At Brands Hatch the Williams team gave a demonstration of dominance and quality. Both cars started from the front row and, apart from the first two laps, occupied the leading positions throughout, not even losing the lead during pitstops. Given another lap or so, Mansell and Piquet would have lapped third place man, Alain Prost, for a second time and Prost was in no trouble, he was a full lap clear of the rest of the field and his best lap was nearly two seconds quicker than anyone else. Rarely more than a few lengths apart, Mansell and Piquet were not only putting on a display of team superiority, they were engaged in a private battle.
To put the Williams-Honda performance into perspective, Mansell’s fastest lap took nearly two seconds off Laffite’s record set last October, and their best race laps would have put them on the fifth row of this year’s grid, ahead of both Brabhams and both Ferraris. By contrast, Laffite’s 1985 fastest lap would have put him nineteenth on the 1985 grid, among the no-hopers.
The Williams team suffered an almighty blow early in the year when Frank Williams was seriously injured in a road accident. It was the sort of thing which would have thrown many outfits into disarray but in his hard struggle to the top, Frank had established an organisation which could function in such an eventuality. He appeared on the Friday, paralysed from the shoulders down but demonstrating why his team is as it is.
Frank is recovering slowly, feeling and movement gradually returning to his limbs, and he is setting himself targets to achieve. He is going into the factory but is making no, absolutely no, decisions. That degree of personal discipline illustrates why the team is as it is. Patrick Head is in charge and his calm, reasoned, authority is keeping things going very well indeed but it was Williams who put the team together and though he may joke about it doing very nicely without him, the remains that it is still his team. His determination not to make decisions at present is not a negative one, it’s a positive course which comes from the man’s inner strength and helps explain why Williams Grand Prix Engineering is what it is. Most of us in the same position would want to make our presence felt if only to make ourselves feel important. Most of us are not of the calibre of Frank Williams.
Nigel Mansell is a driver taken from the same mould as Frank Williams. There are some teams and some drivers who, if a win came their way, would not know what to do with it. When Williams won its first Grand Prix in 1979 the team knew how to build on it and subsequently it went from strength to strength and its cars won with slow punctures and bits falling off. As soon as Mansell won at Brands Hatch nine months ago, it confirmed his confidence in himself and he’s added win after win, taking six races from the last twelve and being less than an eye blink from a seventh, at Jerez. With British sport needing a hero at present, Nigel has been given a great deal of attention in the mass media and it has fuelled his confidence. National newspapers fell over themselves to give prominence to the British Grand Prix, the sport has never received so much attention in the popular press. It all added up to a crowd of well over 100,000 and, perhaps more significantly, a crowd of at least 50,000 for the second day of practice. The majority were rooting for Mansell and Williams and the normally taciturn Brits have discovered the tifosi spirit.
Now a footballer or an athlete can be spurred on by the cheers of a crowd but a racing driver is strapped in his cockpit amid heat and engine noise and although he may know that the crowd is with him, it is a knowledge which comes largely from inside rather than hearing every cheer and gasp. Mansell has that inner strength, and hunger and will. He has the best equipment, of course, but then so has Nelson Piquet and Nelson is in anyone’s list of ‘top three’ drivers while Nigel still has the reputation of excellent workman rather than master craftsman.
The Italian and South American press have been making much of Mansell getting the best deal in Williams at the expense of the nominal number one Nigel is British and Williams is the most patriotic of teams so it’s a story which is easy to believe. It’s understandable that such speculation would get through to Piquet, for he is a number one driver currently finishing second to his number two, and though the spare car is his should both drivers need it, it takes more than that to make a man feel he really is number one.
You can understand Piquet’s dilemma, for he is having to share a team’s time after years of being the centre of attention at Brabham with a special relationship with Gordon Murray. Ever since Lauda left Brabham at the end of 1979, Piquet has not only received special attention but he has been paired with markedly inferior drivers, some of whom would consider themselves lucky to be in any F1 car, let alone a Brabham.
Piquet seemed determined to make a point about his position in the team and over the two days of qualifying he was quickest in both the timed and untimed sessions. Qualifying on Friday was on a “slow” track and his time of 1m 07.690 seconds was slower than the time which, last October, brought him second place on the grid with the Brabham BT54. It was still a full half second quicker than Gerhard Berger’s Benneton which, in turn was over half a second quicker than Mansell’s Williams.
Berger had a series of problems which prevented him from improving on his time in the second session but he still started from fourth on the grid. We’ve seen Berger as a forceful, courageous, driver and now we’re seeing a smooth, confident driver. Last October he was 19th on the grid in his Arrows-BMW, now he was the main threat to the Williams in his Benneton-BMW. A little more race experience does not explain the difference, but it makes you wonder what Arrows are up to and how Thierry Boutsen might go with another team.
So Piquet appeared to make his point. In the second qualifying session, Mansell messed up what might have been his best lap by coming wide out of Stirlings and onto the grass. He said, too, that his engine was misfiring on full qualifying boost so he was running it at a lower pressure. After all the mass media hype, Mansell’s second place seemed anticlimactic.
Nelson sat on pole with a time of 1 m 06.961 from Mansell with 1m 07.399, Senna with 1m 07.524 and Berger on 1m 08 196. Last October Senna sat on pole with a quicker time, but Team Lotus does not look like an integrated unit. Johnny Dumfries had been quick throughout practice, learning the circuit for he had not been given a chance during the tyre testing days. He was seventh in the untimed session on Saturday and was hoping to improve on his eighth place on the grid secured during the first qualifying hour. In the second session, his qualifying tyres were wasted as he was baulked (or got himself into a position where he could be baulked) but coming back to the pits for a third go on used tyres, he was ignored as the team concentrated on Senna and when he was eventually let out qualifying was nearly over and he didn’t get in a flying lap. It’s one thing to accept second best, it’s another thing to accept incompetence.
Lotus, however, looks like a model of clinical efficiency compared with Brabham and Ferrari. Brabham has been forced to make the most humiliating admission any team can make: last year’s car might be better than this year’s.
A BT54 was prepared for Riccardo Patrese and, on the surface this seemed a good move Piquet had put such a car on the front row last October with a time of 1m 07.482s so, such a car with the same settings should have been competitive. In fact, the 1985 time would have been good for third on the grid this year. Patrese may not be Piquet but when the two men had identical Brabhams at Brands Hatch in 1983, the Italian was quicker. This year his best lap was only 1m 11.267s, not much quicker than he did with the BT 52B in 1983. Patrese’s years with Alfa Romeo may have blunted him. Piquet’s departure must have told on Brabham, perhaps the ‘upright’ engine BMW supplied may have been not quite as sharp as last year’s, perhaps the track was a little slower, and the weather, being hot and humid, less sympathetic, but to be four seconds off last year’s pace was pathetic. Nobody could understand why and the Brabham camp was a scene of utter confusion. The car was quick last year, it was quick during winter testing and now it was slow, yet it was the same car on the same settings. The car hadn’t changed but the team has lost its confidence.
Gordon Murray has a ‘B’ spec for the BT55, but it would take two months to build and with BMW pulling out at the end of the year, there is no point in making it.
Some say F1 would not be F1 without Ferrari but we effectively have F1 without Ferrari. On the Friday, the speed traps had Johansson quickest in a straight line but slow over a lap, in fact his best time of 1m 11.500s (recorded in the first, slower, session) was slower than last year. He battled with understeer around the circuit and, out of the car, seemed utterly disspirited. Alboreto was quicker with 1m 10.388s but even that was barely faster than his best 1985 time.
Benneton was in good form with Berger fourth and Fabi seventh following the transfer, for the second qualifying session, of Berger’s engine. Arrows decided against running its new car Jones and Tambay had the benefit of a (planned) increment in power from the Ford-Cosworth engines, which are still running at only 90-95% of their potential. And Alessandro Nannini, who has been quietly learning his profession in the second Minardi, not only out-qualified de Cesaris but lined up immediately behind Johansson’s Ferrari. Minardi close to Ferrari? That’s something to make a tifoso cry into his Lambrusco.
Rene Arnoux drove strongly to take his Ligier to seventh slot on the grid, something which we’ve come to expect of the French lately, but Jacques Laffite was way down in 19th position after two days which were a living demonstration of the proof of Dr Sodt’s Law: if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. At the end of the first untimed session, his car caught fire during the second qualifying session, he made a mistake and took himself and Keke Rosberg off. As Keke said later, he’d have been furious had anyone else done it but when Laffite admitted to an error he was happy to accept it, after all, ‘Happy Jack’ was about to equal Graham Hill’s record of 176 Grand Prix starts.
Rosberg anyway took fifth place on the grid alongside Prost in sixth, the McLarens do not show well in qualifying but Prost was under no illusions, “With the amount of boost the Williams-Hondas can run, the rest of us will be buried.” He accepted it as fact, not a reason to lose confidence.
It sometimes happens that when a driver is on a winning streak, circumstances so occur that the most rational person begins to believe in luck. As the green light went on for the start of the race, Mansell edged ahead from the outside of the front row and then suddenly slowed as a drive shaft joint went. In the confusion of the start, we could see the Local Hero was in trouble but not know that it was terminal. Then out came the flags to stop the race.
Entering Paddock Hill Bend for the first time, Thierry Boutsen had something go on his Arrows. The car turned sharply to the left, Boutsen fighting it, and it hit the barrier. This bounced him backwards across the road. In trying to avoid the Arrows, most of the following men either hit each other or hit barriers. One of them was Laffite whose Ligier buried itself into the Armco. Dr Jonathan Palmer was out of his damaged Zakspeed in a trice to be the first medical man at the scene.
The front end of the Ligier was a sorry sight for the car hit at right angles and there appeared little give on the Armco. So Jacques had made his 176th start but yards afterwards had two severely fractured legs and a fractured pelvis.
The multiple shunt put out Danner and both Osellas. Boutsen took the spare Arrows but there was no spare Osella for Ghinzani since Alan Berg was in it. The young Canadian had gone off at Druids on cold tyres during Saturday’s untimed practice, and damaged his race car. Mansell, de Cesaris, Palmer and Boutsen took to theft team’s spares while the cars of Johansson, Nannini and Rothengatter could be repaired. In a separate incident, caused by bunching as Mansell’s stricken car slowed, Dumfries and Warwick had come together, causing a puncture in the Lotus and a broken nose cone on the Brabham. Both were repaired on the grid.
The Williams team readied the spare for Mansell, a car which had been set up by, and for, Piquet, while at the same time, it repaired Mansell’s race car and only narrowly failed to make the grid with it, the pit gates being closed just before the car was ready. The impression has been given that Mansell was entirely unfamiliar with the T-car but, in fact, he spent some time in it on the Frrday morning after his race car had suffered over-heating. Still, it was a short acquaintanceship and the car was primarily set up for Piquet.
There was a delay of an hour and a quarter while Laffite was taken to Sidcup hospital and before the medical helicopter returned. The vast crowd waited patiently for its hero had lived to fight again and, besides, there were four other Brits on the grid.
It says a lot for Williams, Piquet and Mansell, that after the restart, Mansell took only two laps to find his pace in a strange car. Piquet led, followed by his team mate, but then Berger forced his way past for a couple of laps until Mansell found his rhythm and took second again.
At the end of lap one it was Piquet, Berger, Mansell, Senna, Rosberg, Prost, Fabi, Alboreto, Arnoux, Jones, Warwick, Dumfries, Brundle, Streiff, Patrese, Tambay, Boutsen, Johansson, Palmer, Rothengatter, Nannini and de Cesaris. Mansell moved to second and set off after Piquet. The pace of this leading pair meant they not only pulled out a vast lead but began lapping the backmarkers on lap ten.
Rosberg went out with transmission trouble on his eighth lap, when lying fifth. Jones, who had been running seventh in his Lola-Ford retired with a broken throttle linkage on lap 23. In the other car, Patrick Tambay later ran as high as sixth, helped by retirements before losing a couple of gears and retiring on lap 61.
Senna had been holding a steady fourth, third after Berger retired with engine problems on lap 23, but thirty seconds in arrears and unable to make a challenge because of a misfire. He came into the pits for a tyre change and to investigate gearbox problems on lap 27. He spent five minutes there, went out again and retired with loss of fourth gear a lap later. By that time we had lost Rosberg, Johansson, Jones, Berger, de Cesaris and Rothengatter.
Mansell took Piquet on lap 22 and began to pull out a small advantage. Piquet came into the pits at the end of lap 30 for a new set of C compound tyres and was dispatched in a fraction over nine seconds without losing second place. Mansell pulled in at the end of his 32nd lap for tyres, had a similarly rapid change and came out on pre-heated tyres just ahead of Piquet. It was a wonderful demonstration of Williams efficiency.
Piquet tried to snatch back the lead, but Mansell drove defensively for a lap or two to stay in front. Then Nelson took up station and one had to ask who was controlling the race, Mansell who led or Piquet who sat there a few lengths behind, lap in lap out. Not only that, but as the cars got lighter, they went quicker.
Mansell broke the lap record on laps 39, 48 and 49. Piquet took it on lap 54, then it was Mansell again on laps 63, 68 (when Piquet set his fastest lap) and 69 when he finally posted a time of 1m 09.593s (135.19 mph). With their technical superiority, Mansell and Piquet broke the back of the opposition.
Prost had a couple of tyres stops, which dropped him further back, though he held third from lap 33 onwards. Arnoux did the same, though perhaps a second stop was not strictly necessary — he finished fourth two laps down. Alboreto had ran as high as third for the first third of the race, a tyre change dropped him down the field but he was back to fourth before going out with a broken turbo.
As the race ran its course, Piquet tried to come back at his number two but Mansell’s succession of fastest laps was more than he could cope with. As the final two or three laps were reeled off, he conceded the race to Mansell and backed off, allowing Nigel to come home nearly six seconds ahead.
Derek Warwick should have taken fifth place but his car was low on fuel and as he came to the end of his last lap, it ran out. Derek crossed the line half out of his car and ‘rowing’ with his arms. Brundle, Streiff and Dumfries all passed him for fifth, sixth and seventh. Derek’s action, for the home crowd, was amusing, but he was an angry man with his team. Brabham may have taken a wrong turn but the cars haven’t often run out of fuel. And when did a Brabham last run faultlessly with a top line driver and still finish three laps down?
Dumfries, who seemed tired for the last 30 laps, came to within yards of his first Championship points after Streiff slowed to tighten the locking nut on his steering wheel — it had to be done on the straights over three laps. Jonathan Palmer, the fifth Brit finisher from five, slowed in the closing laps as a malfunctioning fuel meter told him falsely that he was running dry. He was classified ninth, the final runner and six laps adrift, but afterwards was chipper about the progress his team had made.
We all know that Nelson Piquet is one of the very best drivers, a thoroughbred, and dear old Nigel is a plodder, a big-hearted Shire horse who does everything by grit and will power. It’s perhaps time that we revised that opinion. Mansell beat Piquet fair and square. Perhaps the result would have been different had the race been in Brazil and not England, for the home country gives every driver an edge. Will power certainly came into it, for the spare car was not fitted with a drink bottle so Mansell ended the race dehydrated and in a state of near collapse.
Mansell had the ‘luck’ of the re-start but the relative unfamiliarity of Piquet’s spare car. That he was able to win with such authority in circumstances which completely eliminate any suggestion of team favouritism must leave Piquet asking serious questions of himself. He set the car up, but Mansell was quicker in it.
Some drivers do mature late in their careers but it’s still something of a surprise to see Mansell lead the World Championship and to realise that in terms of GP wins he is now becoming one of the most successful drivers on the grid. — M.L.