The Suzuka Moment: Will Lewis and Nico live up to the Senna/Prost billing?


One of sport’s greatest qualities is that of rivalry. In very few arenas are competitors pitted against each other in a challenge for superiority that is so fierce, it often defines the very discipline they are battling in.

In a sport as exclusive as Formula 1, these rivalries are all the more intriguing. They are played out every other weekend as teams and drivers go head-to-head in an all-out fight to the flag.

There’s a very good reason why we don’t look back on seasons such as 1992, 2004 and 2011 with great fondness: they were walkovers. One driver and one team dominated proceedings, meaning that this rivalry that fans so craved was lost. You’d rather tune in to a football game between two well-matched teams than a one-sided match – it simply makes for better viewing. It’s apparently for this reason that F1 lost 50m viewers in 2013 as Sebastian Vettel waltzed to the championship.

The only way in which the two spheres – rivalry and domination – can mix in Formula 1 comes when two drivers enjoy a great rivalry within one team. It is for that reason 2014 will go down in history as a classic season, with Mercedes’ seemingly mundane domination being overshadowed by the wonderful battle between its drivers, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.

Intra-team rivalries are nothing new in F1 – Hamilton himself enjoyed the most recent spat with Fernando Alonso back in 2007 during the Briton’s rookie season. However, none are so famed as the fall-out between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at McLaren back in the late 1980s.

Senna, a young and immensely talented driver hailing from Brazil, joined McLaren for the 1988 season after a successful spell with Lotus. Prost had won two world titles with the team by this point, and was banking on a third with the aid of his new and supportive teammate.

Of course, Senna had other ideas. The Brazilian was outscored by Prost across the course of the year, but due to the dropped score points system, Senna secured the title. Although there hadn’t been any stand-out incidents between the two, the battle was clearly a fierce one. McLaren’s MP4/4 car has gone down in history as one of the greatest F1 cars ever produced, winning 15 of the 16 races in 1988 following the arrival of Honda as an engine supplier – it’s for this reason the renewal of their partnership in 2015 is so hotly anticipated.

1989 saw events come to a head though. After a tenuous season, the two title rivals – who had won all but three races before the race at Suzuka – headed to the penultimate round of the year with their knives out.

Despite securing pole, Senna made a poor start allow Prost into the lead of the race, but his Brazilian teammate was not going to let the championship get away from him. With just seven laps to go, Senna tried a move down the inside of Prost, only for the Frenchman to cut across the track. The two collided and went off, with Prost’s race ending there and then. Senna managed to get back going and remarkably won the race in spite of the incident, only for the FIA to disqualify him for the manner in which he returned to the track after an incident. Accusations of favoritism towards Prost from the French FIA leader, Jean-Marie Balestre, have lingered ever since.

The direct result of the incident was that Prost was world champion for 1989, but the wider effect went far beyond that. It was the final straw for him and McLaren: he soon announced that he was packing his bags and moving to Ferrari for 1990.

Despite being in different teams, the Senna/Prost rivalry perpetuated. Once again at Suzuka, they were embroiled in a bitter fight for the title – and once again, it finished with a crash between the pair.

This time around, it was Senna who was the aggressor, trying to dive-bomb Prost into the first corner. Both drivers speared off into the gravel, appearing once the dust had settled – both were out of the race, and Senna was champion for a second time.

It is perhaps misleading to talk about a “Suzuka Moment” – for, in all honesty, there were two moments. However, it was the first one that put the nail in the partnership Senna and Prost had at McLaren.

And so we come to 2014. We have two drivers within the same team fighting for a world championship. The team they drive for has been omnipotent across the course of the season, and at Suzuka, they are likely to fill the front row.

Can you see the similarities?

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg’s relationship has soured quickly across the course of their title fight this year. Friends and teammates from their go-karting days, it was supposed to be a perfect partnership. It was impossible to think of teammates being friends, and it has proven to be impossible in the midst of a title fight.

You could argue that their “Suzuka Moment” came at the Belgian Grand Prix, when Rosberg – angry after Hamilton had flouted team orders in Hungary – tried to pass his teammate and adversary around the outside of Les Combes, only to leave him with a puncture. It caused Hamilton to retire, and gave Rosberg, who finished second in the race, a lead in the constructors’ championship. This is where everything spilled over.

Since then, things have changed – they changed from the moment Lewis met with the media after the race at Spa, and revealed Nico had said he did it on purpose. This gave Lewis the psychological advantage in the battle, and this became a mathematical one after Rosberg’s retirement in Singapore. The difference now stands at just three points.

And we’re at Suzuka this weekend. Oh boy.

So can we expect a similar result as what happened between Senna and Prost? The answer, one would hope, is no. After the incident at Spa, Mercedes did not just brush it under the carpet. They dealt with it head on, handing Rosberg a fine reported to tally to six figures, and telling both drivers a repeat would not be tolerated under any circumstances.

The penalty from within the team is high, especially at a time when driver contracts are being discussed and, if you’re to believe the rumors about Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, can fall apart very easily.

However, perhaps the bigger penalty is what both drivers are fighting for: a world championship.

Back in the time of Senna and Prost, reliability was nowhere near as bulletproof as it is today. It was a given that your car would break down a handful of times each season – it was expected.

Nowadays though, retirements can be very costly – as evidenced by this championship fight. Both Hamilton and Rosberg have suffered their share of misfortune this year, but both know that another retirement could be crippling to their title hopes – just ask Nico about what happened in Singapore.

This championship fight is bitter, but it’s not as fierce as those of ’88 and ’89. They will battle it out and put on a great show, but Nico and Lewis won’t come to blows at the first corner in the same way as Prost and Senna.

Neither driver has the personality or the reputation to live up to this battle. Even if they were to clash for a second time, it would not be a “Suzuka Moment” in the same way it was for Prost and Senna. The sport is a different animal to what it was 25 years ago.

Nevertheless, we are set for a tantalising and intriguing battle at the front of the field on Sunday. If the predicted deluge does arrive, it will only add to the drama surrounding the battle for the 2014 title.