Sporting bygones: When Alain Prost’s bitter rivalry with Ayrton Senna boiled over

Alessandro Nannini only ever won one race in Formula 1.

Off circuit: Ayrton Senn and bitter rival Alain Prost after their collision in Suzuka. Picture: Getty Images
Off circuit: Ayrton Senn and bitter rival Alain Prost after their collision in Suzuka. Picture: Getty Images

It was the Japanese Grand Prix of 1989 at Suzuka, a race remembered to this day for one of the most dramatic episodes in the sport’s rich history, even if it had nothing to do with the man who took his place on the top step of the podium.

Suzuka on October 22 was all about Alain Prost versus Ayrton Senna and a simmering rivalry that reached boiling point.

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The two McLaren team-mates were fighting for the world title and as the F1 circus reached Japan, Prost held a 16-point lead over his Brazilian team-mate with just two races to go.

In the days of 10 points for a win, Prost needed only to get his nose over the line first to claim back the world title from his younger team-mate.

What ensued that day was a classic battle between Prost and Senna that would echo down the decades.

Prost held the lead as Senna honed into his rear-view mirror.

Prior to the race he told team principal Ron Dennis that in the past if Senna had ducked down the inside he would not shut the door, so as to not take two cars out of the race. But on this occasion, he would do so.

The Frenchman was true to his word. With just six laps to go, Senna got on the inside of Prost heading into the chicane and pulled alongside his team-mate as he began to turn in.

The two collided. They slid to a halt in the mouth of the chicane’s escape road. As the picture shows, Prost got out of his car, but Senna remonstrated to marshalls to get him back on the circuit.

They were able to do so, Senna restarting his engine and accelerating down the escape road, weaving between the temporary chicane bollards arranged in the roadway.

Typical Senna, even after going into the pits to replace his damaged nose cone, he produced a drive of controlled fury to catch and overtake Nannini, who had initially profited from the McLaren drivers’ crash.

But the drama was not finished. Senna was immediately disqualified for missing the chicane following the crash. Incensed, Senna cited a conspiracy, with the sport’s president Jean-Marie Balestre being a compatriot of Prost’s.

Nannini was declared the winner of the race, Prost claimed the title.

Twelve months later back at Suzuka, the roles were reversed.Prost – now with Ferrari – was nine points adrift of Senna with two races to go and again the two clashed, this time Senna being the culprit and the man to benefit as the crash on the very first corner of the race saw them skid off into the gravel meant the Brazilian was champion.

By then, Nannini was out of the sport, his last race coming three weeks earlier in Spain. Prost and Senna, on the other hand, are names in Formula 1 that evoke lasting memories.