1987 British Grand Prix race report: Mansell pips Piquet

Nigel Mansell, 1987 British GP

Mansell delighted the home crowd with a mega move on rival Piquet

Chris Cole/Allsport via Getty Images

On Sunday July 12 the sun rose over the Silverstone circuit with promise of a remarkable day, even though there were those who murmured “too bright, too early; not a good sign”. We had survived two days of practice and qualifying for the Grand Prix, together with practice for the numerous supporting races, and some of the supporting races themselves.

Many hardened Formula One followers reviewed things on Saturday evening with slight disbelief, while casual race-goers, enjoying the drinking and eating which is always part of the festival of the British Grand Prix, had actually taken time off to look at the Formula One cars. They had turned back to their real occupation saying, “My goodness, They do go, don’t they?”.

“It was really all down to the new safety measures taken by the Silverstone Circuit people. When Formula One was last there, in 1985, Rosberg had made the fastest qualifying lap; an average speed of over 160 mph, and when asked how fast he had been going down the straights, replied “Straights? What straights?”, pointing out that at that sort of average speed Silverstone is one long series of corners.

By the time you finished coming out of Chapel Curve, down Hangar Straight, you were taking aim across the track to line up for Stowe corner. All this was super stuff, but those who are responsible for our enthusiasm were getting anxious about cars exiting the Woodcote chicane at 162 mph, in case one got away and flew off into the grandstands.

Derek Warwick in his Arrows A10, finished fifth.

Derek Warwick qualified 13th in his Arrows

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A major decision was taken, to effectively make Formula One cars virtually stop once a lap, just to cool down the pace. The chicane was abandoned totally, and a whole new complex built between the bridge at the top of the rise from Abbey Curve, to the apex of Woodcote corner. A new ninety-degree turn to the left called for some very heavy braking before the bridge, and having come down to second gear for this sharp corner to the left, there was a little squirt and into an opening-out right-hand bend.

All the power of the turbocharged engined cars could now be used on a fair old run at Woodcote corner, with everything nicely settled and balanced. The result? A speed trap reading of 189 mph for the front runners as they crossed the start/finish line at the beginning of the pits, in place of a relatively slow 162 mph when they had had to negotiate the old chicane.

This meant 195 mph under the bridge and into the braking area for Copse corner, and during qualifying runs on Friday and Saturday a lot of drivers were taking Copse on “tippy-toe”, with their fingers crossed. If speed is what Grand Prix racing is all about, then this was Grand Prix racing.


By the end of Saturday’s qualifying, Nelson Piquet was on pole position, a mere seven hundredths of a second ahead of his Williams Honda team-mate Nigel Mansell, and they had both averaged over 159 mph for the complete lap. I am glad they have slowed Silverstone down — it is now much more exciting!

Piquet’s average speed for the revised circuit was 159.267 mph and the Williams-Hondas were in a class of their own. Even Ayrton Senna, who was third fastest using the same type of Honda engine in his Lotus, was a whole second behind the cars from Didcot. As everyone uses a “standard” Goodyear-issued tyre, it must mean that the Didcot engineers are ahead of the Hethel engineers when it comes to getting all the other variables in the right order and in the right quantity.

To give a sense of proportion on “the state of the art”, the fastest 31/2-litre non-turbocharged car was the Lola-Cosworth DFZ of Philippe Alliot, at an average speed of 140.882 mph and a start/finish line pass of 158.9 mph. An interesting piece of trivia is the fact that Piquet and Mansell were averaging a higher speed for the whole lap than the 31/2-litre cars were reaching through the trap out of Woodcote corner.

Christian Danner at the wheel of his Zakspeed 871.

Zakspeed’s Christian Danner qualified in 18th

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The disturbing thing is that the non-turbocharged cars are supposed to represent what Formula One will be in 1989, when turbocharged 11/2-litre engines are banned. Some of us are going to have to take up something more exciting, such as ping-pong

All the rest of the regular Formula One runners were out and about and trying as best as they knew how, but whatever they did paled into insignificance alongside the performance of the Williams team. Alain Prost in the McLaren-Porsche, Boutsen and Fabi in the Ford-powered Benettons, the Ferraris of Alboreto and Berger, and the Brabhams of de Cesaris and Patrese were looking good, in a hopeless sort of way; but just when you thought a driver was doing well, you found he was 21/2-3 seconds a lap slower than Piquet and Mansell, and 3 seconds at an average of nearly 160 mph is an awfully long way. The non-turbo “cars of the future” were clearly going to be lapped about every 10 laps during the 65 laps over which the British Grand Prix was going to be run.

During all this speed and excitement the Ligier team was getting very frustrated with all manner of niggling little things going wrong, to when Ghinzani came to rest out on the circuit during Friday qualifying the French mechanics went out to the car and worked on it at the side of the track, totally against regulations. To compound the felony, when they got it going Ghinzani charged off, and when the session finished he was so wound-up that he ignored the chequered flag. As a result of a Stewards meeting he was excluded from the rest of the event, which meant the race as well.

Silverstone has never been so full, not only with spectators but on the infield, with competitors in every sort of racing event you can imagine, cars for show, cars for parades and demonstrations, hospitality and junketing areas, trade areas, caravan and camping sites, helicopter landing areas and so on. About the only pieces of green grass you could see were the beautifully kept strips along each side of the track itself. Thousands upon thousands of spectators were already inside the circuit by Saturday evening, and the rest were waiting to get in as the sun rose to herald a superb morning.


The official programme of events started at 6am on Sunday morning, an hour after the gates opened, with coach rides round the circuit. Action went on continuously until the last event, which was due to start at 5.35pm in the evening. There was everything that anyone could want, from Formula Three racing to Formula One racing, from superkart demonstrations to a trio of V16-cylinder BRMs from the 1950s, from stunt-flying little biplanes to a trio of Spitfires, from a parade of sports/racing cars from 1927-1987 to celebrate 60 years of the British Racing Drivers Club to a skid-school display.

Nelson Piquet leads team mate Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna at the start of the race.

Piquet leads team-mate Mansell and Senna at the start

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I remember saying to my colleague AH some years ago, when talking about the pace of Formula One: “Don’t be in the toilet when the green light comes on, or you will miss the race”. Grand Prix races these days are over that quickly, but at Silverstone on Sunday there was so much happening that you could not even contemplate visiting the toilet. It does not do to try to visualise the amount of organising going on behind the scenes to make it all happen, but accept that it is enormous.

So suddenly, there we were— twenty-five drivers on the grid, ready to unleash something like 18,000 horsepower in the mad rush to the first corner, and then try to keep their cars under control for 65 laps. No wonder the adrenalin flows when the green light comes on — and I am only standing by the edge of the track!

Watching from the top of the rise out of Abbey Curve you can see the cars out of Stowe corner and down to Club, and the lead Piquet and Mansell had over the rest on the opening lap made it quite clear that it was all over. There were only two cars in the race, the rest might just as well have pulled off and let Piquet and Mansell have a clear track for the 65 laps.

True, Prost had made a screamer of a start, jumping both Williams down the outside, but going into Maggots Piquet passed him, and Mansell went through before Stowe. Prost maintained third place up to his tyre stop, but an inoperative clutch slowed him, and finally pieces of broken clutch spigot bearing broke the ignition sensor off the flywheel and everything died.

It was not going to be a quiet demonstration by the two Williams drivers, for they do not see eye-to-eye about such things, and, even if Frank Williams tried to control them to run round as a demonstration, it is unlikely they would obey him. They were both out to win and, providing they do not fall over each other, the team allows them to get on with it.

The only risk is that one day they will tangle and both cars will be steaming wrecks by the trackside, while one of the “also rans” cruises by to win. If that happens’ imagine the Didcot Labour Exchange will be having applications from two out-of-work racing drivers.

Before the start, both drivers were given the turbo-boost settings to use, well under the FIA limit of 4 bar, and they knew fuel consumption was accurately monitored by the Honda people and the digital display on their instrument panels would tell them whether they were spot-on, or running too fast or too slow.

The only unknown factor was tyre wear; that depended on how fast they went and how they handled their cars, so it was down to them. The aim was to go through non-stop, but it was up to them to review the situation as half-distance approached and make their own decisions. The Williams pits were geared up to accept tyre stops anywhere between lap 35 and lap 45, and radio communication allowed the drivers to transmit their decisions if they decided to stop.

Stefan Johansson retires from the race after an engine failure caused his McLaren MP4/3 TAG Porsche to catch fire.

Stefan Johansson retired from the race after an engine failure

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Running a consistent first and second, Piquet led Mansell at a blistering pace, leaving everyone else behind. At 9 laps they began to lap the tail-enders as expected, but were soon to lap the mid-field runners. Then they were lapping cars such as Arrows and Benettons, yet both blue and yellow cars looked and sounded at total ease as they weaved in and out of the traffic.

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After about 15 laps Mansell was aware of vibrations coming through the car from the road, due to an out of balance tyre, or uneven tyre wear, and as the halfway point arrived he made the decision to stop for new tyres. This added only 20 seconds to lap 36, so he did not lose his second place. Piquet was obviously going to go through non-stop, which would mean he would be getting short of rubber and grip in the closing stages, but hopefully he would have enough time in hand.

Mansell was straight back onto the pace after his stop, lapping at under 1 min 12 sec while Piquet was lapping at over 1 min 12 secs. They both speeded up, but Mansell was gaining at about 1 second a lap, so he threw all caution to the wind, ignored his fuel-consumption read-out and gave it all he had.

As he got closer and closer to Piquet the instrument panel was telling him he would never get to the finish but would run out of fuel, but he decided it was going to be “all or nothing”. It was a total gamble and as they took Stowe Corner on lap 63, with 21/2 laps to go, Mansell got by into the lead. The patriotic supporters all round the circuit let out a roar that was reminiscent of the “good old days” at Imola when Ferrari used to win. Mansell had set up a new all-time lap record for Silverstone on lap 58 in 1 min 09.83sec (153.059 mph), and Piquet could only respond with 1min 10.632sec on lap 62.

Nigel Mansell, Williams FW11B, leads Ayrton Senna, Lotus 99T.

Mansell leads Senna

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As Nigel Mansell took the chequered flag his fuel-consumption reading had gone beserk, and half-way round his slowing-down lap the engine died. His tank was completely dry, but it didn’t matter, his gamble had paid off.

It was a rather “miffed” Nelson Piquet who was the first one to complete the slowing-down lap, having to thread his way cautiously through the thousands of spectators who flooded the track to greet Mansell. For many of them he never arrived, since he eventually came round in a course marshals van, and he was gone by before anyone realised what had happened. At the finishing line he was suitably acclaimed.

In a very distant third place came Ayrton Senna, having driven his Lotus 99T as fast as the Lotus engineers could allow him, but it was nothing like good enough to even keep the Williams cars in sight.

“It had been a splendid race in the midst of a fantastic fiesta of speed and action”

With stars such as Prost, Alboreto, Berger and Johansson falling by the wayside, the Japanese driver Saturo Nakajima in the second Lotus arrived in fourth place. He was two laps behind the Williams pair, and one lap behind Senna, but it was a praiseworthy drive for the man from Japan in his first Grand Prix at Silverstone. More important was the fact that his drive into fourth place gave Honda a running-flush of 1st/2nd/3rd/4th, though unlike Alfa Romeo or Mercedes-Benz in the “good old days”, Honda needed two separate teams to achieve the 1-2-3-4.

It had been a splendid race in the midst of a fantastic fiesta of speed and action, and even if the traffic jams lasted well into the evening, everyone must have enjoyed it. With a race-day attendance of over 100,000, and untold millions of television watchers paying money into the FISA/FOCA kitty (I hope), the RAC Motorsports Association and their thousands of helpers must have felt it was all very much worthwhile.

Nigel Mansell, 1st position, Nelson Piquet, 2nd, and Ayrton Senna, 3rd on the podium.

A victorious Mansell holds the trophy aloft, flanked by Piquet (left) and Senna

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One’s views of the outcome of the British Grand Prix would naturally depend on where one’s support lay. Mansell fans went home jubilant; Piquet fans “umphed and mumphed”, for Nelson looked to have had victory in the bag. Whichever way, Williams team supporters really had something to celebrate, while everyone else in Formula One, and I do mean everyone, went away humbled — totally dominated by a superior force, and that force is generated at Didcot.

As I rode home over the Berkshire Downs on my little Honda 400/4, which I had used to defeat traffic jams, I paused and looked back. It was 9.20pm and there was the most superb sunset I have seen for a long while.

I stopped and watched as the sun went down over Didcot power station, on the horizon, and thought: That’s enough, for in the shadow of that station is Williams Grand Prix and thanks to Honda from the land of rising sun we have had a Great British Grand Prix.  DSJ