#F1 History: 1986 Spanish Grand Prix – Nigel Mansell vs Ayrton Senna

Brought to you by TheJudge13 chronicler Jennie Mowbray

Note: This was the first article I wrote in 2014…I’ve re-posted it for the 30th anniversary of the race…

Spain Crop

“There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before.”

~Sherlock Holmes – A Study in Scarlett~

Turbo 1.5 litre engines were mandatory, fuel allowances had been decreased and tyres were degrading. However, it wasn’t 2016 but thirty years ago in 1986…

The Formula One cars of 1986 were the most powerful cars ever raced in Formula One. There were no limits to engine power and the Williams-Honda FW11 Turbo could produce 1400 hp at 12,000 rpm during qualifying. In fact, the engines were so powerful that they weren’t even able to accurately measure how much power they had at the time as the available technology wasn’t advanced enough. Normally aspirated engines were banned for the first time. This wouldn’t happen again until the 2014 season. Fuel allowances had also been decreased from 220 litres per race down to 195 litres and fuel saving had a major role in team strategy decisions during many of the races.

Jerez 5One of the new circuits for 1986 was Jerez. It had only been finished on December 8 the previous year and on April 13 it hosted its first Formula One race. It went on to host seven Formula One Grand Prix with the last one being in 1997. Its first race in 1986 was memorable in several ways, one of which was the great lack of spectators in attendance. The anticipated 100,000 spectators never eventuated and the stands were almost empty. This was thought to be due to a combination of the high price of the tickets, the isolation of the track and the lack of publicity for the race. It didn’t help that there were no Spanish drivers racing at the time.

1986 had not started well for Williams. Only a few weeks before the start of the season Frank Williams had tragically sustained a spinal cord injury when he rolled his rental car driving from the Paul Ricard Circuit to the airport after pre-season testing. He would spend most of the year in hospital.

Ayrton Senna in the Lotus qualified on pole setting a time of 1.21.605 with Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell behind him in their Williams-Honda’s almost a second slower. In the previous race at Brazil Mansell had spun off the track after contact with Senna early on the first lap so there was no love lost between the two drivers in Spain. Both Senna and Mansell had won their first two races the season before and they were both keen for more race wins. Neither was inclined to give way to the other in a head to head battle.

Senna led the sprint uphill into the tight right-hand bend at the end of the short straight and although Mansell was initially third he was passed first by Keke Rosberg, and then a few laps later by the reigning world champion Alain Prost, both driving McLarens. Jerez was a very difficult circuit to pass on with the only passing place for evenly matched cars being at the end of the main straight into Turn One.

Jerez 4After the action of the first few laps the cars settled into position until lap 18 with Senna in the lead maintaining a small gap of between 1-2 seconds to Prost behind him. However, Mansell started to catch and then pass the cars in front of him. He first passed Prost on lap 19 and then proceeded to reel in Rosberg. The first five cars were still very close with less than four seconds between them. Senna was setting the pace which was based on his fuel consumption and tyre wear rather than on the speed of the car.

Michele Alboretto, driving a Ferrari, was the first to pit on lap 24, with his team mate Rene Arnoux pitting on the following lap. This was a surprise as at the beginning of the race it was anticipated that few cars would need to pit for tyres as they were predicted to last the whole race. Most of the front runners were using hard compound Goodyear tyres and were not expected to need to pit to change tyres as the track was fairly un-abrasive.

Mansell passed Rosberg going down the main straight at the beginning of Lap 30 and was now in third. The top five were still covered by a gap of less than six seconds, with Piquet 2.5 seconds behind Senna. It only took a couple of laps for Mansell to catch Piquet and he passed him going into the first corner of lap 33. Mansell quickly pulled away from Piquet and lost no time catching up to Senna, passing him on lap 39 on the inside of Turn One (obviously the place to sit to see all the race action!) Piquet shortly afterwards pulled up in a cloud of smoke with an engine failure.

Mansell then started to pull away from Senna and within a few laps had a four second gap with the first five drivers now covered by eight seconds. However, by lap 52 Senna was gaining time back on Mansell who was now struggling with tyre wear bought on by his earlier charge through the field.

Jerez 2By lap 55 Senna was all over the back of Mansell’s car trying to find a way to get past him. He had to be careful as Mansell was not inclined to give way without a fight. On lap 59 Senna tried to pass going around the outside into Turn One but locked up his tyres as Mansell easily held him off. He tried again later in the lap and ended up on the grass when Mansell shut the door on him. The pressure and speed of the second half of the race meant that both their tyres were now becoming marginal and were becoming the key factor in determining the outcome of the race.

Lap 61 started with Mansell still battling to hold Senna off but his tyres were rapidly losing grip. Prost was hanging on behind ready to take the lead if they took each other out. The gap between first and third was only 0.7 seconds. Senna finally got past on Lap 63 with Prost following directly behind him to take second as Mansell lost momentum while coming out of the corner after being passed by Senna.

From Lap 55 the Williams mechanics had been out in pit line ready for a pit stop if necessary and immediately after Senna passed him, Mansell came into the pits for fresh rubber. By this time Rosberg, who was in fourth, had already been lapped so Mansell came out of the pits in third and 19 seconds behind Senna with nine short laps to try to catch him. Of course, he would still need to overtake him even if he did manage to catch him!

Mansell, with his fresh tyres, then proceeded to lap 3-4 seconds faster than Senna for several laps, setting several fastest laps in the process. He caught up to Prost by Lap 69 and tried to pass him going into Turn One but wasn’t quite close enough to get through and then got stuck behind him going through the following fast corners which gave him no way to get past. He finally passed him at Turn Twelve and pulled away from him very quickly. He was now seven seconds behind Senna with three laps to go. This had dropped to 5.2 seconds by the next lap. During lap 71 Senna got caught up by back-markers and going onto the main straight at the beginning of the last lap Mansell was 1.5 seconds behind him. By now Senna was on the edge with his own rapidly degrading tyres. He was fish-tailing coming out of corners and ran wide up onto the curbing, desperately trying to hold off Mansell.

By the final hairpin Mansell was right on his tail and they then went side by side down the main straight, going over the finish line with Senna less than a car length ahead and pipping Mansell to the win by 0.014 seconds, one of the closest ever GP finishes. Prost came third over 20 seconds behind them!

Jerez 3After the race Mansell joked that the race was so close they should have been given 7.5 points each. Prost also apologised to Mansell because he didn’t think Mansell had any hope of catching Senna and so was racing for position. If he had known than Mansell was going to catch Senna he would have let him through more easily. Prost and Rosberg both had thought they were running short of fuel during the race and so had been in fuel saving mode but found out later that it was due to faulty readings in their cockpit.

It is interesting that some of the comments written at the time about this race were that it was boring because of the need to conserve fuel and tyres and how that impacted on strategy. However, because of the different strategies with pit stops and tyres during the race, there was potential for three different race winners. Commentators Murray Walker and James Hunt were definitely not bored! I’m sure it’s because of races like this with close battles for the win that modern Formula One started playing around with degrading tyres and DRS…though only seldom does it produce such a thrilling and nail biting finish…

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9 responses to “#F1 History: 1986 Spanish Grand Prix – Nigel Mansell vs Ayrton Senna

  1. Thanks for the memories Jennie. It’s writeups like this that put the modern races into perspective. We remember the hard drives,close battles and noise of the past but forget that most of the field was lapped and that’s with a limited field of cars. In this day of quick gratification we expect to be entertained every lap and every race,we are all guilty of critical remarks but fail to praise the steps that have produced some pretty tight battles in the recent seasons. What Redbull/Ferrari and Mercedes have all done is pretty amazing given the constraints of the formula. Each one of these teams has decimated the opposition in the past and forced a rule change for others to catch-up. The powers that be should just leave our sport alone and allow natural racing to develop. The risk faced is that the sport becomes a show and all the gimmicks used to spice up the action take away from what is a truely remarkable and rich history of our following so please Jennie,keep writing these articles and force our brains to relive the past for our future depends on these memories.

    • Thanks for your comments:) It is amazing to see how little the sport has changed sometimes…or else, just like fashion, it goes around in circles!

  2. Excellent write up Jennie, I missed this first time round. I remember seeing this on the BBC when I was a young boy, it was one of those races which made me love Formula One, and one which saw me start to admire a certain Mr Ayrton Senna.

    I’d love to see F1 cars like that again nowadays, way more power than needed and far far less aero. That’s the sort of challenge I want to see the current drivers facing!

  3. Excellent write-up Bruznic, the good old days characterized by nostalgia, which certainly highlights the un-necessary negative attitude of some newbies to the sports of today, good and excellent highlighting of the same need back than of looking after tyres and fuel consumption.

        • 🙂 No apologies needed! Glad you enjoyed it…it helps put the nostalgia for the past in its place…racing has always been about tyres and fuel and making sure your engine doesn’t blow up before the end of the race!

  4. This makes me wistful – I caught the tail end of the Golden Age, watching Prost and Senna collide in Japan 89 and Mansell and Senna duel in 1991, among other highlights. Amazing characters and incredible racing.

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