Max Verstappen called Esteban Ocon a ‘lunatic’. Historically, if not diplomatically, this was an appropriate choice of word, Ayrton Senna having referred to Eddie Irvine in exactly the same way following a similar incident — but without contact (on the track, at least) — at Suzuka 25 years ago.
Senna was a triple World Champion and the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix marked Irvine’s F1 debut. The Northern Irishman had been chosen by Eddie Jordan because of his intimate knowledge of Suzuka thanks to three years racing in the Japanese F3000 series.
Irvine’s promise was fulfilled by qualifying eighth, several places ahead of Jordan’s usual position in the back half of the grid. Continuing to use his local knowledge at the start and finding grip on the outside of the first corner, Irvine jumped to fifth before Michael Schumacher (Benetton-Ford) and Damon Hill (Williams-Renault) asserted themselves and pushed the cheeky little Jordan-Hart out of the top six.
After about 20 laps, the arrival of rain upset the order, particularly when Jordan team leader Rubens Barrichello was the first to receive wets and Irvine was condemned to another increasingly treacherous 3.64 miles on slicks. By the time Irvine had stopped and worked his way back to seventh, the rain was easing and Hill, in fourth, had already returned to slicks.
Conditions were approaching the crossover point between wet and dry tyres. Hill was struggling and Irvine, knowing exactly where there was grip in the wet, caught the Williams and was keen to get by before his advantage disappeared and he had to pit. Catching them both — and still leading the race, as he had done from the start — was Ayrton Senna, his McLaren-Ford still on wets. Now the fun began.
Senna lapped Irvine and then had a go at doing the same to Hill. Almost coming to grief as Hill slithered on the greasy surface, Senna backed off, having decided discretion was the sensible course since he was under no immediate pressure from behind.
Irvine had no time for any of that. Frustrated by Senna’s apparent dalliance, Irvine retook the McLaren. Having never experienced such a thing before, Senna was outraged. He became even more incensed as he watched Irvine pull a daring move on Hill into the chicane, only for the Williams to re-pass the Jordan on the way out, Irvine then running round the outside of the Williams at the bottom of the hill.
The place swapping continued, with both drivers thoroughly enjoying the cut and thrust of racing — a view not shared by Senna who felt his win was being put under unnecessary threat by the antics of these two. Eventually Senna lapped them both before stopping for slicks.
He won the race; Hill finished fourth and Irvine claimed his first championship point for sixth. But the effects of this extraordinary debut were not yet over.
Questioned by the media, and without mentioning names, Senna said: ‘The guy behind me came like a lunatic. It was as though he was fighting for position. If he is a backmarker, he should respect someone who is one lap in front.’
Even though he clearly remained irritated, that would probably have been the end of the matter had Senna not stopped by the Camel hospitality unit, where he found Gerhard Berger enjoying a glass of schnapps. The mischievous Ferrari driver persuaded Ayrton he was in need of some strong refreshment. Being almost teetotal and having worked hard for close to two hours, the effect of the schnapps was immediate and exaggerated beyond normal bounds. Senna needed little persuasion from his former team-mate to do something about Irvine’s lack of respect.
Ayrton headed for the Jordan office. Confronted by a sea of largely unfamiliar faces, he was unsure of his quarry until Irvine, sitting on a table, raised a hand and called out: ‘Here!’ Senna walked over and got straight to the point: ‘What the f— do you think you were doing?’ It was the start of an increasingly terse conversation (recorded by the British journalist Adam Cooper) that was only likely to end one way – particularly when Irvine casually said at one point: ‘You were too slow, and I had to overtake you to try and get at Hill.’
Senna had no intention of making physical contact when he arrived but, as he went to leave, Ayrton suddenly swung his left hand, hitting Irvine on the right side of the head and sending him to the floor. Senna was restrained and removed from the room, shouting as he went: ‘You gotta learn respect where you’re going wrong!’
Irvine, dusting himself down, joked about making an insurance claim – and the team’s celebrations continued. Ian Phillips, Jordan’s commercial manager, went to the control tower and quietly made officials aware of what had happened. Since most had left for the airport, there was no further action.
The story made headline news leading into the final race in Adelaide. As Senna continued to feel aggrieved, Irvine made no comment, particularly when the general consensus in the Australian media seemed to be: ‘Mate; you shouldv’e hit him back!’