The result at Indianapolis meant that we were denied a three-way title showdown. That’s a shame, because the last time this occurred, at Adelaide 17 years ago, when Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Alain Prost were the protagonists, remains the most dramatic Formula One race I have ever seen.
It was pouring down as we arrived in Australia. Prost looked gloomily at the skies. “I really hope,” he said, “that we get a normal, dry race, because in the rain anything can happen.” Then he brightened. “It’s a long way down here, isn’t it? I must say I’m glad to be here with some chance of winning the title, even if it is a small chance.”
That chance remained primarily because Alain had driven a stupendous race in Mexico two weeks earlier. Over the season his McLaren-TAG had been simply outpowered by the Williams-Hondas of Mansell and Piquet and, as a rule, was hard-pressed to keep up. He remained in contention because his racecraft and guile were matchless, and because he made fewer mistakes than anyone else.
“Alain drove a really fantastic race in Mexico,” said Ron Dennis. “He had quite a few problems and really had to fight to overcome them. Even in normal circumstances, he had a lot less power than the Williams-Hondas, but this time he was down a cylinder for half the race; he didn’t dare to make a second tyre stop for fear of stalling. So he had to make two sets of tyres last the whole race, whereas Mansell needed three and Piquet four. Alain finished second, ahead of both of them.”
In that era of turbocharged engines, Prost’s other surpassing skill was juggling speed and fuel consumption. Each car was restricted to 195 litres of fuel, and if a driver got it absolutely right, he ran out of gas moments after taking the flag. It took a lot of will to keep your boost down, hold yourself in check, while some of your less disciplined rivals charged away. Not for nothing was Prost known as ‘The Professor’, however. He may have hated the rules as much as anyone, but whatever it took to win, Alain would adapt.
Still, his title hopes looked thin. Back then, a driver’s score was calculated on his best 11 results from the 16 races, and both Prost and Mansell had already needed to drop points. The net situation was that Nigel had 70 points, Alain 64 and Nelson 63 — but if either Mansell or Prost should take further points in Adelaide, they would have to shed their lowest score once more, whereas Piquet, having scored in only 10, would not. Any of the three could become champion, but Nigel was the heavy favourite; third place would do it, whatever happened to his rivals.
Given his power deficit, Prost knew he would not be a contender in qualifying and concentrated, as always, on set-up for race day. The fight for pole position was between the two Williams, and ultimately Mansell settled the issue, with Piquet second, Ayrton Senna’s Lotus-Renault third and Prost fourth. For Nigel, the first hurdle was cleared, but the tension around him was palpable. ‘To be honest,” his wife Rosanne said, “I don’t really care what happens. I just want it to be over.”
The first lap was as dramatic as anyone could remember, with Mansell leading away, then being passed by Senna and Piquet. Nelson then outbraked Ayrton and the race had its third leader in the space of two miles!
The man on the move in the early stages, though, was Keke Rosberg, who had qualified his McLaren only seventh, but was up to third by the end of the opening lap, and into the lead by lap seven. Prost, after starting in typically conservative fashion, moved past Senna and Mansell into third place.
Patrick Head remembers the day: “It’s nice to see drivers’ characters come through in their driving. With Prost, we’d be way ahead of him at first, and think, ‘Where the hell’s Alain?’ Then you’d see that he was sixth, fifth, fourth, third, and you’d think, `Ooooh, Christ!’ That was very much him — that inexorable quality.”
By lap 23, with Rosberg leading easily, Prost passed Piquet for second place, after which Nelson immediately spun. He got on his way again but was now back in fourth place. For McLaren, everything was looking good, for if it came to it, Keke would undoubtedly let Alain through.
Mansell, though, continued to run third, right where he needed to be, and on lap 32 his title prospects vaulted further, for Prost punctured his right-front tyre. Tyre changes were not an automatic feature of grand prix races in the mid-1980s, and none of the front runners had been planning to stop. Thus, as Prost slowly made his way to the pits, he seemed to be out of the championship battle. After a 17sec stop, he rejoined, now fourth, a long way back. Immediately, a whole series of record laps began.
Goodyear technicians examined the tyres discarded by Prost and said that the wear rate was less than expected. All being well, they concluded, no-one would need to make a stop. Patrick Head grimaces at the memory: “Problem was, we had quite a big power advantage — and therefore we were also able to run more downforce than anyone else. Honda couldn’t tell us how much power we had, because they didn’t know themselves! Their dyno only registered up to 1000 horsepower — which they were reaching at 9300rpm. We were revving them to 13,500 or so! I’ve no doubts that it was because we were able to run so much downforce that we encountered tyre problems.”
At this stage, though, Williams had no cause for worry. For close to 30 laps there was virtual stalemate at the front of the field, Rosberg still leading convincingly from Piquet, Mansell and a charging Prost. Then, on lap 63, with 19 to the flag, Rosberg suddenly heard unwelcome noises from the back of his McLaren and abruptly parked the car, convinced that the engine had run its bearings. In fact, it was no such thing. What Rosberg had heard was a delaminating tyre flapping against bodywork. His right-rear Goodyear was in tatters.
As Rosberg retired, Prost, running at the limit, passed Mansell for second place, but still Nigel had the four points he needed. “In fact,” said Head, “at that stage he could have stopped for tyres and still got the title, because there was no-one close behind him. I told a Goodyear engineer that we had the time to do that, but he said that we should have no problem.”
A lap later the whole thing was settled. Mansell, flat out down the Decquetteville Straight, and lapping Philippe Alliot’s Ligier, suddenly had his left-rear tyre disintegrate. From around 190mph he somehow fought the bucking Williams to a halt in the escape road. It was beyond cruel.
“At no time did we consider we were taking any sort of gamble,” Head remembered. “After all, we were in a position where we had to play things safe and conservatively. Goodyear gave us no reason to consider changing tyres, and it wasn’t a wear problem — the bits of tyre that were recovered indicated that the carcass had failed by fatigue.”
Now it was simply Piquet against Prost, each needing the nine points for victory to take them past Mansell’s total. It was a matter of winner takes all, and Prost, still with the hammer down, was only 2sec behind.
The duel never materialised, however. “After Nigel’s tyre had failed, we were between a rock and a hard place with regard to Nelson,” said Head. “If we’d left him out there and he’d made it, we’d have looked like heroes. But if he’d had an accident and hurt himself; we’d have looked idiots. There was no choice to be made: we called him in and changed his tyres.”
Piquet stopped at the end of lap 65 and was in second place when he went back out. “It was the right decision, to stop,” he said afterwards. “I knew I was maybe losing the championship, but I didn’t care; I was alive.”
Now it was Nelson’s turn to apply the pressure, but he made little impression on Prost until the last four laps, when Alain dramatically cut his pace. “From the halfway point my fuel computer read-out had been telling me I was five litres the wrong side,” said Prost I just had to hope that, for once, the computer was wrong…”
For once, it was. He crossed the line 4sec to the good, pulled up in front of the stands and jumped for joy. Jackie Stewart best summed up the day: “These days, you don’t often see a guy win a grand prix in a slower car, do you? But this guy’s won the world championship in one.”
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