Good bye to a Goodyear: Mansell, Prost & Piquet's 1986 Adelaide title decider

Arriving at Adelaide in 1986, Mansell Piquet and Prost each had a chance of taking the world championship. By the time they left, the best driver had beaten two aces with superior cars. Adam Cooper recalls the drama of this classic confrontation

Nigel Mansell's Williams during the 1986 F1 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide

Mansell's dreams would soon be in tatters

Roger Gould/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, the Observer published a list of the 10 worst sporting mishaps of all time. The collapse of the Queen Mother’s Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National was a predictable winner, beating such dramas as the Oxford crew sinking in the 1951 Boat Race and Wakefield Trinity’s Don Fox missing that absurdly easy goal kick in the 1968 Rugby League Challenge Cup final.

But up there in third place was motor sport’s sole contribution: Nigel Mansell’s spectacular demise in the 1986 Australian GP has earned a more secure place in the nation’s psyche than any of his victories. His wild trip between the Adelaide walls, sparks flying and left-rear Goodyear flailing, is the most famous TV image this sport has ever produced.

It came at the end of a remarkable season, which saw Williams team-mates Mansell and Nelson Piquet take their private championship battle to the last race. After a bad race in Mexico, Mansell had 70 points, while Nelson was on 63. But sneaking in between them, and by no means out of the picture, was reigning champion Alain Prost, on 64.

That set up what was perhaps the most gripping single event of the turbo era. With a little help from Murray Walker’s BBC TV commentary, some of the key players in the drama tell the story of that unforgettable showdown. It’s 26 October 1986…

Murray Walker: “This is absolutely the critical moment of the race. Nelson Piquet and Mansell together. And it’s go! And that’s a superb start from Nigel Mansell … Senna goes through into second place, ahead of Piquet, and the two McLarens slot in behind them.”

Patrick Head: “It was a bloody difficult year, because Frank was injured right at the beginning of it. Nelson was in his first year with the team and Nigel was in his second, and I wasn’t really aware of what had been agreed between Nelson and Frank. He was literally at death’s door for three months after the accident; I wouldn’t say he clinically died, but he certainly stopped breathing three or four times and had to be resuscitated. And I was going back and forwards to Honda in Japan. I remember being absolutely exhausted at the end of it. I think I went to Japan 15 times during the year.”

From the archive

Jo Ramirez: “The McLaren domination of 1984 was very unexpected, because we had so many problems at the beginning of the year in testing. Then when the racing started it was plain sailing, fantastic. Then we had a few problems in ’85, but we still managed to win the championship. We had a few more problems in ’86; everybody was starting to catch up, and we had to improve our act. In those years we didn’t have all the electronics that we have now. We had turbos, intercoolers and all those things, so the cars were complicated. But we carried less people and everybody seemed to work harder and get the job done. Now we carry a lot more people and still moan and complain that we need more people.”

Ron Dennis: “Each season is different: the way they unfold, the nature of the competitiveness of the cars. It was an era when fuel consumption played a role. Every set of circumstances was different”

“Look at that! Keke Rosberg in front of Nelson Piquet. So Rosberg leads the Ital .. the Australian GP a magnificent bit of driving. Rosberg started from seventh position on the grid. He’s got ahead of Berger, he’s got ahead of Arnoux, he’s got ahead of Prost and Senna, and Piquet, and of course Nigel Mansell.”

Head: “I think they were spectacular cars, obviously mainly because of the engine. But a large part of making those cars work was to make something that could take the power of the engine and cool them properly and so on. In my view, it was a very good car; it was as good a car as the Honda was a good engine.”

Frank Williams: “They were great cars, and Honda was a great partner with a real racing culture. They were very quick motor cars.”

Dennis: “The turbo cars were fun. We made our own engine and were very involved in it. It was Porsche maintained of course, but we were very, very involved in the whole programme. It was as close as we got to winning with our own car and engine.”

Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell in Adelaide ahead of the 1986 F1 Australian Grand Prix

Piquet, Prost and Mansell ahead of the decider

Gilles Levent/DPPI

Head: “Nigel and Nelson did not get on very well. Trying to keep both of them happy was difficult They were both immensely talented, completely different characters, and of course Nelson realised that Nigel sometimes responded well to what you might call teasing although some of it was pretty direct. The more he realised he got a response, the more he went at it. Nelson’s view was that you didn’t just race on the track; anything you could do that diminished the position of the other driver was part of the game. Nigel didn’t see it that way.”

Williams: “Nigel was the more competent and better driver I would say, by the closest of margins, but the bottom line was Nelson scored more points. “They were both challengers for the title, but it wasn’t a struggle where they were at each other hammer and tongs at most races. It was a battle, but it wasn’t always at very close range. There were a number of races that Nelson won by a handsome margin. And in most of those either Nigel wasn’t still running or there was a car driven by someone called Prost in between them. There was one instance when, arguably, team orders might have earned a drivers’ title for Nelson that year. That would have been telling Nigel, one lap before the end of a brilliant struggle at the British GP, in which they lapped everybody twice, to concede his place to Nelson. But we didn’t waste anybody’s time with that instruction!”

“Keke Rosberg is now leading by nine seconds, but if Prost can get ahead of Piquet, he will be on target for the world championship because, down in fourth position, is Nigel Mansell. If Prost can get past Piquet he could then close up on his team-mate Keke Rosberg, who might well then get an order to let Prost through.”

Head: “In truth we went to Adelaide as favourites to win the championship. I think Nigel only had to get a fourth place or something like that. It seems rather naive now, but I thought the ethical position of allowing two individual drivers to race was more important than the title. I didn’t necessarily think that it was going to cost us the title. It sounds very moralistic and, as I say, naive when you actually think of the commercial pressures. But the commercial pressures weren’t as big then, and I felt that to tell a driver who has won races during the year to move over… Well, I think both drivers would have raised two fingers to us anyway.”

Williams: “We were genuinely so far ahead of the rest, we didn’t think that teams orders were going to be an issue. As I said, the only time we could have given a valid team order that didn’t also promote Prost or Senna was at Brands Hatch, which was one of the best motor races I ever watched.”

“And off spins Piquet!! Piquet goes off, Prost goes through. Now we have the two McLarens first and second. Rosberg leads and Prost is second. This could change the race!”

Alain Prost: “We had nothing to lose, and it was a combination of strategy and working very hard with the tyres. We knew that we had a problem with the tyres, and we had a strategy also with Keke, and the ambience within the team was also very good. Although we knew it would be difficult, we put every chance on our side, let’s put it this way. Then when you achieve the result it is very, very good.”

Ramirez: “We were the last people with any chance. You know how Alain bites his nails? His legs were shaking on the grid. He always seemed nervous but, once he was in the car, he was okay.”

“Alain Prost on lap 33 is into the pits. And this is a bad change by modern standards … over 17 seconds for Alain Prost, and that is not good. That could be critical.”

Prost: “We were nowhere during the season in terms of pure performance. It was maybe not the best McLaren, but the chassis wasn’t bad. But the engine at this time was not as good as the Honda.

Head: “Prost was always very strategic and very clever. I think he always raced to win, but if you actually look at his races, Very often he’d be hanging back in the early stages. You’ve got to remember that in those days we started with a full tank of fuel to do the full race distance. Alain knew that looking after the tyres was a very large part of racing.”

“Piquet is certainly intending to have second place … and he takes it And Nigel Mansell did not fight there. Nigel Mansell is using every ounce of his considerable intelligence, acumen and experience and letting Piquet go through, knowing that if he stays where he is, he’s still going to be world champion.”

Ramirez: “Some people say we lucked in because Alain had a puncture early in the race, so he came in and changed tyres. It wasn’t a particularly good stop. He came out and just kept going. Then Keke had a blowout”

From the archive

Head: “We’d had tyre failures with Goodyear before, and we said we thought there was a problem with the tyres, and they said no. Because we had more engine power and the car was reasonably good, we probably had a bit more downforce than the other people, or exerted a bit more load on the tyres than other teams. So if there was a problem we usually found it first. And in fact the next year there were a couple of failures, and Goodyear responded pretty quickly to strengthen the tyres up.”

Ramirez: “Williams should have stopped Nigel as a precaution, and probably would still have won, but they didn’t. Alain had fresher tyres because of the puncture, and we just kept going.”

Williams: “I was invited to the BBC studios. I can’t remember why I went there because I could have stayed home and watched it! I was obviously disappointed when Nigel dropped out”

“And look at that! That’s … a colossal … that’s Mansell, that is Nigel Mansell! And the car is absolutely shattered, he’s fighting for control, and you can see what’s happened. Mansell is out of the race. Now, this could change, and will change, the world championship.”

Head: “Nigel had his tyre failure, and Nelson was then in a position where he would have won the world championship. But we called him in to do a stop which effectively prevented him from winning the title. He fully supported the decision after the race and didn’t question it at all. I don’t remember how it was at the time, but I’m sure it was a hard decision. One or two people outside the team came out with some rather extreme reactions that I was not very impressed with. But the tyres weren’t strong enough for the load that was put on them.”

Ramirez: “It was like, ‘Bloody hell, if we finish it’s going to be perfect.’ I was really nervous. It was really fantastic. We were prepared for anything, but the party was so much better afterwards!”

Alain Prost raises his arms in the air as he crosses the finish line at Adelaide to win the Australian Grand Prix and 1986 world championship

“The crowd is rising to this popular little Frenchman, who has demonstrated once again that he is the driver of the day. He takes the chequered flag, he wins the Australian GP, he wins the world championship of 1986! Absolute euphoria in the McLaren pit. And he stops immediately.”

Ramirez: “He ran out of fuel just after the line. I remember he got out of the car and jumped up. I’ve got a picture with him about a foot and a half in the air, with his hands up. It was so unexpected.”

Dennis: “I think it’s one of those classic photographs. One photographer managed to get him, with the right perspective, looking like he was three feet off the ground. That was more than half his height!” Prost: “It was not only the surprise, it was the way we managed the whole weekend, the whole race. And then, at the end, if you have the result, it gives you more fun and more pleasure.”

Ramirez: “It was one of those unusual races where Alain took his wife, because she very rarely travelled. So he was coming up to the podium one way, and I rushed to the pit, got his wife, and took her to the podium on the other side. As he came onto the podium I came out with Anne-Marie. Alain didn’t expect to see her there — there were no words, only tears. That was just fantastic. I don’t think there were any photographers there — it was great. Coming back to what I said before about him being so nervous, I said to him, ‘I told you you didn’t need to be nervous.”

Alain Prost stands on the top of the podium at Adelaide after winning the 1986 Australian Grand Prix and that year's Formula 1 Drivers' championship

Dennis: “I don’t think it was unexpected, because you never give up until it’s finally over. It was for us a fitting end to a difficult season.”

Ramirez: “You could almost see through Keke’s brakes! A few more laps and there would have been no more brakes on his car, it was unbelievable. But when you saw Alain’s brakes, they could have practically done another race — and Keke had done 22 laps fewer. It was incredible. I was amazed how much smoother Alain was on brakes, gears and everything else.”

“But let us not forget in the joy of the occasion for Alain Prost’s victory, the bitter cup of Nigel Mansell, who has had the world championship dashed from his hands; let us not forget the bitter disappointment of Keke Rosberg, who might well have won the race; let us, too, sympathise with Nelson Piquet, who failed to win the world championship for the third time.”

Williams: “We should have won the title, with hindsight, given the strength of our team and driver line-up, but there are loads of reasons why you should have done things, and that’s just how it is.”

Head: “It wasn’t a good time because I had to go straight from there to Japan for some sort of promotional thing with Honda, and you could tell that Honda weren’t desperately impressed. But to their credit they didn’t say anything. They were pretty good that way.”

Nigel so near, yet…

Mansell went into 1986 in a confident frame of mind: he had two wins to his name and had proved as quick as Keke Rosberg. He felt ready to take on anyone including new team-mate, Nelson Piquet.

At Rio, however, he crashed out at the first corner after a clash with Ayrton Senna, and could only seethe as he watched Piquet lead Senna home to a Brazilian 1-2. Then in Spain, Senna beat Nigel by 0.014sec.

Alain Prost proved supreme at Imola (Nigel’s engine failed), and then dominated Monaco (Nigel was fourth).

At last, at Spa, Mansell got his first win of the year albeit a lucky one and dedicated it to Elio de Angelis, who had been killed just 10 days earlier.

‘Red Five’ then sat on pole in Montreal, and Nigel put in a perfect raceday performance to beat his title rivals. In finishing fifth at Detroit he was lapped by the victorious Senna, but at least had the consolation of seeing Piquet crash out.

From the archive

Mansell’s third and fourth wins of the season came in succession: in France he defeated Prost and demolished Piquet, while at Brands, Nelson had no answer to Mansell and Prost, in third, was lapped by the pair of them.

Piquet-Senna-Mansell was how they finished in Germany and Hungary, but none of these three finished in Austria, where Prost won.

At Monza, Mansell outqualified Piquet for the sixth time that year, but Nelson changed his rear wing settings on the grid and beat him as comprehensively as he had at Hockenheim.

At Estoril, Nigel led from start to finish, beating Prost. Senna dropped out of the championship tussle by running out of fuel on the final lap, which allowed Piquet a lucky third place.

So a win in Mexico was all Mansell needed. But failing to select a gear at the start forced him to play catch-up, which screwed his tyres. No-one could catch the Pirelli-shod Benetton of Gerhard Berger but, predictably, Prost came closest, while Piquet was fourth. Mansell’s points for fifth were dropped under the odd ‘best 11 scores’ rule. Still, all he needed now was to be third in Adelaide, in the best car. Simple…