship.

9. 1989 Japanese Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna vs Alain Prost

It’s hard not to see the events of the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix as a direct consequence of the one that preceded it. On this occasion the roles were reversed: Prost knew he would be champion if Senna failed to finish.

On lap 47, with six to go, Senna dived down the inside of Prost at the chicane in a bid to take the lead. Prost swung right – well ahead of his usual turn-in point – the pair tangled and skidded pathetically to a stop, wheels interlocked.

Prost climbed out of his car but after the marshals disentangled the McLarens Senna darted off down the escape road and back onto the track. After pitting to replace a damaged front wing he caught and passed new leader Alessandro Nannini at the same place he’d collided with Prost.

It seemed he’d done enough to keep his championship hopes alive. But the post-race podium ceremony was delayed as the stewards deliberated the controversy, eventually deciding to exclude Senna for having used the escape road.

McLaren appealed the decision, pointing out the lack of precedent for it, but it became academic when Senna crashed out in the final race at Adelaide.

The appeal was thrown out, the FIA calling Senna “a driver who endangers that safety of other drivers”, and fining him $100,000. He fumed at the injustice of the verdict, and further skirmishes with the stewards led him to take matters into his own hands 12 months later.

8. 2011 Japanese Grand Prix

Sebastian Vettel vs Jenson Button

Today the Japanese Grand Prix is not as close to the end of the season as it once was, so it is less likely to decide the outcome of the championship.

But Sebastian Vettel had such a healthy lead last year that he arrived at Suzuka needing only a single point from the final five races to clinch his second drivers’ title.

As he’d won the previous two Japanese Grands Prix, and put his Red Bull on pole position for this one, it seemed inconceivable he might fail. He drove a conservative race and although Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso beat him across the line, third position was more than enough to get the job done.

The victory doughnuts were on him:

7. 1996 Japanese Grand Prix

Damon Hill vs Jacques Villeneuve

It was an all-Williams contest for the world championship in 1996, with Jacques Villeneuve a long shot to claim the title.

A brilliant win in Portugal had moved him within nine points of team mate Damon Hill, who was driving his last race for the team before being replaced by Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Villeneuve claimed pole position and Hill joined him on the front row. But Hill got away into the lead at the start, and Villeneuve’s slim title hopes were extinguished when a wheel came off following a pit stop.

With that, Hill became not only a world champion, but the first son of a champion to claim the title himself.

6. 1999 Japanese Grand Prix

Mika Hakkinen vs Eddie Irvine

Michael Schumacher’s absence due to injury thrust Ferrari team mate Eddie Irvine into the role of championship challenger to McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen.

Schumacher returned at the penultimate round in Malaysia and played a supporting role to Irvine, allowing him to win and take a four-point lead into the final race at Suzuka.

Irvine, who spent much of his junior career in Japan, usually performed well at Suzuka and was expected to have a reasonable chance of keeping Hakkinen from the title. But during the race weekend the McLaren driver was in such form even Schumacher couldn’t catch him.

Hakkinen beat Schumacher off the front row to take the lead. He won the race and the championship while Irvine, who crashed heavily during qualifying, was a distant third.

5. 1991 Japanese Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna vs Nigel Mansell

A win in Spain with Senna only fifth had surprisingly kept Nigel Mansell in the title hunt as the teams arrived at Suzuka for the penultimate race.

Unusually Gerhard Berger pipped Senna to pole position, but with McLaren locking out the front row Mansell faced an uphill struggle. The McLarens led away, and as they started the tenth lap Mansell’s car got away from him and he spun into retirement in the gravel trap.

That confirmed Senna as champion for the third time. But the weekend ended on a sour note. Having taken the lead off Berger, Senna inelegantly handed it back to him on the last lap.

Then during the press conference Senna furiously denounced former FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre in a torrent of expletives, accusing him of interfering in his previous championship battles with Prost.

4. 1998 Japanese Grand Prix

Mika Hakkinen vs Michael Schumacher

Hakkinen carried a crucial four-point advantage over Schumacher into the final race of 1998.

Schumacher put his Ferrari on pole position and with Hakkinen alongside the stage was set for a battle royale.

But it all went wrong for Schumacher before the race had even begun. The first start was abandoned when 14th-placed Jarno Trulli stalled.

As the cars lined up again Schumacher raised his right hand, signalling his car had also stalled.

That meant another fresh start – with Schumacher starting last instead of first. While Hakkinen romped to victory, Schumacher valiantly tried to battle his way through the field.

His charge came to an end when he suffered a high-speed tyre blow-out, shortly after Esteban Tuero had rammed into Tora Takagi at the chicane, covering the track in debris.

At that moment Hakkinen was the world champion, and victory was the icing on the cake. After the race he was quick to thank his team for reacting quickly to the first race stoppage by cooling his car.

Ferrari were slow to give Schumacher’s car the same attention, which may have contributed to his disastrous failure.

It was the second year in a row Schumacher had gone into the final round in a position to win the world championship with Ferrari but failed to clinch the crown. The following year saw another disappointment as he was injured mid-season.

But the year after that it finally came good…

3. 2000 Japanese Grand Prix

Michael Schumacher vs Mika Hakkinen

Schumacher had come close to winning his third title in 1997 and 1998. Finally in 2000 he got the job done after a race-long battle with Hakkinen.

The McLaren driver took the lead off Schumacher at the start but the pair switched places when Schumacher ran long at the second round of pit stops, pumping in a series of quick laps during a brief rain shower.

It was a stirring contest between the top two drivers of the day, albeit one largely decided in the pits. They finished well over a minute ahead of their team mates.

2. 2003 Japanese Grand Prix

Michael Schumacher vs Kimi Raikkonen

A controversial FIA ruling on Michelin’s tyres handed the initiative to Ferrari in the final stages of what had been a closely-fought season. Schumacher pulled nine points clear of Raikkonen, and with a maximum of ten on offer at the final race his sixth title looked like a formality before the weekend began.

But mixed weather conditions in qualifying left Schumacher 14th on the grid, Raikkonen eighth, and produced a nail-biting finale.

While Raikkonen worked his way up to second, Schumacher had a scrappy race in the midfield. He clipped the back of Takuma Sato’s car and dropped further back. Later on he was almost taken out by his brother Ralf at the chicane.

But despite these scares Schumacher had made it as far as eighth before the flag fell, enough to secure the championship. And for good measure team mate Rubens Barrichello kept Raikkonen from the victory he needed.

This triumph meant Schumacher finally broke Juan Manuel Fangio’s 46-year-old record of world championship victories. Schumacher raised the bar from five to six – and went on to increase it yet further.

1. 1988 Japanese Grand Prix

Ayrton Senna vs Alain Prost

This was the time they didn’t hit each other. Senna was on pole as usual but he stalled his engine. Fortunately he was able to get it started on the downhill slope towards turn one, but he’d fallen to 14th by the time he got there.

Wasting no time, Senna set about picking his way through the midfielders. Prost held the lead but was grappling with a gearbox problem. From lap 14 rain began to fall and Senna, emerging from the chasing pack, soon had his team mate within range.

As they fought their way through lapped traffic Senna pounced, seizing the lead on lap 28 on the run to turn one. By the end of the race Prost was over 13 seconds behind, and Senna’s eighth win of the year secured his first world championship.

If only all their battles had been decided by pure racing.

Not forgetting…

There was one other world championship-deciding Grand Prix at Suzuka. Unfortunately the title battle was already over before the race began.

Nelson Piquet was crowned champion in 1987 after team mate Nigel Mansell crashed during practice, injuring his back, and ruling him out of the race.

Over to you

Were you at any of these races? Did you watch any of them? Share your favourite memories of Suzuka showdowns in the comments.

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Image © Bridgestone

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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47 comments on “Top ten: Suzuka showdowns”

  1. suprised 1990 was at #10. ask me about championship deciders at suzuka and 1990 is the one i instantly recall…..

    1. It’s the most memorable, maybe even infamous. But it wasn’t really… the best, in that sense.

    2. I wonder why Senna was not penalized or even disqualified for crashing into Prost in 1990. The crash was deliberate and I dont think today’s stewards would take more than a minute to disqualify a driver for such a move.

      1. Except they did nothing of the sort when Malfunctionado crashed twice deliberatly into people when they wern’t even racing.

        Go figure.

      2. @sd

        I wonder why Senna was not penalised or even disqualified for crashing into Prost in 1990.

        As Senna hadn’t finished the race, disqualifying him from it would have achieved nothing. And of course had the FIA penalised Senna, they would have had to explain why they hadn’t penalised Prost the year before for doing the same thing (albeit at slower speed).

        But putting that to one side, there’s the more difficult question of what meaningful punishment can the FIA hand down in the case of one driver taking another out to win the championship. Obviously we’ve seen this happen since 1990, sometimes with success (Schumacher 1994), sometimes without (Schumacher 1997).

        When Max Mosley was FIA president he said in 2007 that the FIA would act to award the championship to a driver who had been deliberately taken out by a rival as in the case of what happened in 1994:

        Mosley: Schumacher would have lost ’94 title under modern rules

        That would of course be hugely controversial but given some of the things we’ve seen teams get up to in recent years, don’t be surprised if it’s a conversation we end up having at some point in the future.

        1. “there’s the more difficult question of what meaningful punishment can the FIA hand down in the case of one driver taking another out to win the championship.”

          In 97, leading up to the final race, MM stated that anyone interfering with the WDC race which was only between MS and JV that year, would find themselves banned for the first 3 races of the following season. So to this day it still gets my goat that MS got a slap on the wrist for his blatant whack on JV. MM decided his move was ‘instinctual’ and not deliberate, and when asked what happened to the 3 race ban, he sloughed it off by saying that any driver would gladly exchange a 3 race ban for a WDC, so what was the point.

          I think that a 3-race ban and actually instigating it for any funny business that interferes with the WDC race would be a good start because most drivers imho have more class than to ‘win’ by whacking someone off the track. At the time it happened, JV in the post-race interview said he would have ‘heavy shoulders’ if he ‘won’ that way. Only certain people, imho, would actually trade an ill-gotten WDC for a 3 race ban.

          I think there are many penalties that they could put in place…how about a one-season ban the following season? Would that not be a deterrent? But none of it has any meaning if the FIA is just going to change their mind at their own whim and make up some excuses not to enforce their own rule. Or as pointed out above, they could award the WDC to the driver who has been deliberately taken out…but WILL they, is the other big question. Or will they just decide it was ‘instinctual’ after all, and not deliberate?

          I would like to think that at the most basic level, any driver that gets away with deliberately taking someone out, still has to live with the heavy shoulders deep down, and themetaphoric asterisk beside their name in the record books, not to mention the often long memory of F1 fans.

        2. pffff, I didn’t knew that Schumacher, won the ’94 championship by…cheating. And, now, I don’t understand, why fans of Schumacher, disagree with the behavior of Maldonado, who in some cases tried to crash intentionally in others, not even for championship, but for something stupid.

          1. @sorin 1994 wasn’t exactly black and white, it wasn’t 100% Schumacher’s fault, and it wasn’t 100% Hill’s fault… In hindsight, if Hill had waited another corner, he would have been safely past Schumacher, but he didn’t and the leader of the race defended, and the gap closed and there was contact… Watch the incident for yourself before making bold statements.

            pffff, I didn’t knew that Schumacher, won the ’94 championship by…cheating.

          2. It wasn’t only that incident from ’94 that made some people think Schumacher was cheating.
            There’s the whole hidden electronic aids in the Benetton that was a factor too. Whether Schumacher knew about that is another question. Verstappen had suspisions and he was Schumachers teammate. Senna also was convinced something was awry early on before he sadly passed away.

  2. I’d swap 2000 and 2003 – I value the Schumacher-Hakkinen head-to-head a lot more than the Schumacher fightback (since Kimi never led the race outside of the rounds of pitstops).

  3. Schumacher was 8th in 2003, not 7th.

  4. In my opinion Suzuka has produced the best races, a circuit could produce. Though my favourite one was none of them. It was the 2005 race. I think this is the best race I have ever watched. As fae ar championship clinching races are concerned, the 1998 and 2000 races were astonishing!

    1. @dimitris-1395 I’d challenge that by stating Monaco has produced some of my favourite races… But I agree, Suzuka is by far one of the highlight circuits of the season for my mind.

  5. What about 2005 ?? Kimi vs Fishi ?

    1. Well, they weren’t fighting for the world championship but this article is about the title-deciders. But I agree that the 2005 Japanese GP is one of the most memorable F1 races ever.

    2. 2005 wasn’t included, because this is the criteria for inclusion in the list:

      Suzuka won’t decide the destiny of the title this year but it has seen many world championship showdowns in the past.

      The 2005 race might be one of the most-memorable races of all time, but it did not decide the 2005 title.

  6. Suzuka 2005….the pure speed domination of Kimi Raikkonen!! One of the best race i ever watch…..NO DRS, KERS…just pure raw speed………

    1. OmarR-Pepper (@)
      27th September 2012, 15:00

      That race is an example of why we love F1, when it IS F1.

  7. 2000 would be my favourite as it’s very close to my heart. I had been supporting Schumacher-Ferrari since 96/97 and had to endure some horrible championship deciders before seeing my guy win in 2000!

    1. And here. Especialy after 1998 which was heartbreaking

    2. Me too. But Mika Hakkinen – what a gentleman, such sporting spirit between him and Schumi!

  8. Wow, the 2000 race seems very interesting! Two drivers utterly dominating their team-mates fighting tooth and nail for the title.

  9. That onboard footage from 1989 is just breathtaking stuff, so raw

  10. 2003 is such an underrated and forgotten season – Main reason because it took place between two Schumacher/Ferrari dominant years.

    1. Yeah I agree. 2003 is so special to me. It remains the start of the ‘modern era’ for me (along with 1994 going back further coz of the tragedies and it being the first year I started studying as I grew up. My knowledge is pretty much complete back to 94 then gets progressively emptier before that.)

      I’d always paid basic year-long attention to and followed F1 as much as any little boy could back to 96, but they’re all on late at night in Australia and I’d hardly be allowed to watch many. I can remember actually live watching very few races up to 02 that weren’t Melbourne or Suzuka (coz they were often deciders and on during the day).

      I was 13 in 2003 and staying up later at nights and the coverage got better because it moved Channel 9 to Channel 10, so it was the first year where I really watched pretty close to every lap of the season and paid close attention to the continuing narrative. Even with all Michael’s dominance I wanted him to win coz I was such a fan and hadn’t watched so much before (and I also disliked Montoya who looked the biggest threat into the last few races).

      Not to mention that the modern day DVD released extensive FIA reviews started from 03, and I have them all. So it’s from that season onwards that I can see any highlights anytime and just know so well.

      In terms of stats and my hilarious photographic memory, I can rattle off every result (pole and podium) of every race back to Australia 2003, as the start point of modern F1 I can actually vividly remember, before that it all gets a bit murkier. :)

  11. 1998 and 1999 were good for Hakkinen fans :)

  12. I have a soft spot for 2003, seeing as it was my first year watching F1, but looking back, 2000 really seems like one of the best moments for the sport. I have no love for Senna’s and Prost’s antics in 89/90, it ruined two perfectly good championship battles however you look at it.

    1. The battle between Prost and Senna was certainly the most entertening things this sport has had, the pivot for many reasons.

  13. I love how Mansell just casually walks across the track with cars blasting around around him.

    Also, why is 2011 on there, yet alone in 8th? It wasn’t a decider at all…

    1. It was, Vettel became WDC at Suzuka, so it was a decider.

      In 2000; Japan wasn’t the last race either, yet it was a decider as well.

  14. Rain also played an important role in 1989. It started on lap 14 and helped Senna to get closer on Prost.

    1. sorry 1988…

  15. It’s so amazing the Senna-Prost rivalry in Suzuka stirs comments even a couple of decades later. The feature is an amazing one Keith, I’m so thankful for it.

    I think in 1989 Senna clearly had a point. Though Prost was ahead, he was clearly off his usual racing line, in contrast to what he said. Senna’s move was quite amazing, assuming, he would have been able to make the right-hander, had Prost not closed him down, which we will never know. Using an escape road? Come on, as McLaren pointed out, I saw in the Senna movie, there was no precedent or regulation where to rejoin. You cannot gain advantage, that holds even today, the Monza chicanes can tell, but Senna hardly gained any advantage there, miles ahead of the others. I heard, marshalls pushing him was also brought up as an excuse back then. Nowadays, Prost would have been punished for pushing Senna off track when Senna had half of his car alongside with Prost continuing his move. And I think it’s a fine regulation, promoting such brave moves like the one Senna planned to implement. If he would have made the chicane and would hold the lead in Turn 1, that would have been one of the greatest maneauver ever, considering how far he was, by Prost’s admission, before the chicane.

    On the other hand, in 1990, it was only a request from Senna to change the pole slot side, and the stewards and Balestre had every right to deny it. I agree that Senna did what he did as a kind of revenge.

    …I read on after writing this reflecting to the 9th and 10th on the list and what a wonderful list this is. Thanks again. :)

    1. I think in 1989 Senna clearly had a point.

      He did, and the reasons for his actions in 1990 are very convincingly put by the film of the same name.

      What the film failed to give very much weight to, however, was that Prost’s move was far from being an unprovoked act, out of the blue. But, of course, the Senna/Prost feud had taken root well before Suzuka 1989, with Portugal 1988 and San Marino 1989 being two of the main flashpoints. To my mind it was one of the weaknesses of the film that it doesn’t really address why the rivalry arose in the first place.

  16. I’d rank the 2000 showdown as number one because of the level of competition. Just watch the qualifying and the race: two of the best F1 drivers going absolutely flat out all the time. Schumacher grabbed pole by 9 thousands of a second, and the race could’ve turned out either way.

    1. now imagine those 2 great drivers of 2000 beeing teamates and you are in 1988.

  17. Hill’s 96 win was my favourite. Alonso’s 06 was practically a title decider even if it was not. But I have to say 98-00 between Schumacher & Hakkinen (and Irvine) were of the highest quality. Hakkinen was a brilliant driver under pressure.

  18. I always felt Hakkinen’s success in 1999 as being my favourite Suzuka decider. I always admired Mika Hakkinen for his bravery but also his humanity. Many of us remember the helicopter shots of him crying at the Monza Grands Prix that same year, after spinning off the track. It showed just how much it all meant to him, and the pressure he was under to win his second championship. Many thought, and with reason, that Michael Schumacher’s broken leg at Silverstone would enable Hakkinen to cruise to the title. That was not the case, nor was Eddie Irvine any push over, but Hakkinen did it in the end, the last time he would be champion and one of the true ‘great’ champions of recent times.
    As for the others, everybody cannot think of Prost or Senna without thinking of Suzuka. In some ways its a tragedy, everybit as much as everyone associates Imola with the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger. Its ingrained in us, unescapable, but the events of 1989 and 1990 did not hurt F1’s profile and if anything helped it. I often wonder how many of us started and still watch grands prix today if not for the Prost/Senna feud? I for one loved every minute of it.

  19. I love the Japanese Grand Prix. I started watching F1 in 1997 so for me it always felt normal for the denouement to a championship battle to come at Suzuka. My personal favourite was 1998- having to video the race due to not being allowed up at such an ungodly hour and then hoping that nothing happened to delay proceedings and stymie my plans to watch the whole recording from scratch when I woke up. Then to find that the race was such a cracker put the icing on the cake of my first full season and hooked me forever. The temptation to ‘flick to the last page of the book’ and check teletext once i saw Schumi stall was almost too much to bear for a 10 year old! In terms of the classics I’ve always rated this race alongside Spa, Monaco, Monza and Silverstone.

  20. 2011 would not be on my list. And my order is different too.
    But great article.

    1. @edmarques @dujedcv The only other Suzuka title decider than the 10 on this list was 1987, where Mansell was injured in practice.

  21. Good of you Keith to point out that the 1989 collision DID NOT cost Senna the title. He still would’ve needed to win in Adelaide to win the title, and he crashed into the back of Brundle in the wet. That point is often forgotten.
    And in 1990, he should’ve been stripped of the title after that crash.
    Favourite Suzuka title deciders 2000,2003,2011
    Favourite Suzuka race 2005

    1. @91jb12

      Good of you Keith to point out that the 1989 collision did not cost Senna the title.

      I didn’t say that. Clearly the collision did guarantee the title for Prost. It did not deny Senna the title, but it did guarantee he could no longer win it, which surely is the point.

  22. 2011 does not deserve to be here. Championship was already decided as Seb had to score 1 point in 5 races, so he could have done it in Brazil and win it.

    1. @dujedcv That makes no sense! There was a chance that Vettel could have left without being champion and lost the overall championship to someone else. That’s the whole point of this article. Mathematically he was vulnerable.

  23. Senna, brilliant driver, but I find it hard to respect him when I remember things like 1990 brought up Same with Prost I guess though! Lack of professionalism and plenty of petulance instead. It’s a shame that the FIA set the precedent with Prost the year before as both of them deserved severe penalties for not only acting reckless but having no sportsmanship or professional qualities about them in either instance.

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