Since his Brazilian Grand Prix victory, no one had seen Ayrton Senna as motivated, both in and outside his car, as he was in Suzuka. In a Year full of obstacles, the Brazilian was the only driver who was able to beat the Williams in three historic races in the course of the 1993 season: Interlagos, Donington Park and Monaco.
Nine points behind Damon Hill (62 to 53), his future Williams teammate, Senna still believed he had a shot at the runner-up position. The Brazilian had already signed with the rival team, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t behave as a professional. He wanted to start in the first row, something that hadn’t happened since the season’s first race, in South Africa.
It would be Senna’s last race in Suzuka as a McLaren driver, the team with which he had scored three pole positions (’88, ‘89 and ’90), one victory (’88) two second places (’87 and ’91) two fastest laps (’88 and ’91) and, more importantly, it was the place where he had secured his three world titles (’88, ’90 and ’91).
“Racing in Japan is always an emotional experience, for me, since the Japanese people is specially warm towards me, cheering a lot and following every step I take since my arrival at Suzuka”, said Ayrton to the press before the free practice sessions.
Even with an engine inferior to that of Alain Prost, he placed second on the starting grid. The Frenchman, who was already that season’s champion and had once again announced his retirement from F1, took the pole position with 1min37s154, just 0s130 ahead of the Brazilian.
The second row had Mika Hakkinen, Ayrton’s McLaren teammate, and Michael Schumacher, from Benetton. Hill finished the qualifying round in sixth place, behind Ferrari’s Gerhard Berger.
Outside of his McLaren he confessed:
During the race, the old victorious Ayrton Senna showed up. He set out after Prost and took the lead in the first corner, in a beautiful battle with the Frenchman, much to the excitement of the Japanese crowd. The Brazilian kept the position until the start of the 13th lap, when McLaren decided to change tires for the first time.
Prost took the lead and kept going for six more laps, when it started to rain at Suzuka. The Brazilian proceeded to show off his skills on a wet track, while using slicks. He closed the 15-second gap between him and the Frenchman, who hadn’t made a pit-stop. When both drivers changed to wet tires, Senna came back in first place, even though he had stopped twice.
Before the race started, even before the pit-stops, Schumacher made a mistake that took him out of the race. The German crashed into Hill at the chicane that leads to Suzuka’s main straight, breaking his suspension. The Britton was able to stay on the track.
Following that, Senna started to peel away from the pack. He was 23s ahead of Alain Prost, and the Williams’ driver started to feel the pressure from Mika Hakkinen.
“Some backmarkers broke down and left the track right in front of me. I had to take my car out of the track at the chicane to avoid a collision with Patrese, who had destroyed his own car. Brundle lost a wheel in front of me, and a piece of his car hit the left side of my front wing. It was an eventful race”, said Ayrton to reporters.
The Brazilian also didn’t like Eddie Irvine’s attitude. The Irishman was making his F1 debut in the Japanese Grand Prix, and had cut-off a few competitors during the race, even when he was a lap behind the leaders.
When the rain stopped, on lap 35, the sun started shining again over Suzuka, but that wasn’t enough for Prost to catch up to the McLaren driver. After another pit-stop, this time to put on slicks, the gap between them barely changed. The Frenchman did manage to get away from Hakkinen. The Finn ended up achieving his first top-three finish.
At the end of the 53 laps, there they were, once again on the podium together, the two great rivals. The winner, Ayrton Senna, and Alain Prost, with his four-time championship sash. The Brazilian driver made sure to congratulate Rubens Barrichello for his first points scored in Formula One. The rising star finished the race in fifth place, driving a Jordan – a great result for the young newcomer.