For the penultimate race of the season, the Formula 1 World Championship returned to Japan, ten years after its last visit. The race was no longer held at the Fuji circuit but had be moved to Suzuka, in the Mie Prefecture. The circuit had been constructed in 1962 by Soichiro Honda, boss of the eponymous car company, as a test track.
Honda were looking forward to the return of the Japanese Grand Prix on the Formula 1 calendar. They had one of the best engines at the time, in the Williams which had dominated the season, and also powered the competitive Lotus. Fighting for the title were Frank Williams pairing of Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell. Also in with a good shot at victory in the Grand Prix was Ayrton Senna, whose Lotus teammate Satoru Nakajima was the local favourite. Scuderia Ferrari had struggled during the season. From the start, the Maranello cars suffered breakdowns and problems, but halfway through the year they had started to improve.
All the Japanese fans wanted to see a duel between Piquet and Mansell for the world title. In Formula 1 however, twists and turns are the order of the day and that was proved in qualifying. Mansell, trying to beat Piquet’s time, went off track and crashed into the barriers. The Englishman bruised his spine which forced him to sit out the rest of the season. Piquet was therefore crowned world champion for the third time before the race even started.
In front of the Japanese fans, it was not however Piquet who got away first, but a Ferrari: Gerhard Berger, a new signing for the Maranello team, who drove the F1-87 perfectly, taking an extraordinary pole position. The Frenchman Alain Prost, next on the grid, finished six tenths off. Michele Alboreto in the Ferrari number 27 was fourth on the grid, almost a second down, ahead of the new world champion.
The race on Sunday 1 November saw Berger maintain the lead at the start while Prost went off on the first lap, putting him out of contention for the win. The Ferrari extended its lead easily because behind him, Thierry Boutsen in the Benetton held up the pack, causing Senna, Piquet and Stefan Johansson in the second McLaren to lose time. Watching the fans in the grandstands was quite something: when Berger passed, the Japanese Ferrari fans cheered, then Senna passed and they all applauded together. Finally came Nakajima in sixth and everyone jumped to their feet to cheer their absolute favourite.
The unstoppable Gerhard flew towards a victory that was never in doubt in a race in which only a change of position during the pit stops meant he did not lead every lap (Senna led the race for one lap). For the Austrian, it was his second victory and first with Scuderia Ferrari, which brought to an end a barren patch which the Italian team had suffered for 37 races.
In a state of grace, Berger repeated the feat two weeks later in Adelaide, Australia, with the fans going wild and instilling great confidence, maybe too much, for the following season.