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.

‘Baby Borgs’ bring special Indy 500 bonds, memories for Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi

Ganassi Ericsson Indy
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner

THERMAL, Calif. – Winning the Indy 500 is a crowning achievement for driver and car owner, but for Chip Ganassi, last May’s victory by Marcus Ericsson had meaning even beyond just capturing one of the world’s greatest sporting events.

When Ganassi was 5 years old and growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his father, Floyd, attended a convention in Indianapolis in 1963. Floyd went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to tour the track and visit the former museum that used to stand next to the main gate on 16th and Georgetown.

Ganassi’s father brought young Chip a souvenir from the gift shop. It was an 8-millimeter film of the 1963 Indy 500, a race won by the legendary Parnelli Jones.

“I must have watched it about 1,000 times,” Ganassi recalled. “More importantly than that, something you did when you were 5 years old is still with you today.

“I was 50 years old when I celebrated my Thanksgiving with Parnelli. It dawned on me that something I did when I was 5 years old took me to when I was 50 years old. That’s pretty special.”

Ericsson and Ganassi were presented with their “Baby Borgs,” the mini-replicas of the Borg-Warner Trophy, in a ceremony Feb. 2 at The Thermal Club (which played host to NTT IndyCar Series preseason testing). The win in the 106th Indy 500 marked the sixth time a Ganassi driver won the biggest race in the world.

Ganassi will turn 65 on May 24, just four days before the 107th Indianapolis 500 on May 28. The 2023 race will mark the 60th anniversary of the victory by Jones, who is now the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500 at 89.

Jones wanted to do something special for Ericsson and Ganassi, so each was given framed photos personally inscribed by Jones.

Parnelli Jones (Steve Shunck Photo For BorgWarner)

“Congratulations Marcus Ericsson and my good friend Chip Ganassi on winning the 2022 Indianapolis 500,” Jones said in remarks conveyed by BorgWarner publicist Steve Shunck. “There is no greater race in the whole world and winning it in 1963 was by far the biggest thrill in my life.”

Ganassi’s relationship with his racing hero began 60 years ago, but the two have shared some important moments since then.

It was Jones that signed off on Ganassi’s first Indianapolis 500 license in 1982. Jones was one of the veteran observers who worked with Ganassi and other rookie drivers that year to ensure they were capable of competing in the high-speed, high-risk Indianapolis 500.

When Ganassi turned 50, he got to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with Jones.

“We’ve been friends over the years,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “He wrote me a personal note and sent me some personal photographs. It really says what this race is all about and how important it is to win the biggest auto race in the world.”

Michelle Collins, the director of global communications and marketing for BorgWarner, presented the “Baby Borgs,” first to Ganassi and then to Ericsson.

“More special is winning the Indianapolis 500,” Ganassi said during the presentation. “It’s been a big part of my life. I want to call out my buddy, Roger Penske, and thank him for the stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it means to us. It’s about the history, the tradition and, to me, it’s about the people that have meant so much in my life.

“Thanks for the trophy, Marcus.”

Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi hold their Baby Borgs while posing with the Borg-Warner Trophy (Bruce Martin).

The Baby Borg presentation also came on the birthday of sculptor William Behrends, who has crafted the Bas-relief sterling silver face of each winner on the Borg-Warner Trophy since 1990. The “Baby Borg” presents each winner with a miniature of one of the most famous trophies in sports.

“I have to thank BorgWarner for everything that has happened since winning the Indianapolis 500, including the trip to Sweden,” said Ericsson, who took a November victory lap in his native country. “I’m very thankful for that because it’s memories that are going to be with me for the rest of my life.

“To bring the Borg-Warner Trophy to my hometown, seeing all the people there on the city square on a dark day in the middle of November. It was filled with people and that was very special.

“I’m very proud and honored to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing. To win the Indianapolis 500 with that team is quite an honor. It’s a team effort and a lot of people worked very hard to make this happen.

“Our focus now is to go back-to-back at the Indy 500.”

If Ericsson is successful in becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Indy since Helio Castroneves in 2001-02, he can collect an additional $420,000 in the Borg-Warner Rollover Bonus. With Castroneves the last driver to collect, the bonus has grown to an astronomical amount over 21 years.

Ericsson is from Kumla, Sweden, so the $420,000 would have an exchange rate of $4,447,641.67 Swedish Kronor.

“It’s a nice thing to know I could get that if I do win it again,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “But the Indianapolis 500 with its history as the biggest and greatest race in the world, it doesn’t matter with the money, with the points, with anything. Everyone is going to go out there and do everything to win that race.

“It’s great to know that, but I will race just as hard.”

Marcus Ericsson points at the newest face on the Borg-Warner Trophy (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

A popular slogan in racing is “Chip Likes Winners.” After winning the 106th Indy 500, Ganassi must really love Ericsson.

“It doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it? I’m very thankful to be driving for Chip,” Ericsson said. “He likes winners and winning the Indianapolis 500, it doesn’t get better than that.”

When Ericsson was presented with his Baby Borg, he stood off to the side and admired it the way a child looks at a special gift on Christmas morning. The wide-eyed amazement of his career-defining moment was easy to read and met with delight by executives of BorgWarner (an automotive and technology company that has sponsored the Borg-Warner Trophy since its 1935 debut).

“I noticed that immediately and I was watching him look at it wishing I had a camera to capture that,” Collins told NBC Sports. “But maybe not because we always have our phones in front of us and it’s nice to take in that moment as it is. That is what makes the moment well worth it.”

Marcus Ericsson (Bruce Martin)

Said BorgWarner executive vice president and chief strategic officer Paul Farrell: “It’s very special to have the big trophy that has been around since 1935 and to have a piece of that. Hopefully it’s something that (Ericsson) cherishes. We think it’s special, and clearly, Marcus Ericsson thinks it is very special.”

The trophy process begins shortly after the race as the winner has the famed Borg-Warner Wreath placed around his neck, and the Borg-Warner Trophy is put on the engine cover. The next morning, the winner meets with Behrends, who has been sculpting the faces on the trophy since Arie Luyendyk’s first victory in 1990. Later in the year, the winner visits Behrends’ studio in Tryon, North Carolina, for a “Live Study.”

The process takes several more steps before the face is reduced to the size of an egg and casted in sterling silver. It is attached to the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy and unveiled at a ceremony later in the year. Ericsson’s face was unveiled last October during a ceremony in Indianapolis.

That’s when it hit Ericsson, a three-time winner in IndyCar after going winless in Formula One over 97 starts from 2014-18.

“Until then, it was strange because you are so busy with your season right after the Indy 500 you don’t really get much time to sit back and think about what you had accomplished,” Ericsson said. “It was the offseason before I really realized what I had done.”

The permanent trophy remains on display at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but has been known to travel with the winning driver on special tours, such as the Nov. 3-7 trip to Sweden.

“It’s been incredible to see the amount of interest in me and the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500,” Ericsson said. “The trophy tour with the Borg-Warner Trophy we did in November really made a huge impact in Sweden. I was on every TV show, morning TV, magazines, newspapers, everywhere. People are talking about IndyCar racing. People are talking about Marcus Ericsson. It’s been huge.

“I was back in Sweden last month for the Swedish Sports Awards and I finished third in the Sports Performance of the Year. Motorsports is usually not even nominated there, and I finished third. That says a lot about the interest and support I’ve gotten back home in Sweden.”

Ericsson continued to reap the rewards of his Indianapolis 500 victory last week at the lavish Thermal Club, about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs, California.

Earlier in the day before the Baby Borg presentation, Ericsson, and Chip Ganassi were among the 27 car-driver combinations that completed the first day of IndyCar’s “Spring Training” on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile road course. The next day, Ericsson turned the test’s fastest lap.

The 32-year-old still seems to be riding the wave, along with his girlfriend, Iris Tritsaris Jondahl, a Greece native who also lived in Sweden and now lives with Ericsson in Indianapolis.

“Today, receiving my Baby Borg, it was another thing of making it real,” Ericsson said. “It’s not a dream. It’s reality. To get the Baby Borg and bring it home. My girlfriend, Iris, and I are house hunting, looking for a house in Indianapolis. It will definitely have a very special place in our new home.”

Marcus Ericsson and girlfriend Iris Tritsaris Jondahlc share a kiss at the Baby Borg presentation (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

Ericsson told NBC Sports his most cherished trophy before getting his Baby Borg was for his first NTT IndyCar Series win in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in 2021.

“It was such a huge win for me and such a huge breakthrough for me and my career,” he said. “After that, it catapulted me into a top driver in IndyCar.”

The Brickyard win was another level for Ericsson, who moved to Ganassi in 2020.

“Marcus kept himself in the race all day,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “Anybody that ran a race like Marcus ran, maybe you deserve the race win, but you don’t always get it. Marcus did everything that it took, and we are really, really proud of him.”

Ericsson also proved last year to be one of the best oval drivers in the series, a much different form of racing than he experienced until he came to the United States.

“Racing in Europe and around the world, I always liked high-speed corners,” he explained. “It was always my favorite. I always had this idea if I go to IndyCar and race on the ovals, it is something that would suit me and my driving style. I was always excited to try that. When I came to IndyCar and started to drive on ovals, I liked it straight away. It worked for me and my style.

“The first few attempts at Indy, I had good speed, but it was always some small mistakes that got me out of contention. I learned from them. I’m very proud I was able to pull it off, but it was a lot of hard work behind that.”

Michelle Collins of BorgWarner presented Baby Borgs to Marcus Ericsson and Chip Ganassi at a ceremony also attended by Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull (Mike Levitt/LAT Images/BorgWarner).

The victory in the Indianapolis 500 is etched in history, as is Ericsson’s face on the trophy.

“It’s such a special thing,” the driver said. “The BorgWarner people and IndyCar and everyone at IMS, I get to experience so many cool things since winning the Indy 500. It’s a win that keeps on giving. It never ends. It still does.

“I can’t wait to get back to Indianapolis, the month of May, as the champion. I still have to pinch myself. It’s a dream, for sure.”

Ganassi doesn’t have to pinch himself — all he needs to do is look at his collection of Baby Borgs.

His first Indy 500 win — as a team co-owner with Pat Patrick — came in 1989 with Emerson Fittipaldi’s thrilling duel against Al Unser Jr.

In 1990, Ganassi formed Chip Ganassi Racing. Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, Scott Dixon in 2008, Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2012 and Ericsson in 2022.

“It’s a feather in the team’s cap for sure just to have our representation on the Borg-Warner Trophy with five other drivers,” Ganassi said. “It’s a testament to the team, a testament to Mike Hull that runs the team in Indianapolis. I just feel really lucky to be a part of it. It’s great to work with a great team of great people.

“Just to relive that moment again and again never gets old; never goes away. I’m really lucky to be in the position I’m in. It’s an honor to represent the team with the great people that it took to bring Marcus across the finish line. He and I get to celebrate events like this, but it’s really about the people at Chip Ganassi Racing in Indianapolis that pull this all together.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500