It really all started at the end of the first lap of 1988 Portuguese Grand Prix. Aryton Senna and Alain Prost were nearing the end of their first season driving together in the totally dominant Mclaren Honda team. All season long, the tension between these two great drivers had been building as the battle for the drivers crown intensified. But, even the most informed observer in Portugal could never have dreamt of what was about to be unleashed along with its impact on the consequences for Formula One.
As the two Mclarens entered the pit straight to complete the first lap, Senna led, but Prost, having carried more speed through the final turn, was firmly in his slipstream. As Prost pulled out to complete the pass, Senna swerved to the right, Prost, refusing to lift, kept coming. Soon the cars were side by side, wheels interlocking at 180 MPH. Prost was just inches from the pit wall. Prost made the pass and duly won the race. Afterwards, furious at such tactics by a fellow driver, he is reported to have stated “If he (Senna) wants the World Championship so badly, he can have it. “
Prost’s rage was due to the fact a basic rule of Motor Racing had been broken, and not by some F3 novice, but by a driver blessed with such enormous talent that he should have been able to find other ways to win in the supposed pinnacle of the sport, Formula One. Since motor racing began, the “slipstreaming pass” was the classic way to overtake. It relies on the fact that the leading car does not deviate too much from its line on the straight. There was no rule to enforce this, it was just taken for granted. If a slower car just weaved all over the road overtaking would be impossible, but that was against the “spirit” of racing.
More of course was to come, much more. The inaction of the governing body of Formula One sent its message out loud and clear. Clearly Senna now felt that if he could get away with “swerving”, then the next step would be “shutting the door firmly”. This he duly did to Nigel Mansell at the same race the following year. Mansell, having slipstreamed Senna on the pit straight, went for the inside at the following right hand corner. Senna, refusing to be passed, moved over and the ensuing contact took them both out of the race. Later, in 1989, came the first of the Suzuka incidents.
Again, Prost and Senna disputing the same piece of road, each with his own agenda. I was one observer that clung to the “racing accident” line, not wanting to believe that drivers at this level would drive in such a way that would leave an accident as the only “honorable” conclusion. The lead driver did not want to show “weakness” by allowing the pass; the overtaking driver was making an accident inevitable unless he was left room: move over,or move out! A year later all pretence stopped. The two rivals for the Championship, Senna and Prost, lined up for the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix.
Senna had decided that, should Prost beat him away from the start, he was simply going to drive into him and take him out. When this happened, the F1 world went into turmoil. The World Championship had been forever tarnished. The incredible thing is that almost nothing was done about this action of F1 thuggery. Senna was able to keep his ill won title. He, at the time, professed his innocence. To me, the most incredible thing about the whole issue was the number of supporters he had; everyone had their own agenda. “It was Prost’s fault” they cried. “He left the door open. “
How foolish they all looked, when a year later, again in Japan, Senna admitted what most of us knew. That, yes, it was deliberate. Upset by various actions of the governing body, he had decided to take Prost out of the race. Losing was just too terrible to contemplate, and that he, Senna, was bigger than Formula One. One can only guess at what effect these events had on a young Michael Schumacher, then just making his way into Motor Racing. The events of the Australian Grand Prix of 1994 need no detailed rehashing here, but, again, a driver of enormous talent faced losing something that I am sure he felt he totally deserved.
Out of the race through his own mistake after contact with the wall, the stricken Benetton was at the mercy of the Williams of Damon Hill. In the fleeting seconds he had left, he swerved his car into Hill, resolutely “taking his line”. No matter that he would be forced to park round the corner, the right to take the line is god given and absolute. The fact that the inevitable contact put his rival out of the race was just a bonus. So, this most cynical act was of course rewarded with a World Championship. There was some huffing and puffing by the FIA, but the result stood.
Incredibly, there still wasn’t a mechanism to “right the wrong”. Now, not all contacts can be put into this category. Since racing began, there have been “coming togethers”. When two drivers are fighting for position, it is inevitable that it will sometimes end in contact and tears. But, it is usual that in these incidents both drivers suffered the same penalty, loss of position or points. The accident was just that, an accident. It must be said too that the current regulations and the resulting car designs do not help this situation one bit. It is indeed tough to make a clean pass in modern Formula One.
By 1997, these incidents were getting too much for even the FIA. And, the rules allowed for the deduction of points should it be deemed that a driver deliberately took a rival off. So, as the 1997 season came to its final race in Jerez, it was somehow fitting that the powers that be all warned that no further incidents of the type described above would be tolerated. The championship would need to be earned, right down to the final lap. But, the fact that this needed to be raised so often said a lot about the drivers in the title race and their relevant points situation.
In the 1996 title decider, it was hardly raised as a major issue. Perhaps it being that with the two drivers in contention, Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve, it was not considered the type of drivers that needed the reminder. The 1997 title deciding race was a thriller right up to the time when, once again, Schumacher suddenly saw what was “rightfully his” being taken away, in a move that was as crude as it was stupid, he swerved his car into the overtaking Williams in a desperate attempt to frustrate the pass.
Michael Schumacher lost more than the World Championship with that action. Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher stand as undoubtedly two of the greatest drivers in the history of Formula one. Senna on a qualifying lap was electrifying. I can still recall him in the Black JPS Lotus as he hurled it around the Adelaide streets, turbo boost wound up to 1000 + BHP, one lap sticky qualifying tires, and the car lowered for full “ground effect” mode, sparks flying and Senna was working at the limit. Bags of opposite lock, and FAST. He was completely in a class of his own.
You didn’t need to add up the points to see his genious, you just had to watch. Schumacher has become the driver of the decade, his ability in difficult track conditions is awesome. In an earlier article (insert link DSJ words live on), I paid tribute to his towering talent in the wet. Like Senna, he has made mistakes, but they were outweighed by his constant ability to wring everything and more from an inferior package. So often he has made good drivers look second rate. So why is it then, that these two hugely talented drivers have done the things they have done?
Crude acts of driving thuggery not worthy of a second rate F3 driver. It seems to me that both were driven on my such total self belief that just could not entertain the thought of failure. “If i am leading, the line is mine”. Any course of action is OK provided it ends with my victory. Defeat under any circumstances is not acceptable. I don’t have the answers to these questions. In fact, these answers are not important. What is needed now is action by the governing body that shows that this type of behavior is no longer exceptable in modern F1.
Perhaps the idea, mooted some time ago to set up a travelling disciplinary body, chaired by a respected ex-driver to apply swift justice is the answer. The ex-driver would be well equipped to understand the possible mitigating factors to ensure that justice was really done. So, was justice served on the 48th lap of the European Grand Prix? For this writer, undoubtedly yes. Schumacher was the victim of his own crude tactics, but as the stewards have decided that it was a racing accident the message is clear, if his aim had been better, it would have worked.