November 1990 and Ayrton Senna has won his second world championship in controversial fashion having punted Alain Prost off the road at high speed in Suzuka at the penultimate race. Payback for 1989 some may say but the world wonders if Senna has any regrets over how the title was won.
Joe Saward asks the man himself:
“I wish I had won the title by winning the race — just the way I did in 1988. But motor racing is very unpredictable and you never know how things can turn out…”
“Suzuka was the peak of tension in this year’s championship, there was a lot of pressure. At the end of the season we are all tired and we are all looking to going back home — not only drivers but everyone who participates in the championship.
“The accident in Japan was not the first time and it will not be the last time. There will be other things which will happen, not only involving me — but other people too — as you have seen on many different occasions.
“I wanted to win the race very much. I think it would have been a great race because Prost and I have both been matching each other this year in different circuits. Unfortunately it finished in the first corner.
“When I was out of the car after the incident and I was emotional and cool at the same time. I didn’t know exactly what had happened at that moment and I was anxious to know what was going on.
“Walking back to the pits I realised that there was no injury, that the circuit was clear and therefore the race was continuing. I slowly let the pressure go and I tried to be natural and cool, but I could not.
“It’s been a lot of work this year. It’s been a big fight for me — particularly for me — after the difficulties I had at the end of last year and during the winter.”
Prost remains Ayrton’s chief rival and also his main critic — particularly after the incident in Japan.
“I beat Prost in the same car in 1988 and I beat him again in 1989 on different occasions. The final result we all know and finally he won. This year I beat him again with a different car.
“People who understand a little bit about racing know that (this year) I did not have as good a car as he had. Yet I was able to get on with the team, with the mechanics and engineers, to put together things when it really mattered in such a special way that we were able to beat them and we won the championship.”
But what about Japan?
“The championship was not won in Japan. It was won race by race, point by point, not only with first places but with second and third places. You may remember that on different occasions earlier in the year I really believed the championship would come from second and third places and it was so rewarding for me particularly to know that I had it right. I had it right from the beginning. I believed I could do it, I believed the way I had to do it and I worked for it. I achieved it together with the team and everybody.
“To go away from Japan under the circumstances with the title was a relief, but it was frustrating because I wanted to win.
“After that I was able to go to a place where I had no motor racing people — nothing about motor racing — but, of course, I had a telephone and through the telephone I got to know lots of things. Unfortunately, but not to my surprise, the criticisms made by Prost towards me were bad. Once more I got a lot of shit.
“I am used to it and I was not surprised by it. In the end he (Prost) makes me laugh. He’s the guy who has complained so much — not in the last month, not in the last six months, not in the last year — but since we raced together in 1988. He complained about me first, then he complained about Honda, then we went to the following year and he complained about Honda again, he complained about me again. He attacked me, then he attacked the team and we had the other mess at the end of last year. He goes out of the team in a bad way — a team he won three championships with — criticising everybody, and goes to a new team, a new challenge, and he criticised the tyre company saying that we had different tyres, then he moved on to criticise myself again, then it was Berger, Alesi and then his own team, his own management. He ends up criticising Nigel Mansell and finally myself again.
“You had lots of things to write about, but it was not a surprise to me that things ended this way.
“If anyone gets near to him something goes wrong and he has something to say. Because he talks a lot he makes a big casino and as a result of this everybody gets a lot of pressure.
“Look at the problem of backmarkers. That was fine until two years when it was clear that Prost could not cope with lapping people like others can. That had become an issue so much so that complaints about backmarkers were consistently used as the reason for losing races and so on.”
But Prost has not been the only critic. Ferrari wrote a letter to FISA demanding that something be done about the standards of driving. What does Ayrton make of that?
“I think Ferrari is disppointed because they lost the championship, but I say again the championship was not won or lost in Japan. It was won during the season. I think Prost does a good job to focus attention on what he wants people to focus on and forget the other reasons why things happen.
“People forget the races we won when we beat him and we beat Ferrari too. We won the championship because we managed to get better starts, we made better decisions for pit stops, we used a better choice of tyres and so on. It is easy to focus everyone’s minds on what happened in Japan and take away how the championship was decided: one race we beat him, one race he beat me. It is useless to bring in the focus to Japan. Nothing is going to be gained, everyone is going to lose.
“I find it amazing that an organisation like Fiat and Ferrari gets pulled by one man.”
But what about Suzuka?
“Everybody can form their own opinion on what they see and interpret these things. Of course, it is a situation that is very difficult to say, you can only judge the facts by television cameras and photographs. The input from the parties involved can help a little bit, but I believe the best way of looking at it in a rational manner is to look at the images. You get an idea of what happened and who had the responsibility.
“I didn’t hit him from behind, we hit side by side. There is no logic to argue about it. This is racing. Racing is fighting.
“This year’s championship was very competitive with different cars and different drivers very close together fighting. Since we were close together a number of incidents have happened as a direct result of the competition which we hadn’t seen back in 1988 or 1989 because McLaren was so well ahead that no-one else was near. It was just a question of two drivers fighting for the championship. This year has been different.”
The on-track antics have led FISA to establish a Special Commission to look into all aspects of F1 racing. Does Ayrton feel that this is to do with his involvement in the incident in Japan?
“I think the first reaction when you read the communique, is that it is designed for me but, when you look carefully, you will find out that it is the result of different drivers and different races. It is not designed for me.
“I had the same reaction when I first saw it, when I looked a second time, just reading the words, it is nothing to do with me.
“I think this communication states simply that they want to look at this year’s championship — every incident, every single disagreement which occurred. It just happens that this came after Japan and everyone is focused on Japan. They automatically think this came because of what happened in Japan but this is not so. I think we have only to wait to see if this interpretation is correct. I am pretty sure it is the right interpretation — but time will tell.
“I think any adjustment to the rules that can benefit our activities is welcome. I have nothing negative to say about it. People are looking at ways of improving our rules and the ways they are applied.”
It has been a highly-charged and highly competitive year. Does Ayrton think he has learned a lot for it all?
“I think when you have such a competitive environment and are the focus of attention for most people, when you are performing to the limits of yourself and the equipment a small misjudgement can compromise your position. It is very difficult to perform and to be able to perform under those circumstances. I have found the strength and self-assurance that you are doing the right thing and you can only improve from their on.”
But has he reached the peak of his performance?
“I like to think not — but only time will tell. If I do anything I like to do it well and I like to do it like a perfectionist. I have managed to win two championships. I think I have all the opportunities to improve myself and learn. I have time, I am healthy, I have the right environment to continue learning and improving.
“I think I drove better this year. I was able to win when I was totally demotivated like the first race of the year. I was able to find my own way again. I have given up positions during races in order to secure that I would be running later in the races to be in the right place on the podium for the championship.
“Perhaps two or three years ago I would go for it a little bit more. Maybe it would work, maybe not, but I think I can control my desires to go and do it as the situation were presented to me.”
And the best race?
“Monza was very special,” he explains. “It was the key one for the championship. That was the killing one. That gave me the points I needed to play the championship from there on and in a place where under normal circumstances we are not as competitive as the Ferraris. At the last minute I made the right tyre choice and that gave me the edge for the victory.”
All the stress and pressure, however, must have worn him down?
“I have been driving since June every week non-stop until Japan, doing the testing. Since June I have not been home.
“I enjoyed this year working with Gerhard. It was well known inside the team that we have a good understanding and good respect for each other. We pushed each other many times to the high limits. That was good. It made me learn and improve more and the same applied to him. Being in the same team and being competitive we proved that you can have respect and positive relationships between drivers.”
How does this championship compare to that of 1988. Is it special?
“My first title was tremendous, an incredible achievement personally. It was not fully absorbed when I crossed the line in Japan, nor after the race, nor the following day. It was something I experienced day after day, week after week. It was still part of me when in February 1989 I went to a test session in Spain after being away from the car since Australia and I saw the number one on the bodywork of the car and then I experienced such a good feeling — a special feeling — seeing number one on my car.
“This year’s championship is very different in many ways and it will be different. It is something which will come day after day. We have to wait.”
And now, is Ayrton disappearing off to Brazil once again — as he has done in recent winters?
“There is programme for testing established already involving not only myself but also Gerhard. We have also some assistance from test drivers. We will do what is necessary to achieve the performance that it takes to be competitive next year. Of course, it is a different situation to one year ago for me and I will use it in the best way to prepare myself for next year.
“This year was pretty difficult to regain the world title. It can only repeat itself next year. I think sure that I can be highly competitive next year.”
Having achieved countless pole positions and wins, not to mention two World Championships, does Ayrton have any aims he now wants to achieve? Does he want to chase Fangio’s record of five title?
“No, I don’t have any particular goals. My main goal is to do my best everytime I go into the car and win every single occasion that I compete. Once you win some races and a championship all you can do is to aim to win every single race, to be at your best every single time. That’s what I am aiming for. Since I get a thrill by driving quick and competing and fighting to victory that is what keeps me going. As long as I have those feelings I will carry on racing.
“Afterwards I will have to relax for a while. Doing this job at the level at which we are doing it, is very stressful and, surely, you lose some years in life by doing this. Perhaps you have to compensate a little bit afterwards.
But retirement is still a long way away?
“I don’t know. As long as I have the feelings that I can improve and I will learn and be better I will continue.”