Prost’s end of term surprise
The way in which the last two Formula 1 races of the season came together must have reminded Alain Prost of 1983. Then, apparently secure in the lead of the World Championship at the wheel of his Renault RE40, he watched with a frustrated sense of helplessness as Nelson Piquet and the Brabham-BMW partnership ate remorselessly into his points advantage. Finally, in the last race of the season, the South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, Prost lost out in his bid to take the title and the Brazilian became Champion for the second time in his career.
Up until 1985, Prost had a lot of experience in both winning and losing; winning races, losing Championships. After switching to McLaren at the start of 1984, he won seven races only to lose out by half a point in the title chase to Niki Lauda, his TAG-Porsche-propelled teammate. Lauda won five races. By this point in time Prost must have been wondering whether or not the World Championship was actually something worth winning. Thankfully, the unobtrusive little Frenchman’s efforts were rewarded with the crown in 1985 and this year he had some good luck go his way and he became the first driver to win two consecutive titles since Jack Brabham won for Cooper-Climax in 1959 and ’60.
However, we are running slightly ahead of the story. Following Nigel Mansell’s superb flag-to-flag victory in the Portuguese Grand Prix at Estoril, the F1 fraternity moved out of Europe for the last two races of the season. The penultimate round was in Mexico City, reviving an event which has been missing from the calendar for 16 years, and it produced a pleasant outcome as far as the race winner was concerned.
Anyone who has been watching the F1 scene closely this season will have been aware that the Benetton-BMW team and Gerhard Berger have been heading for victory, and this duly came about in a convincing manner in Mexico. The last Mexican GP, held in 1970, ended in something of a shambles with uncontrolled spectators milling all over the circuit and most drivers extremely glad to get away from the place.
Now the circuit contained within the Magdalena Mixhuca sports complex in Mexico City has been completely rebuilt and brought up to present day standards for a World Championship F1 race, and renamed in memory of the two Rodriguez brothers, Ricardo and Pedro, who made their mark on motor racing, but sadly paid the ultimate price.
After an acclimatisation day on Thursday October 9 for drivers, machinery and personnel more used to operating at sea level (Mexico City is 7,500 ft above sea level!), the regular testing and qualifying sessions took place to the usual format on the following two days. On Friday afternoon Berger was fastest with the Rory Byrne-designed Benetton 0186, but Saturday saw the “heavies” move in, Ayrton Senna’s Lotus 98T claiming pole position, with Piquet and Mansell next up, relegating Berger to fourth.
The entry list was back to 26 again as the new AGS team decided not to travel out of Europe, and by Saturday night it was down to 25 as Huub Rothengatter had a monumental accident which virtually destroyed his Zakspeed. Having to pay its own way to Mexico, the German team had foregone the expensive luxury of a spare car, so that was that for the genial Dutchman, who happily escaped unscathed.
As far as the cars were concerned, the main problems centred round getting sufficient air into the turbochargers and playing round with suspension settings and aerodynamics to keep the cars on the ground round this bumpy circuit. Tyre wear was a big problem to the Goodyear users, but those on Pirelli rubber seemed quite confident, notably the Benetton team. It had gone almost unnoticed in Portugal that René Arnoux had run non-stop in his Pirelli-shod Ligier, and almost certainly Berger would have done the same had he not collided with Johansson’s Ferrari.
The Benetton team’s pole positions at Osterreichring and Monza had demonstrated there was not much wrong with the car, the engine and the Pirelli tyres as far as high speed circuits were concerned and the fast Mexican track seemed to suit them. Since mid-season Berger has demonstrated that he is well able to stay with the accepted front runners like Piquet, Senna, Prost and Mansell, even leading them at times.
In the opening stages of the Mexican race he was never lower than fourth, even though it looked as though Piquet would be dominant, having ruthlessly taken the lead from Senna going through the first corner. But the Benetton team’s master card was that it hoped for a non-stop run through the 68 lap race without a tyre change, while other teams anticipated a routine change of tyres around half distance.
In the event Berger kept an open mind over whether or not to stop for fresh tyres, but as the half-way point in the race came and went he found his Pirellis were still wearing reasonably well, so he chose to press on. It was the right decision. Although many people thought that the newly-shod McLaren, Williams or Lotus would soon regain the lost ground, it was not to be be. The Benetton continued to stay out in front and was never troubled. The BMW engine ran faultlessly, everything held together, and although Berger drives in the style of Rosberg, or the late Jochen Rindt, where an accident looks inevitable but never actually happens, he never looked troubled. He romped home to a deserved victory, bringing well-deserved joy to the colourful Benetton team and the successful Benetton knitwear-manufacturing family.
As far as the British fans were concerned, all eyes were on Nigel Mansell and his WilliamsHonda V6, quite justifiably after his recent excellent performances, but this time he “cocked it up” on the start line. He was on the second row behind pole man Senna, but as the red light came on he could not get his car into first gear, and a few seconds later when the green light blinked, all his rivals took off and Williams number five failed to move.
There was some pretty miraculous dodging about to avoid the stationary car and it finally got going just before the tail-enders went by. The Williams team was far from happy over the tyre wear situation and expected both cars to make two stops for new tyres, so the handicap of Mansell’s “muffed” start put paid to his hopes for a win, unless something remarkable happened.
In spite of this he did not give up, in his own words “driving flat out” for the whole race, swapping lap records with his team-mate Piquet in the other Williams-Honda V6. After dominating the opening phase of the race, Piquet dropped back, having to make three stops for tyres to Mansell ‘s two, and the Williams duo suffered the ignomy of being lapped by the leader, though their pit stops were perfection.
In contrast, Prost got through with one pit stop, although it was a bit slow due to the pneumatic nut-spinner jamming on one wheel nut after it had been locked up, but even so there was nothing he could have done about the non-stop Pirelli-shod Benetton.
Senna finished third, his tyres badly blistered, while Stefan Johansson’s Ferrari suffered a major turbo failure as it challenged the Lotus in the closing stages, Alboreto already having succumbed to a similar problem much earlier in the race. Neither Ferrari driver had been happy or impressed with the way in which the cars handled over the bumps, but now that John Barnard has left McLaren and joined Ferrari, enthusiasts of the Prancing Horse are hoping for a better showing from the red cars in 1987.
Well satisfied with its maiden victory, the Benetton team moved on to Adelaide in confident mood. However, if one had to pinpoint the really crucial result — from the point of view of the Championship — it was Prost’s second place in Mexico. Soon after his first tyre stop, the Frenchman felt his TAG V6 lapse onto five cylinders, so he decided to eke out his second set of tyres to the finish, worried that a sick engine just might not feel like re-starting if it was accidentally stalled during another pit stop. It was, unquestionably, the correct thing for him to do.
If one sat back and analysed the drivers in contention for the 1986 World Championship prior to Adelaide, one could but conclude that, whoever emerged on top, he would make a worthy World Champion. Mansell, Piquet and Prost had all driven superbly throughout the year. All had been on the receiving end of good luck and bad. And all had won races brilliantly from the front. Whenever any of them won a race, it was no surprise. It has been a long time since there were three such talented and well-matched men fighting for the title right down to the wire.
Just as luck had helped them all into a position of being poised on the edge of the World Championship, so luck would play its part in sorting out the final winner in Adelaide. Following his start-line fumbling in Mexico many of Mansell ‘s critics expected him to fall apart under pressure in Adelaide, but that proved not to be the case. “Our Nige” has certainly learned how to handle pressure like water off a duck’s back this season and he planted his Williams-Honda convincingly on pole position ahead of Piquet, Senna’s Lotus and Prost’s McLaren. It was his avowed intention to run as hard as he could, minding his own business and letting his Championship rivals get on with their own job. On the face of it, he was in the strongest position. He had to finish third to win the title—but the other two had to win the race without him finishing if they were to wrest the crown.
The Adelaide race took place in cool, showery weather which was a far cry from the balmy conditions we enjoyed in 1985. But the air of tension was drawn every bit as taut when the grid lined up for the final race of the season.
Behind the scenes, the crucial aspect was set to be tyres. Goodyear had recommended that its leading runners stop at least once during the course of the race, so Prost, Mansell and Piquet went out to the start armed with that knowledge.
Mansell was first off the line, leading throught the first chicane, but Senna pushed by at the top of the hill and then Piquet barrelled past his fellow Brazilian to take the lead at the end of the long back straight. Meanwhile television viewers all over the world were marvelling at just what a superb start Prost had made, but closer examination of their television screens revealed that the McLaren in third place at the end of lap one was number two — Rosberg!
The Finn, driving the last race of his F1 career, was right on the pace and tore past Piquet to take the lead going into lap seven. From that point onwards it looked as though the race would be for second place as Rosberg disappeared into the distance. In reality, however, it looked equally good for Prost, for if the Frenchman could get up to second place, Keke had agreed to relinquish his lead if it would help the Frenchman to keep his World Championship.
Meanwhile, Piquet, Mansell and Prost followed on behind. Piquet had a spin early on, Mansell was trying to pace himself as gently as he dared, while Prost clipped Berger’s Benetton as he was lapping the Mexican winner, puncturing a front tyre on his McLaren. He came in as early as lap 32 for fresh rubber as a result, eight laps before he was scheduled to stop — and Goodyear technicians, after examining the tyres which came off the McLaren, decided that a non-stop run on the rubber would have been possible and advised their other users accordingly.
Going into lap 63 the order was Rosberg, Piquet, Prost and Mansell. Down the long back straight, Rosberg’s race came to an end as the McLaren’s right rear Goodyear began to de-laminate, strands of flaying rubber stripping away frorn the tyre’s carcass. As these strands of rubber began rattling against the car’s rear bodywork, Keke assumed the engine had failed and switched off immediately, coasting into the side of the circuit. That was the end of that, although his tyre still contained air and the car was later hauled back to the pits with all four Goodyears inflated!
Before Williams and Goodyear could be alerted to the potential seriousness of the situation, Mansell had accelerated past the pits and started out on his 64th lap. As we all know, he never completed that lap. The Williams left rear Goodyear exploded on the back straight just as he was lapping Alliot’s Ligier, nearing top speed in sixth gear, the car sat down on its chassis in a furnace of sparks and slewed drunkenly up the escape road at the end of the straight, Mansell fighting gallantly to retain some small semblance of control right up until it bumped gently into a concrete retaining wall at little more than walking pace. Dazed, disappointed, but happy to be in one piece, Mansell sat, as if in a disbelieving trance, for a few moments before hauling himself out of the cockpit and returning to the pits.
With Mansell out, Piquet seemed to have the title in the bag, but wisely, he was called in for fresh tyres soon afterwards. It was a precautionary, but as it turned out, unnecessary, stop. His tyres were still in good shape. Mansell’s problem had clearly been an isolated failure, but that was little consolation to Piquet as he resumed almost 20 sec behind Prost. Gallantly setting a succession of fastest race laps, the Brazilian could make no worthwhile progress on the leading McLaren and had to settle for second place at the chequered flag.
By such twists and turns of fortune did Alain Prost become 1986 World Champion and, more significantly for the history books, score the 25th Grand Prix victory of his impressive career. But spare a thought for Mansell. He won five races this year — more than any of his rivals — and lost the chance of the title through no fault of his own. In some ways, he finishes the 1986 season as a bigger hero than he would have been if he had taken the Championship crown.
By any standards, 1986 has been a great season. Rounding off the cliff-hanging nature of the final race, Prost explained that his fuel computer had been telling him he was about five litres out for the last 20 laps or so. “There was no way I could ease off in these circumstances, so I just had to hope it was wrong,” quipped the Frenchman. In the event, it was wrong, making up for Hockenheim where his McLaren ran out on the last lap, despite the read-out telling him he had fuel aplenty!
Elsewhere, Stefan Johansson rounded off his Ferrari career with third place in Australia after surviving a huge accident in practice. His place for 1987 is being taken by Gerhard Berger while Benetton has recruited Thierry Boutsen to replace him, the Belgian driver facing the prospect of using Ford’s unproven 120-degree V6 in the Witney team’s 1987 car. Keke Rosberg has retired for good and A.H. looks forward to sharing a bottle of champagne with him at Monaco next May! Renault also says goodbye to the F1 scene, as does Johnny Dumfries to Lotus. Renault competitions manager Jean Sage is looking for a new position and some say he might replace Marco Piccinini as team manager at Ferrari if the Italian moves to FISA . . .
And so the rumours go on. It has been a splendid season with some truly splendid races and the serious F1 business starts again on March 29, 1987 at Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, the howl of Grand Prix engines at work will bark out at Silverstone, Paul Ricard, Estoril, Donington Park and many other tracks over the next few months as preparations are made for the new season. Preparations which had begun, in many cases, before the last engine was shut down at the end of the Adelaide weekend. For some people, Grand Prix racing is a seven days a week, four weeks a month, 12 months a year commitment! — AH/DSJ
Results (top five) — Mexican Grand Prix — Mexico City — October 12
68 laps of 4.421 km circuit, 300.628 kilometres (186.801 miles)
1. Gerhard Berger (Benetton B186 – BMW 4-cyl) — 1hr 33min 18.700sec
2. Alain Prost (McLaren MP4/2C – Porsche V6) — 1hr 33min 44.138sec
3. Ayrton Senna (Lotus 98T – Renault V6) — 1hr 34min 11.213sec
4. Nelson Piquet (Williams FW11 – Honda V6) — 1 lap behind
5. Nigel Mansell (Williams FW11 – Honda V6) — 1 lap behind
Conditions: Very hot
Fastest lap: N.Piquet — 1min 19.360sec on lap 64, av. 200.549 kph, (124.615mph). New record.
Results (top five) — Australian Grand Prix – Adelaide — October 26
82 laps of 3.799 km circuit, 309.878 kilometres (192.549 miles)
1. Alain Prost (McLaren MP4/2C – Porsche V6) — 1hr 54min 20.388sec
2. Nelson Piquet (Williams FW11 – Honda V6) — 1hr 54min 24.593sec
3. Stefan Johansson (Ferrari F1/86 – Ferrari V6) — 1 lap behind
4. Martin Brundle (Tyrrell 015 – Renault V6) — 1 lap behind
5. Phillippe Streiff (Tyrrell 015 – Renault V6) — 2 laps behind — not running
Fastest lap: N. Piquet — 1min 20.787sec on lap 82, av 168.398 kph — new record