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Looking back: The 1989 Australian Formula One Grand Prix

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Roar Rookie
1st February, 2019
1

Let me list a couple of notable events of the 1989 Formula Season.

First there was Nigel Mansell’s unexpected win in Brazil. Then Gerhard Berger’s fiery crash Imola.

There was the first-lap incident in France, and then Ayrton Senna’s mistake in England that gave Alain Prost the championship momentum. This was followed, of course, by the Suzuka incident (part 1).

How could a season get any crazier? Ladies and Gentleman, I present the 1989 Australian Grand Prix.

The lead-up to the race was dominated by the events of Japan and the subsequent appeal. Prost is still my hero and Senna is a driver I will always admire, but ’89 and ’90 were tarnished by the events of Japan. Each accident caused a polarisation in the F1 fanbase on a WWE-type level.

Motorsport is so magnificent and stimulating that this type of drama is an aberration. Both incidents are black marks against two drivers who should be celebrated without hatred for the other.

But back in 1989, all I knew was the accident had happened. Prost was champion. Yay!

In 1989, my Dad made what could be classified as a ‘poor decision’ by getting seats at the exit of the last-turn hairpin – not a great place to get a sense of raw speed and driver ability.

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As turbos were banned after ’88, the cars sounded amazing, especially the Ferrari’s V12 engine. You could always tell when a Ferrari was approaching your corner by its intense, high-pitched squeal. A true thing of beauty.

The other practice memory was Eddie Cheever mounting the curb on the exit of our turn and clouting the rear against the outside wall so hard it almost tore the rear axle off the car.

It was mid-morning on Sunday when the rain hit – and boy did it hit hard.

Not passing up the opportunity for a drink, my Dad arranged to meet some friend at a pub prior to the race. Thankfully for this ten-year-old, the pub was showing the track action, so I could watch the wet weather warm-up.

First, Alessandro Nannini spun down Brabham straight. My jaw dropped when I saw this because I could not comprehend how a car could spin in a straight line. Then Mansell spun and hit the wall.

We stayed in the pub until confirmation of the race taking place was broadcast, causing at least an hour delay to the start.

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My Dad and I took our seats and I remember being cold, wet and pumped, but that energy left my body when the race started and Prost pulled off after one lap.

I wanted to see my hero race and win, but in retrospect I admire him for it. The race was stopped shortly after this due to a few accidents around the circuit.

At the second start, Senna led and then proceeded to brain the field. His speed in these conditions was extraordinary, but even he was making mistakes. Dad explained later that he and the rest of the stand were minding their business when I suddenly jumped up and yelled “It’s Senna!”

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I’m sure he was being a bit melodramatic but we saw Senna spinning multiple times right in front of us. Murray Walker’s commentary of the event is legendary and the drama was not lost on us trackside. Even the greatest wet-weather driver was losing control on this day. Would anyone finish the race?

The first 20 laps were pure carnage: spins and crashes that reached a peak with the accident involving Nelson Piquet and Piercarlo Ghinzani.

In among this was Senna’s unfortunate exit from the race, when he punted Martin Brundle in the rear, losing the front right. Dad speculated that he could have kept going and still won with three wheels.

With only 11 cars left, the rest of the race was dull – apart from watching Saturo Nakajima putting in the drive of his life. He was nailing fastest lap after fastest lap and deserved better than fourth place, behind Thierry Boutsen’s overall victory.

While not a great race in person, it was an insane spectacle and probably the most fitting end to such a crazy season.

For 1990, Day decided to take a year off from our Adelaide pilgrimage, but we would return in 1991. That couldn’t be crazier than 1989, could it?