The 1991 Japanese Grand Prix was the penultimate round of the 1991 Formula One Championship, held at a circuit which had played a crucial role in the Championship numerous times in the past. Suzuka had seen Ayrton Senna claim his both of his World Championships, and it was the Brazilian who was favourite to repeat the feat once again, leading Nigel Mansell by 16 points, with only 20 left to fight for.
Indeed, it was to be Senna's day, as Mansell (who needed to win both of the remaining races to stand any chance of taking the title) retired early on, while Senna and team mate Gerhard Berger streaked ahead. Senna allowed Berger to take the victory, a thank you for the work that Berger had done to aid him over the previous two seasons, with Riccardo Patrese fighting his way onto the podium.
With the end of the season fast approaching, most of the focus was on the Championship battle, although Ayrton Senna was the outright favourite. His lead of 16 meant that Nigel Mansell, the only man who could mathematically defeat him, would have to win both of the remaining races outright, with Senna finishing fifth or lower in both. Form, however, was no guide to how the Championship could go, as Mansell was arguably driving to the best of his ability, but luck had not been on his side through most of 1991.
The Constructors' Championship could also be decided in Japan, although the likelihood of it being so was remote. Williams-Renault lead the title battle by a single point from McLaren-Honda, and would win the Championship if Mansell and Riccardo Patrese claimed a one-two, and the two McLarens of Senna and Gerhard Berger retired. Once again, form was no help in pointing to one team or the other, as the Williams FW14 was superior to the McLaren MP4/6, but was decidedly more delicate through its semi-automatic gearbox.
Away from the title battle, most of the news focused on preparations for the 1992 Championship. One team who looked destined not to make it were AGS, who could not afford to send their two cars to Japan, leaving Fabrizio Barbazza and Olivier Grouillard on the sidelines. Elsewhere, Footwork finally ended the speculation surrounding their return to Porsche by announcing a new engine partnership with Honda, who would provide them with V10 engines for the 1992 season, race prepared by Mugen.
While Minardi also made an announcement concerning their switch from Ferrari to Lamborghini power for 1992, attention was focused on another new face to the Championship. Karl Wendlinger joined Leyton House after the arrest of Akira Akagi, their principle investor, with the team dropping Ivan Capelli for Wendlinger's sponsorship money. Another change came at Lotus, where Johnny Herbert once again returned to his seat, leaving Michael Bartels on the sidelines.
Familiar faces also returned to the paddock in Japan, with Coloni signing up a pay driver, Naoki Hattori to race at his home Grand Prix, with the team having missed the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix. Also spotted was Bertrand Gachot, who hoped to return to his Jordan seat having served his two month prison sentence. Eddie Jordan, however, was relatively happy with the money and talent of Alex Zanardi and Andrea de Cesaris, and so Gachot did not return to action in Japan.
The full entry list for the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix is outlined below:
Practice saw several drivers exploring the limits of the circuit, and was heavily affected by an early rain shower. Pierluigi Martini smashed his Minardi up badly enough to bring out a red flag early on, before Gabriele Tarquini managed to write off his new Fondmetal just moments after the restart. But the biggest accident in practice was also the scariest, as Éric Bernard in his Lola crashed heavily after 130R, breaking his leg in the process. Bernard was helicoptered to hospital, leaving Larousse with only one car for the weekend.
As with the majority of the 1991 season, the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix saw the use of pre-qualifying to satisfy the FIA's latest safety drive. The maximum limit for cars on any circuit at any time had been set at 30, meaning that 3 cars had to be removed from the weekend running. Seven drivers were therefore made to battle it out for four spots in the full qualifying session, based on their performance from the previous half season. Brabham, Coloni, Fondmetal, and Footwork were the entrants who made up the session after the 1991 German Grand Prix, with AGS out for the foreseeable future.
With Brabham once again favourites to top the session, there was little surprise when Martin Brundle topped the times from the session, beating the two Footworks by over a second. But, there was a shock for the British team, as Mark Blundell failed to qualify after struggling to set his car up to a level of parity with Brundle. He joined debutante Naoki Hattori on the sidelines for the rest of the weekend, with the Japanese journalist well off the pace.
The full pre-qualifying results for the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix are outlined below:
|2||10||Alex Caffi||Footwork-Ford Cosworth||1:42.383||+1.094s|
|3||9||Michele Alboreto||Footwork-Ford Cosworth||1:42.479||+1.190s|
|4||14||Gabriele Tarquini||Fondmetal-Ford Cosworth||1:43.025||+1.736s|
|DNPQ||31||Naoki Hattori||Coloni-Ford Cosworth||2:00.035||+18.746s|
|WD||18||Fabrizio Barbazza||AGS-Ford Cosworth||Withdrawn|
Like practice, the two qualifying sessions were littered with accidents, with two heavy crashes denting the chances of two drivers. The first hit youngser Michael Schumacher, who was able to walk away from his Benetton after losing the rear end into the complex and hitting the barrier backwards. Then, it was Jean Alesi's turn, as he mirrored Schumacher's accident through the complex, destroying the rear of the Ferrari and his hopes of a podium. Fortunately for both, they could use the spare cars, and eventually ended up ninth and sixth respectively.
Away from the carnage, and Ayrton Senna had almost the perfect result from the session, as his team mate Gerhard Berger claimed pole. Doubtless, the Brazilian would have wanted the position himself, but he did take second, which meant he could control Nigel Mansell from the start, with the Brit taking third. Alain Prost managed to beat the second Williams of Riccardo Patrese to fourth, with Pierluigi Martini, Gianni Morbidelli and Nelson Piquet all in the top ten.
Best of the pre-qualifiers was Brundle, although he was down in seventeenth, with Alex Caffi joining him on the grid, although he was down in 26th, with Tarquini splitting them in 24th. THe latter two were outqualified by F1 newbie Karl Wendlinger, who claimed 22nd, as Michele Alboreto, Nicola Larini and Eric van de Poele all failed to make it through. Éric Bernard, of course, would take no further part in the weekend after his accident.
Full Qualifying Results
The final result for the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix is outlined below:
|9||19||Michael Schumacher||Benetton-Ford Cosworth||1:39.742||1:38.363||+3.663s|
|10||20||Nelson Piquet||Benetton-Ford Cosworth||1:40.557||1:38.614||+3.914s|
|11||33||Andrea de Cesaris||Jordan-Ford Cosworth||1:40.407||1:38.842||+4.142s|
|13||32||Alex Zanardi||Jordan-Ford Cosworth||1:39.051||1:38.923||+4.223s|
|18||15||Maurício Gugelmin||Leyton House-Ilmor||1:40.714||1:39.518||+4.818s|
|22||16||Karl Wendlinger||Leyton House-Ilmor||1:41.639||1:40.092||+5.392s|
|24||14||Gabriele Tarquini||Fondmetal-Ford Cosworth||1:42.835||1:40.184||+5.484s|
|25||30||Aguri Suzuki||Lola-Ford Cosworth||1:41.528||1:40.255||+5.555s|
|26||10||Alex Caffi||Footwork-Ford Cosworth||1:40.517||1:40.402||+5.702s|
|DNQ||9||Michele Alboreto||Footwork-Ford Cosworth||1:41.536||1:40.844||+6.144s|
|DNQ||35||Eric van de Poele||Lambo-Lamborghini||1:46.641||1:42.724||+8.024s|
|DNQ||29||Éric Bernard||Lola-Ford Cosworth||No Time||—|
|DNPQ||31||Naoki Hattori||Coloni-Ford Cosworth||2:00.035|
The full starting grid for the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix is shown below:
|Andrea de Cesaris||12|
Despite the rain during the earlier part of the weekend, Sunday was dry and warm, just what Nigel Mansell needed to be able to defeat the two McLarens, after the Williams struggled in the wet in Spain. All Ayrton Senna needed to do was to keep ahead of Mansell, and, with the Brazilian starting behind team mate Gerhard Berger, he could allow the Austrian to build a big lead, meaning Mansell would have to push hard to win, even if he got past Senna. Reliability would doubtless play a factor, although that ball was firmly in Senna's court, with his McLaren MP4/6 one of the most reliable cars on the grid.
Off the line, it was formation flying from the two McLarens, who managed to box Mansell on the outside of the track, as Berger swept into the lead from Senna. Riccardo Patrese beat Alain Prost off the grid to take fourth, with the Frenchman just able to keep team mate Jean Alesi at bay through turn one. Alesi, however, would only complete a third of the opening lap, however, as he suffered an engine failure in the first part of the complex. Back with the leaders, and Senna was already backing off from Berger to hold up Mansell, while the Austrian began to build a lead at the front.
The second lap saw a four car pile up on the spot where Alesi blew his engine, as the oil laid down from the former Ferrari engine caught out Andrea de Cesaris. He spun on the oil, leading JJ Lehto, running just behind him, to slam on the brakes to take avoiding action. The sudden momentum change caught out Lehto's team mate Emanuele Pirro, who slammed into the back of his team mate's Dallara, putting both out of the race. Then, as de Cesaris rejoined, he was collected by the débutante Karl Wendlinger, with the pair both ending up in the gravel trap next two the two Dallaras, all four out.
Mansell, meanwhile, was crawling all over the back of Senna, who was now putting up a stubborn, and time consuming defence. Mansell began to make increasingly riskier moves to try to get past, opting to brake later and later into turn one. This would ultimately prove to be his down fall, when, on lap 10, Mansell carried too much speed through turn one and caught the grass. Momentum carried him into the gravel, with the Brit then thrown into a spin, then ended with the Williams beached and Mansell out of the title fight.
Berger slowed afterwards, with the two McLarens trying some formation flying after Berger waved Senna through, a perfect display for engine supplier Honda at their home race. Although the title and the race seemed decided, however, the race was anything but tame further down. Martin Brundle had made a strong start in the Yamaha powered Brabham, and was now battling Pierluigi Martini and Michael Schumacher for fifth. Unfortunately, reliability prevented the fight getting into full swing, as first Schumacher then Martini retired, promoting Brundle.
Ultimately though, the action was overshadowed by one last gesture by Senna, who pulled aside on the run out of the chicane on the last lap to allow Berger to take victory, a thank you for the work that Berger had done. Riccardo Patrese, meanwhile, had finished third after being unable to compete with McLaren's stunning pace, while Prost claimed fourth for Ferrari. Brundle collected his first points for Brabham in 1991 at Yamaha's home race, while Stefano Modena was promoted to sixth in the closing stages in the Tyrrell-Honda.
Controversy, however, was never too far away from Senna, and although he had won the title with only minor incidents throughout the season he let his words speak louder than his actions. In his post race interview, Senna highlighted the politics of the now former Jean-Marie Balestre era as having been detrimental to the Championship, and that 1991, which had seen Max Mosley elected as FIA president, was a good season for the Championship.
The final results for the 1991 Japanese Grand Prix are shown below:
- Début for Karl Wendlinger.
- Ayrton Senna claimed his third World Championship.
- 65th race win for a Honda engine.
Ayrton Senna therefore claimed his third World Championship, with a 26 point advantage over Nigel Mansell, and only 10 available in Adelaide, the final race of the season. Mansell would therefore have to be content with second, in a season where misfortune had cost him another chance at a first title, with Riccardo Patrese confirmed as taking third. Gerhard Berger claimed fourth from Alain Prost, although he remained under threat from the Frenchman, who could still finish in the top four if he won in Australia.
The Constructors' Championship duel between McLaren-Honda and Williams-Renault was set to go down to the final race, although it was weighed heavily in the former's favour. They overturned Williams' one point lead coming into Japan, leaving with an eleven point advantage over their native rivals. Ferrari, meanwhile, were confirmed in third, after a poor season that looked set to end without a win to their name, with Benetton secure in fourth. Jordan Grand Prix, meanwhile, had a fight on their hands to keep their fifth place status, as Tyrrell slowly closed the gap.
Videos and Images:
- 'GRAND PRIX RESULTS: JAPANESE GP, 1991', grandprix.com, (Inside F1 Inc., 1999), http://www.grandprix.com/gpe/rr515.html, (Accessed 17/08/2015)
- 'Japan 1991: Entrants', statsf1.com, (Stats F1), https://www.statsf1.com/en/1991/japon/engages.aspx, (Accessed 26/02/2020)
- PhantomSMA, 'Formula 1 Grand Prix: 1991 Season Review - Part 15 - Race Fifteen: Japan', youtube.com, (YouTube, 14/04/2013), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aohke_tnwgU, (Accessed 17/08/2015)
- '1991 Japanese Grand Prix', wikipedia.org, (WikiMedia, 13/08/2015), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1991_Japanese_Grand_Prix, (Accessed 15/08/2015)
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|V T E||Japanese Grand Prix|
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|See also||Pacific Grand Prix|