A very wise man once wrote in this blog that Nigel Mansell probably didn't want the 1985 Grand Prix season to end. After waiting 72 races to stand highest on the podium at Brands Hatch, Mansell then went and won again in the very next race in South Africa, and although he wasn't able to make it three in a row in Australia, optimism for the 1986 season was nevertheless high. Joined in the Williams team by two-time World Champion Nelson Piquet - who was believed to be on a contract worth a whopping £2 million - it was reasonable to assume that the teamwork between the two fierce rivals was always likely to be lacking. Piquet's desire to be the number one driver in the team, coupled with Mansell's determination to prove himself the equal if not better of his Brazilian team-mate, led to friction throughout the season, and would cause more harm than good to Williams. But before then and just prior to the start of the Formula One season in Brazil, the team was hit by a personal tragedy, one which put any future arguments into perspective.
After leaving the Paul Ricard circuit in Southern France, where he had just finished supervising Mansell's testing of the team car, team principal Frank Williams was involved in a horrendous road accident, the rental car he was driving flipping over several times before coming to a rest. Peter Windsor, who was a passenger in the car and had luckily escaped serious injury, pulled Williams from the wreckage, but as he was transferred at first to a Marseilles hospital, and then to London, it became apparent that the spinal cord damage he had suffered was permanent. Williams was now a quadriplegic and would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, a shocking pre-cursor to the 1986 season and the forthcoming Brazilian Grand Prix. As Williams sat in his hospital bed, watching a recording of the race, his spirits must have been raised when he saw members of his pit crew holding a sign reading 'DON'T WORRY FRANK WE ARE MINDING THE STORE', with Piquet's 'WISH YOU WERE HERE FRANK' message re-emphasising to all that the team boss was in the thoughts of everyone.
Elsewhere, the driver merry-go-round between the 1985 and 1986 seasons resembled a football transfer deadline day on Sky. Keke Rosberg moved from Williams to join reigning World Champion Alain Prost at McLaren; Ayrton Senna was partnered at Lotus with the new British driver Johnny Dumfries, after the Brazilian had blocked a proposed move for Derek Warwick, citing the fact that he felt his team incapable of producing two competitive cars; Benetton had purchased the Toleman team, providing drives for Teo Fabi and Gerhard Berger, with Marc Surer taking Berger's place at Arrows alongside Thierry Boutsen; Renault and Alfo Romeo were no more after 1985, many of the employees of the former transferring seamlessly to Ligier, who would have Rene Arnoux and Jacques Laffite behind the wheels; Brabham, owned by Bernie Ecclestone, had a brand new car design for the season, the BT55 housing a BMW engine tilted over on its side in an attempt to provide a lower aerodynamic drag, Riccardo Patrese and Elio de Angelis the guinea pigs for the new model; three teams had expanded to two cars for the 1986 season - Lola-Hart (Alan Jones and Patrick Tambay), Minardi (Andrea de Cesaris and new boy Alessandro Nannini), and Osella (Piercarlo Ghinzani and Christian Danner) - although Zakspeed had retained their one car team, driven by Jonathan Palmer; Tyrell, now with the financial support of Data General and Courtaulds, and Ferrari started the season with drivers that they had used in at least some parts of the previous season, through Martin Brundle/Philippe Streiff and Michele Alboreto/Stefan Johansson respectively. Phew. Got that all?
One of the main talking points before the season curtain raiser in Brazil centred on the engine powers of the cars. As there were no limits on engine output, the 1986 campaign witnessed some of the most powerful motors ever seen in F1. But this came with a caveat; a 12% reduction in the amount of fuel allowed in each car from 220 to 195 litres, meant that although the engines could be as strong as the teams liked, obviously the faster the car went, the greater the fuel consumption, leading to many retirements in various races throughout the year. There were less restrictions in qualifying sessions however, as we were soon to find out in Rio.
The initial practice sessions at the Jacarepaguá Circuit gave an early indication of the efficient Williams machines, both Piquet and Mansell lapping at an average speed of 130mph, but it was to be Senna who would excel during Saturday's qualification. The home crowd were already in a joyous enough mood with Piquet sitting on pole, until a last gasp lap from Senna made it an all Brazilian front row, the Lotus driver qualifying at the head of the pack. Senna's lap time of 1:25.501 at an average of 131mph, was 0.765 seconds quicker than Piquet, and a full two seconds improvement on Alboreto's fastest qualification lap in the previous season. Mansell qualified in third place, albeit over a second slower than Senna, and he would be followed on the grid by the Ligier's of Arnoux and Laffite. Ferrari and McLaren contested the next few positions, as Alboreto, Rosberg, Johansson and Prost qualified from sixth to ninth. Brits Dumfries, Brundle and Palmer finished in 11th, 17th and 21st places respectively.
As the 61 lap race started in sunny conditions, it was Mansell who made the most decisive move, surging past Piquet to take second place behind Senna. Sadly though Mansell's positive opening to the new season was soon to end, as his attempt to overtake Senna before the end of the first lap was thwarted when the Brazilian slammed the door in his face, leading to the two cars touching and to the Williams car spinning out of the race. Senna, who had doggedly held the racing line against Mansell, proceeded to set the early pace with a fastest lap time of 1:38.109. By lap three however, Piquet had his compatriot in striking distance, and took the lead for the first time, showing a little more patience than Mansell had demonstrated earlier. For the partisan home support, the ideal win-win situation was already being raced out before their eyes.
As Piquet stretched his lead to over 2.5 seconds, Alain Prost began to bring the rest of the field back towards him, and by lap eleven the reigning World Champion had progressed from tenth to fourth. Fastest in the Sunday warm-ups and a three-time winner of the Brazilian Grand Prix, Prost was now very much a threat to the hopes of the Brazilian duo, even more so when he pushed ahead of Alboreto into third place. Two previous World Champions had not experienced such joie de vivre during Prost's journey through the places; Alan Jones and Prost's McLaren team-mate Keke Rosberg both forced into early mechanical related retirements.
The assumption was that most teams would operate a two-stop race, although James Hunt in the BBC commentary box did speculate as to whether Prost in his McLaren was planning on just the one visit. Ferrari's Stefan Johansson was the first driver to change his tyres at the end of lap 16, soon to be a common site in the next few minutes, and by lap 18, with Piquet already amongst the back markers, the race leader came in for a nine-second pit stop that would see him relinquish the lead to Senna. Brazilian optimism soon began to fade though, with Prost rapidly gaining on Senna, and by lap 21 the unthinkable happened; Prost took the lead, pricking thousands of home-made balloons in the process.
Retirements continued abound; Ghinzani (Osella), de Cesaris and Nannini (both Minardi), Surer (Arrows), Palmer (Zakspeed), and Patrese (Brabham) all out by lap 21, with Elio de Angelis lucky to stay in the race, completely losing his front-left wheel and limping to the pits in his new Brabham tricycle, as described by the incomparable Murray Walker. Patrick Tambay (Lola-Hart) soon joined the ever growing list on lap 24, although understandably most eyes were attracted to the battle up top, and in particular the progress of Piquet.
Piquet moved ahead of Senna after the Lotus man came in for his first tyre change, and with Prost still out on his first set, Piquet ate away at the Frenchman's lead. Lap 24 saw Piquet fly round in 1:34.242, helping the Brazilian to gradually catch and overtake Prost on the home straight after 27 laps, and as the huge cheers of the crowds rang out, it was becoming apparent that Prost had a decision to make regarding his pit strategy. If Prost could get away with just one stop then the race was his, but soon this option was taken out of the equation completely. Prost did indeed pit - his change of tyres taking only 9.49 seconds - but as he rejoined the race in third position on lap 29, little did he know that his race was almost over. Engine problems just a lap later forced Prost out, and with it began a Brazilian procession.
The chances of any drama between the home-based drivers was very remote, Piquet's lead over Senna standing at 24.997 seconds after 32 laps, yet behind the Brazilians there was great excitement for France and Britain, with Arnoux, Laffite, Brundle and Dumfries occupying the points positions. Dumfries was enjoying a fine debut, moving into fifth after a Brundle pit stop, but a catastrophic 39.41 seconds tyre change by an unprepared Lotus crew dented any hopes of a points finish for the Brit. Hunt questioned whether Dumfries had in fact communicated effectively with his team informing them of his need to stop, but whatever the truth, it was a disappointing stoppage during a promising start.
Senna did briefly regain the lead, Piquet's final pit stop allowing the Lotus driver to just sneak ahead on the 41st lap as Piquet left the pits. It didn't last long though, as Senna's need for new tyres soon allowed Piquet to take control, the last twenty laps a relatively straight forward Sunday drive around Rio, not that Piquet was resting on his laurels, setting the fastest lap time of 1:33.546 on lap 46. As the race moved towards its conclusion, only four drivers out of the ten remaining - Piquet, Senna, Arnoux and Laffite - were on the same lap, with the French duo a vast 40 seconds behind the leader. There was a brief period of excitement when the Brazilian TV directors showed the armchair supporters the Arnoux/Laffite contest for third and fourth, but right on cue the cameras cut back to Piquet just as Laffite moved into a podium position.
"This one is for you Frank," yelled Walker, on Piquet's final lap of glory, before the Brazilian saw the chequered flag to claim nine championship points. The main grandstand erupted in delight, some fans holding a banner that read 'Deus E Brasileiro' (God is a Brazilian) to highlight their joy. Brazilian Grand Prix fans were certainly in the mood for a party with Senna claiming second place, Piquet's proclamation that this was a "very special day" evident in the cheers ringing around the circuit. Of course for Piquet there was a slightly bigger picture to the victory. "It was one of the easiest but one of the happiest wins of my career," stated the victor, adding the trio of reasons behind his delight: "I am happy because I was in front of my home crowd, at the first attempt for my new team and of course, because I hope it will help speed Frank's recovery."
Laffite held off his Ligier colleague Arnoux to claim third, with Tyrell's Martin Brundle in fifth and Austria's Gerhard Berger providing Benetton with a point on an encouraging debut for the team. Only four other drivers finished the race - Streiff (Tyrell), de Angelis (Brabham), Dumfries (Lotus) and Fabi (Benetton) - although between them they were 2-5 laps down on Piquet, but on a day when the Williams man excelled, there was no disgrace in that.
As the season evolved, it became clear that the quartet of Piquet, Senna, Prost and Mansell were set to dominate matters, with only Berger capable of breaking the stranglehold in Mexico. During a classic period for Formula One lovers, the sight of the four great men wrestling for supremacy throughout the 1986 season brings a warm feeling of nostalgia to the heart, catapulting those of us old enough back to those heady days. When four eventually became three towards the season finale in
Australia - Senna and Lotus hit by too many retirements - the nations of France, Britain and Brazil held their collective breath, all three in with a shout of celebrating a Formula One World Champion. Alas for Mansell his season would end as it had begun in Brazil, and with Piquet unable to catch Prost, the Frenchman retained his crown. Piquet, Mansell and Williams would have their day in the years to follow, but for 1986 there would only be disappointment. It will have been of very little consolation to the protagonists involved, yet the drama that the Williams team provided - along with Senna and Prost - made 1986 a great year to follow my first Formula One season, and for that I will be forever grateful of the memories these legends gave me.