The 1989 Formula One World Championship was dominated by changes: From now on, turbochargers were no longer allowed – Honda was forced to rely on naturally aspirated engines. In the previous season, naturally aspirated engines were still disadvantaged on the racetrack: Those who drove naturally aspirated engines usually trailed the turbochargers.
Honda, however, developed a naturally aspirated engine that was in no way inferior to a turbocharger – except in driving comfort. The driving experience of the turbocharged McLaren MP 4/4 was gone.
Senna said of the new McLaren MP 4/5 with naturally aspirated engine:
“It’s a different technique to drive. Mainly it’s an engine with more bottom and mid-range power and torque. The top end not so much, similar to a turbo engine of one year ago. But it’s a 10-cylinder engine, so the car is built differently around the engine, and the handling and drivability are different, so the driving technique has to be different in order to get the best out of it.“
Deal between Senna and Prost
During the first Grand Prix of the 1989 season in Rio de Janeiro, Senna finished eleventh due to an accident on the first lap – Nigel Mansell in the Ferrari took a sensational victory, Alain Prost came second and scored his first world championship points. Mansell’s victory was unexpected: Ferrari used a semi-automatic gearbox for the first time in 1989, the pioneer of today’s Formula One gearboxes. Since the technology was considered vulnerable, the Ferrari was thought to have little chance of winning.
To prevent a similar first-lap accident during the next race in Imola, Senna and his teammate Alain Prost made an agreement: To avoid dangerous situations between them, they would not race seriously against each other until after the Tosa corner.
At the Tamburello corner, Gerhard Berger crashed into the wall and sustained injuries: The race was stopped.
Conflict between Ayrton and Alain
After the restart, Prost was leading – but Senna overtook him at the Tosa corner, took the lead and won the race by 40 seconds over Alain Prost.
Prost interpreted Senna’s overtaking manoeuvre in the Tosa corner as a breach of their agreement not to race against each other until after the Tosa corner: A dispute erupted between the two McLaren drivers that resulted in a press scandal and would not end for years.
It even got to the point where Prost threatened to resign from Formula One if Senna did not apologize publicly. Ayrton sensed that Alain was very upset and got involved in a lengthy discussion with him: Nevertheless, the relationship between the teammates remained extremely tense.
The 1989 season was marked by many failures of Ayrton Senna’s car: But when his car worked, he took pole position and won.
The world championship remained undecided until the penultimate race at Suzuka: Senna was behind Prost in the world championship. Suzuka was Senna’s last opportunity to score points to still decide the world championship in his favour.
The relationship between Prost and Senna was more strained than ever: the two had not spoken to each other for months because of the incident at Imola.
In Suzuka, Prost was in the lead for a long time until Senna came close enough for an overtaking manoeuvre on lap 46: Senna set off for an overtaking manoeuvre in the final chicane, but Prost resisted, both cars got tangled up and came to a halt in the run-off zone.
Collision with consequences
Prost immediately got out of the car: He assumed Senna’s car was out of the race. This would have meant that the world championship would have gone to Alain Prost, as Senna would no longer have been able to catch up. Prost was already sure that he had won the 1989 world championship.
But Senna had his car pushed, went into the pits to repair his front wing and won the race.
Senna said of his actions:
“My car was damaged. When I saw the nose damaged, I thought it was finished. (…) My car was in a dangerous place, and it is the duty of the driver to put the car in a safe place. That is one of the rules: you can have assistance from the marshals, under your direction, to move the car to a safe place. (…) Then suddenly, when I was going down the escape road, I have enough momentum to try to restart. So I put the ignition on and I bump-start, and the engine re-started. (…) I am coming to the pits and I know that for sure my mechanics are waiting to fix it [the wing], if they can. And they were able to fix it, so I was able to get back.“
Senna gets disqualified
But the award ceremony was held without Ayrton Senna on the podium: Senna was disqualified. The reasons: Dangerous driving and missing a chicane. Senna’s disqualification meant that Alain Prost had won the world championship.
But that wasn’t enough: a week later, Senna was fined $100,000 and given a six-month suspended racing ban.
To this day, this decision by the officials is the subject of controversial discussions – Senna saw the influence of the then FIA president behind the decision and felt he had been unfairly punished. Senna’s view is supported by the fact that in 1989 numerous drivers “skipped” chicanes in a similar way to Senna and received no punishment for doing so.
A blow for Ayrton Senna
It’s certain that Senna’s disqualification made Alain Prost world champion: Without the disqualification, Senna would still have had to win the last race in Australia to win the world championship: Not an unlikely scenario. It is rumoured to this day that French FIA President Jean-Marie Balestre helped his compatriot Alain Prost by initiating Senna’s disqualification.
For Senna, it was a blow: similar to the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, Alain Prost had again been favoured by a decision of the officials. Only this time it was for the world championship title and not for a Grand Prix victory.
In the final race of the 1989 season in Adelaide, Senna drove into the rear of Martin Brundle’s race car while lapping, having previously spun a few times on the track. It was Senna’s way of ending a difficult season.
1990 did not begin well for Ayrton Senna: It was not certain whether Senna would even drive a Grand Prix in 1990. The FIA president left open whether he would issue Senna a superlicence for the 1990 season: In addition, the six-month suspended racing ban was still in play.
Senna commented at an emotional press conference before the last race of the 1989 season, a few weeks after his disqualification:
“Afterwards you wonder why you should do this on and on when you’re not being fairly treated. But racing is in my blood and I know that the situation we face only motivates me deep inside to fight against it and to prove what I’m doing has values. I’ll do here exactly the same I’ve done all my life and drive the way I feel is right. If I have my licence taken away then probably the values that keep me going in Formula One will go with it, and I will not be in Formula One any more.“
Main sources: Rubython, Tom: “Ayrton Senna: The Life of Senna“, 2004 BusinessF1 Books & Jones, Bruce: “Ayrton Senna – Portrait of a racing legend“, 2019 Carlton Books.