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.

Roger Penske vows new downtown Detroit GP will be bigger than the Super Bowl for city


DETROIT – He helped spearhead bringing the town a Super Bowl 17 years ago, but Roger Penske believes the reimagined Chevrolet Detroit GP is his greatest gift to the Motor City.

“It’s bigger than the Super Bowl from an impact within the city,” Penske told NBC Sports. “Maybe not with the sponsors and TV, but for the city of Detroit, it’s bigger than the Super Bowl.

“We’ve got to give back individually and collectively, and I think we as a company in Michigan and in Detroit, it’s something we know how to do. It shows we’re committed. Someone needs to take that flag and run it down through town. And that’s what we’re trying to do as a company. We’re trying to give back to the city.”

After 30 years of being run on Belle Isle, the race course has been moved to a new nine-turn, 1.7-mile downtown layout that will be the centerpiece of an event weekend that is designed to promote a festival and community atmosphere.

There will be concerts in the adjacent Hart Plaza. Local businesses from Detroit’s seven districts have been invited to hawk their wares to new clientele. Boys and Girls Clubs from the city have designed murals that will line the track’s walls with images of diversity, inclusion and what Detroit means through the eyes of youth.

And in the biggest show of altruism, more than half the circuit will be open for free admission. The track is building 4-foot viewing platforms that can hold 150 people for watching the long Jefferson Avenue straightaway and other sections of the track.

Detroit GP chairman Bud Denker, a longtime key lieutenant across Penske’s various companies, has overseen more than $20 million invested in infrastructure.

The race is essentially Penske’s love letter to the city where he made much of his fame as one of Detroit’s most famous automotive icons, both as a captain of industry with a global dealership network and as a racing magnate (who just won his record 19th Indy 500 with Josef Newgarden breaking through for his first victory on the Brickyard oval).

During six decades in racing, Penske, 86, also has run many racetracks (most notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway but also speedways in Michigan, California and Pennsylvania), and much of that expertise has been applied in Detroit.

“And then the ability for us to reach out to our sponsor base, and then the business community, which Bud is tied in with the key executives in the city of Detroit, bringing them all together,” Penske said. “It makes a big difference.

“The Super Bowl is really about the people that fly in for the Super Bowl. It’s a big corporate event, and the tickets are expensive. And the TV is obviously the best in the world. What we’ve done is taken that same playbook but made it important to everyone in Detroit. Anyone that wants to can come to the race for free, can stand on a platform or they can buy a ticket and sit in the grandstands or be in a suite. It’s really multiple choice, but it is giving it to the city of Detroit. I think it’s important when you think of these big cities across the country today that are having a lot of these issues.”

Denker said the Detroit Grand Prix is hoping for “an amazingly attended event” but is unsure of crowd estimates with much of the track offering free viewing. The race easily could handle a crowd of at least 50,000 daily (which is what the Movement Music Festival draws in Hart Plaza) and probably tens of thousands more in a sprawling track footprint along the city’s riverwalk.

Penske is hoping for a larger crowd than Belle Isle, which was limited to about 30,000 fans daily because of off-site parking and restricted fan access at a track that was located in a public park.

The downtown course will have some unique features, including a “split” pit lane on an all-new concrete (part of $15 million spent on resurfaced roads, new barriers and catchfencing … as well as 252 manhole covers that were welded down).

A $5 million, 80,000-square-foot hospitality chalet will be located adjacent to the paddock and pit area. The two-story structure, which was imported from the 16th hole of the Waste Management Open in Phoenix, will offer 70 chalets (up from 23 suites at Belle Isle last year). It was built by InProduction, the same company that installed the popular HyVee-branded grandstands and suites at Iowa Speedway last year.

Penske said the state, city, county and General Motors each owned parts of the track, and their cooperation was needed to move streetlights and in changing apexes of corners. Denker has spent the past 18 months meeting with city council members who represent Detroit’s seven districts, along with Mayor Mike Duggan. Penske said the local support could include an appearance by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer.

Denker and Detroit GP  president Michael Montri were inspired to move the Detroit course downtown after attending the inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We saw what an impact it made on that city in August of 2021 and we came back from there and said boy could it ever work to bring it downtown in Detroit again,” Denker said. “We’ve really involved the whole community of Detroit, and the idea of bringing our city together is what the mayor and city council and our governor are so excited about. The dream we have is now coming to fruition.

“When you see the infrastructure downtown and the bridges over the roads we’ve built and the graphics, and everything is centered around the Renaissance Center as your backdrop, it’s just amazing.”