Thirty years ago, Ayrton Senna was left off the official list of drivers for the 1990 F1 season. This is the story of how the Brazilian champion was almost excluded entirely from the sport.
Imagine that Ayrton Senna, aged 30 and nearing the peak of his powers, had not taken part in the 1990 Formula 1 world championship. That, rather than claim the second of his three world drivers’ titles, he sat out the season. Imagine too that the man selected to replace him at the all-conquering McLaren Honda outfit, alongside new recruit Gerhard Berger, was the unlikely figure of Jonathan Palmer. And imagine also that for much of the off season there was a risk of all this going even further and that mighty McLaren as a team would have to sit out the season along with its lead driver.
This very scenario was playing out 30 years ago.
The tale of Senna’s 1989 clash with Alain Prost in Suzuka and his subsequent disqualification is well known, as is his dispute with the FIA (or FISA, as its sporting arm was then named), and its president Jean-Marie Balestre. It’s less familiar that the reverberations of this continued through the subsequent close season – to the point that it became known as F1’s ‘winter of discontent’.
Senna’s Japanese Grand Prix disqualification, which confirmed the ’89 drivers’ title for his then McLaren team-mate Prost, did not end with FISA upholding the decision after McLaren’s appeal. On November 10, a few days after the season ended, Senna accused Balestre and FISA of fiddling the championship outcome.
“It was clear that political and economic pressure groups manipulated behind the scenes to make Prost world champion,” Senna asserted in a press conference in Brazil. Balestre fumed.
Senna was summoned to a meeting with the FISA president on December 6 – where he was reportedly offered a truce – followed by an appearance in front of the World Motor Sports Council (WMSC) the following day. But throughout Senna was unrepentant. The WMSC voted that Senna’s 1990 superlicence application would be refused unless he withdrew his allegations. Without the licence, he would not be racing in F1.
The decision was initially kept under wraps, but after a month of silence from Senna, Balestre and FISA went public in the new year. As if more froth was needed, McLaren was simultaneously challenging the handling of the Suzuka appeal in the civil courts. Team boss Ron Dennis asserted: “This is not going to get tucked under the carpet. What took place was wrong – fundamentally wrong.”
January 31 was the deadline for teams to notify FISA of their wish to enter the 1990 championship. As this passed FISA returned McLaren’s official entries for both its cars. Balestre said this refusal would hold until FISA got its apology for Senna’s remarks. It transpired also that the $100,000 fine stemming from Senna’s Suzuka disqualification had not yet been paid. With hindsight, it’s tempting to assume this dispute was always bound to be resolved one way or another.
There was some sense of this too even at the time. “Racing needs Senna – and Senna assuredly needs racing,” noted Nigel Roebuck. “And I cannot believe that Honda and Marlboro are other than increasingly edgy about the situation.”
One fellow F1 driver, Senna’s long-time friend Maurício Gugelmin, called the prospect of Senna missing the season “crazy”, likening it to kicking Pelé out of the 1970 World Cup. Yet that outcome was far from impossible.
“Ayrton Senna has been banned from competing in grand prix racing,” was Autosport’s striking opening gambit in its article reporting that Senna’s licence application had been refused.
Senna himself had said at Adelaide’s ’89 season-closing round, on the back of Suzuka’s immediate fallout, that “I may not come back” after the winter. A switch to Indycars was also speculated. There wasn’t an obvious way out of the dispute either. Balestre and Senna were about the last two on this earth one would associate with backing down. Dennis might have made it a trio. “This is what happens,” noted a source close to McLaren, “when God comes up against God.”
Balestre emphasised his lack of conciliatory intent by stating Senna could instead race in F3000 – the F2 of its day. He added that, from this matter, “a few heads, even prestigious ones, will risk a fall”.
McLaren eventually paid the Suzuka fine, which meant the team was back in for 1990 at least. But not the driver. FISA’s accepted entry to the F1 season had two McLarens, “one to be driven by Gerhard Berger and the second by a driver who as yet remains to be named”.
The deadline date for superlicence applications of February 15 loomed with neither party, seemingly, minded to budge. Then, the bombshell. The deadline passed and FISA released an ‘official and definite’ 1990 entry list showing, at McLaren, Berger paired with…Jonathan Palmer, who’d just joined the team as test driver. The media went into overdrive at the sensational news. It lasted less than an hour. Having been marched to the top of the hill, all were marched back down again. The list was amended with Senna replacing Palmer. With it, FISA released a statement from Senna.
“During the meeting of the FISA World Council which took place on December 7, 1989, I listened to statements and testimonies from various people,” it read, “and from these statements one must conclude that they provide proof that no pressure group or the President of FISA influenced the decisions regarding the results of the 1989 FIA Formula 1 World Championship.”
It amounted to a withdrawal – a grudging one – rather than an apology. But it was enough for Balestre. Senna was in. It wasn’t quite the end of the matter though. Ayrton Senna Promotions then issued a statement detailing the settlement and how it was reached, including the detail that it was McLaren, not Senna, who paid the fine. Balestre kicked off again at this. He again threatened to withhold Senna’s licence and, with his usual subtlety, added apropos of nothing that the Brazilian Grand Prix, back at Senna’s hometown Interlagos track in São Paulo, was under threat. But Balestre’s retort this time amounted only to words and not actions, and all aggrieved parties turned up to Phoenix’s season-opener (and then Interlagos) with thoughts of destroying the other now confined apparently to a mental recess.
It was clear though that for Senna especially it was an uneasy truce rather than peace in our time. This was indeed not the last we would hear of Balestre vs Senna.