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A new 3.5-litre normally aspirated engine formula was introduced in 1989, ending the turbocharger era in Formula 1. McLaren-Honda remained the team to beat with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost continuing their stormy but successful partnership. Senna won more often (six wins to four) but Prost consistently finished in the points as his rival retired, giving the Frenchman the championship lead.
A bitter season reached its climax in the controversial Japanese Grand Prix. Senna needed to win to keep alive his hopes of retaining his World Championship crown. However, Suzuka was one of the few races in which Prost was able to outpace his normally quicker team-mate, narrowly leading for the majority of the race.
Then on the 47th lap, Senna made an ambitious passing manoeuvre into the chicane, Prost turned into the corner early to block Senna’s advance and the cars collided. Prost stepped out of his car but Senna returned to the track, pitted, retook the lead and won. However, he was subsequently disqualified for not rejoining the circuit at the point at which he had left it and Prost was declared World Champion.
Nigel Mansell and the first John Barnard-designed Ferrari made a winning debut at the Brazilian GP. But the car’s revolutionary semi-automatic gearbox suffered reliability problems that prevented an effective challenge for the title. Mansell also won brilliantly from 12th on the grid in Hungary, on a circuit where passing was nearly impossible. He was suspended from the Spanish GP after ignoring black flags incurred for reversing in the pitlane during the previous week’s Portuguese GP.
Ferrari team-mate Gerhard Berger recovered from a fiery accident at Imola’s Tamburello corner during the San Marino GP to win in Portugal. No victory could have been more popular. The race was also notable for Minardi’s most competitive day: Pierluigi Martini qualified and finished fifth, and even led briefly.
Renault made a winning return to Grand Prix racing with Williams, whose new driver Thierry Boutsen was successful in the wet Canadian and Australian GPs. Riccardo Patrese added six podium finishes to give Williams-Renault second place in the constructors’ championship.
Johnny Herbert, still in pain from injuries sustained during the 1988 Brands Hatch F3000 race, made a stunning debut in Brazil for Benetton, finishing ahead of team-mate Alessandro Nannini in fourth position. But Herbert’s unhealed injuries increasingly restricted his performances as the season wore on and he was eventually replaced by Emanuele Pirro before mid-season. Nannini benefited from Senna’s Japanese disqualification to record the only Grand Prix victory of his career.
Jean Alesi was the most promising newcomer, running second and finishing fourth at the French GP in his first race for Tyrrell. Further points-scoring performances at Monza and Jerez marked him as a star of the future. In contrast, triple World Champion Nelson Piquet had a lacklustre season for Lotus and even failed to qualify at Spa-Francorchamps.