Immediately after 1990 Japanese GP opinions regarding the Senna/Prost first corner shunt could be divided into two roughly equal camps, surprising though even that might seem to those who either witnessed it firsthand or saw the numerous television replays from all angles. After Senna gave a press conference in Adelaide, however, the balance swung dramatically and unfathomably in the Brazilian’s favour. Intelligent people who should have known better and the unintelligent who couldn’t spoke of the impossibility of one driver deliberately taking out another, and blamed Prost for attempting to maintain his lead despite the wholly apparent legality of his move. The aforementioned group of people included luminaries such as John Surtees, Alan Jones and James Hunt, none of whom believed Senna had erred.
“In my opinion it was Ayrton’s fault. Alain was ahead and had the line,” said John Watson during the post-race press conference, yet by Adelaide he too had swung round to the Senna view. Many had succumbed to the Brazilian’s oratory powers. We have seen over the years just how strong he can be in stamping his mood on a press gathering; the tears of self-pity in Adelaide in 1989 when he threw himself at the mercy of the press and begged for its help fighting the baddies at FISA; the genuine tears when he spoke of Martin Donnelly’s accident at Jerez last year; his wheedling manner in Adelaide shortly afterwards when he spoke loftily of the concepts of fair play and justice.
It may be worth looking up the register at RADA to see if the name Senna has appeared in the last year or so, for it was finally evident in Suzuka this year that it was all nothing more than brilliant acting. In Suzuka, 12 months after telling the world that it had all been Prost’s fault for not opening the door, Senna finally admitted that he had taken the Frenchman out of the race. Some already knew that, had no doubt of it. It will be interesting to see how those who didn’t, and were duped, now see their hero.
“The World Championship is for sport, not war,” said Prost last year, and they pointed at him and snickered about him being bitter, past it, unable to win. “What he did today was absolutely disgusting. Believe me, I was flat out into that corner, in fifth gear, and he hit me hard enough to break off my rear wing.
“Apart from anything else, whatever he thinks of me, I can’t believe he would risk his own safety on the first lap of a Grand Prix and with the whole field behind us.
“I’ve said to you before, he tries to represent himself to the world as a man he is not. He has no value.”
“I don’t give a damn what Prost says,” declared Senna, and then he made an extraordinary statement. “It is a great satisfaction for me, and I dedicate this championship to all the people who fought against me last year. It hurt me a lot, but for them it is a demonstration of who the real champion is.
“I won here last year and it was very, very bad to take it away from me,” he continued, and most conceded that point. “It is very rewarding to do this. When I walked back from the corner to the pits I left behind me there all the weight and stress from 1990.”
“Sure you go for gaps,” said Mario Andretti. “The trick is finding one wide enough for your car.”
It transpired in Suzuka this year that Senna never had the slightest intention of seeking a gap. What kind of man draws satisfaction from such behaviour? Certainly not the Clarks, Villeneuves or Ascaris of yesteryear, the true heroes of the game. Ayrton Senna revealed to us the dark side of his character when he exploded into a spiteful attack on Jean-Marie Balestre immediately after clinching his third World Championship. Prost had known the answer for the past year, but now the world would know too, and from Senna’s own lips. What follows may well offend those sensitive to references both fornicatory and fecal, but gives a graphic insight into his mental state in Japan.
The smart thing to have done would have been to accept the plaudits for a championship very well won, to bask in the image of the man who was so magnanimous in his day of great triumph that, like Nelson Piquet in South Africa in 1983, he was prepared to let his team-mate win. Instead the bitterness and hate that consume him, and will forever prevent him from being a man at peace, came spewing out of Senna. The tide of passion washed up all the anguish of Suzuka 1989 and 1990, and swept him away in wave after wave of self-justification. His ‘message’ was broadcast not just to a stunned media, but also to an equally open-mouthed spectator audience at the circuit.
“89 was an unforgivable situation,” said this man whose belief in God does not appear to embrace His teachings about humility and forgiveness. “I still struggle to cope with that. Balestre gave the order that we don’t change pole position from the right to the left. I did the right thing when we crashed at the first corner. Prost turned to cut me over, he pushed me out.”
This was dangerous stuff. Was he really saying that it was right to crash deliberately because he couldn’t have his own way and had lost the start in a race scheduled to last 53 laps? The hole he was so frantically digging himself got deeper. The following italics are mine.
“Balestre gave an order not to change. It was hard but I know the inside system. And this is really shit. I tell myself okay you try and work clean, then you get EXPLETIVE by stupid people. So I said to myself, ‘Alright, tomorrow I’ll tell you the EXPLETIVE truth, 100 per cent truth.’ If Sunday at the start, because I’m in the wrong position, Prost gets the jump and beats me off the line, at the first corner I’ll go for it. And he had better not turn in, because he’s not gonna make it. And it just happened, I guess. I just wish it didn’t happen. I really wished that I could have had the start, because then we could go and go. It’s unbelievable that it had to happen. He got the jump and he was turning in and I hit him. We were both off and it was a shit end of championship. It was not good for me and not good for Formula One. It was the result of the wrong decisions and partiality from the people inside that make the decisions. I won the championship, so what?”
At no point did it appear to strike him that it was also a bad end to the championship for Prost, nor that his red mist, fit of pique, temper tantrum, call it what you will, might not only have endangered the pair of them, but also 24 drivers following them into the corner. Nor did he mention what might have happened later in the race had he led and Prost tried to overtake. During all this Berger and Patrese shuffled uneasily, perhaps stifling the temptation to get up and place a hand over their colleague’s mouth before he could do himself more harm. Gerhard attempted to inject a little humour into the poisonous monologue by remarking: “I think you should should hope that Balestre doesn t come back next year…!” It merely fuelled the egotistical fire, for Senna was now wound up too tight.
“I don’t care. I don’t care! I think for once we all must say what we feel is right and what we feel is wrong. EXPLETIVE rules that you cannot tell your mind, that you cannot speak what you’re thinking, you are not allowed to say somebody did a mistake, somebody did something wrong. And nobody was able to say that because we had the shit in ’89 and I said what I thought and you all know that was true what took place afterwards was a theatre. It was shit that took place.
“Why do people say I caused the accident in 1990? Because if you get EXPLETIVE every single time you’re trying to do your job cleanly and properly, by the system, by other people taking advantage of it, what should you do? Stand behind, stay behind and say, ‘Thank you. Yes, thank you’? No. You should fight for what you think is right.
“And I was really fighting for something that was correct. Because I was EXPLETIVE from the year before, I was EXPLETIVE in the winter, I was EXPLETIVE in the qualifying procedure here when I got pole and the pole was supposed to have been on the good side. If it had been I would have got a better start and nothing would have happened because I would have got a better start. I would have been first without any problem. But it was again a result of a decision, a bad decision, influenced by Balestre. I know that. We know that from underneath. And we all know why, and the result of it was the first corner. It was not my responsibility. I did contribute to it, yes. But it was not my responsibility.”
It was not Ayrton Senna’s responsibility that he and Alain Prost crashed? Why, then, did a leading photographer who was at the corner say immediately afterwards, “Prost braked and began to turn in, and there was absolutely no change in the Honda’s exhaust note as Senna hit the back of the Ferrari”? Why then did Nelson Piquet concur with that “Senna just drove straight into the back of Prost, and that’s all there is to it.” Whose foot was on the throttle which according to Honda’s own telemetry — was never closed throughout the manoeuvre?
In America Sam Colt and Messrs Smith & Wesson put their names to guns, but nobody has ever suggested through history that they should be held more responsible for killing people than those who actually pull the triggers. The ultimate responsibility is the user’s; it cannot be abdicated. Ayrton Senna’s comments and the sentiments behind them are shocking because this man drives racing cars for a living. Because this man so often takes time off to tell others as he did with Nigel Mansell before the Japanese GP how they should drive, what tactics are acceptable and what aren’t.
What Senna was effectively saying is that nobody is allowed to overtake him or beat him into a corner, and that the price if they do could well be an accident. He threatened as much to Mansell before the Japanese GP. All last year he absolutely denied responsibility for the first corner accident in Suzuka, this man who is always telling us the importance of honesty, yet during the height of his tirade he spluttered, “I was determined to get to the corner first, and I was not prepared to let the guy” he could not bring himself to name Prost “turn that corner in front of me. Because, if I was near enough to make that corner, he couldn’t turn in front of me. He just had to let me through.”
Last year, in his hotel room in Adelaide, he refused pointblank to accept that photographic evidence showed him hitting the rear of the Ferrari and not, as he claimed, its side. That he was only that close anyway because he had not lifted and thus could not have hoped to make the corner at the speed and on the line on which he was travelling.
“He took a chance,” he continued, almost evangelical in his intensity. “It didn’t work because I went for it. I didn’t care if we crash. I went for it. He took a chance and we crashed. He turned and we crashed. But that was a result of ’89. That was a result of all the shit that I already told you and you already know. It was built up, it was unavoidable, it had to happen. It was bad. It was bad for me. It was bad for everyone.”
He did not need to add that such high-speed tit for tat was bad for the sport. As we left the press room, ears still ringing, the overriding feeling was one of intense disappointment that a man of such outstanding skill — on one of the finest afternoons of his career — should have elected to dig up the past in such an unbecoming manner. Disappointment, and the feeling that Ayrton Senna may well have cause to regret some of his comments in the years to come.