The 1986 season went down to the wire, with 3 drivers arriving in Adelaide for the season ending Australian Grand Prix with a chance to be crowned champion.
The Williams FW11 was clearly the fastest package in 1986, with Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet splitting 9 race wins between them prior to Adelaide (5 for Mansell), compared to 3 wins for Alain Prost with McLaren. The sporting policy of Williams to allow both its drivers race however allowed Prost to keep in title contention down to the last race. Mansell was 6 points clear of Prost with the second Williams of Nelson Piquet a further point back prior to the season finale. Mansell needed only a third place to secure the title, whilst both Prost and Piquet needed the win and Mansell to finish off the podium.
Everything looked to be going according to plan for Mansell as he took pole position for the race (only his second of the season, due in no small part to Ayrton Senna grabbing 8 pole positions in his Lotus that year!). The second Williams of Piquet was alongside Mansell on the front row, with Senna’s Lotus splitting the Williams and Prost’s McLaren.
At the start Mansell held off a charging Senna into the first corner, the Lotus snapping past the Williams of Piquet. Behind, Prost lost out to his teammate Keke Rosberg, the 1982 champion making a surging start from seventh on the grid in his last race before retirement, darting around the slow starting Ligier of Rene Arnoux and charging into fourth by the first corner. Senna was crowding Mansell and perhaps deciding that discretion was the better part of valour Mansell allowed the charging Lotus past in the fourth corner, with Piquet taking advantage and diving down the inside to claim second place. Mansell was down to fourth as the flying Rosberg ran around the outside of the Williams at turn 6. No matter for Mansell, a Senna win would guarantee him the title, but Senna’s lead was short lived, Piquet hunting him down and grabbing the lead, the Williams pulling out of the slipstream of the Lotus and surging past on the outside down the Dequetteville straight, sparks flying as Piquet claimed the lead prior to the hairpin. Meanwhile Mansell was under pressure from the McLaren of Prost, and the outcome of the title battle was looking far from the certainty it had seemed as the cars lined up on the grid.
Senna was unable to stay with Piquet, and it was Rosberg who put up the challenge, the Finn really putting in a display on his last race, aggressively hounding Senna and passing him into the hairpin on the second lap, then setting off after Piquet. Things were looking better for Mansell as he took third place from Senna on the Dequetteville straight on the next lap, and they got even better as Rosberg pulled past Piquet to take the lead on lap 7. At this stage it was once again advantage Mansell, as Rosberg began to pull clear and look like he could end his career with a fairy tale win that would crown his 1985 Williams team-mate Mansell as champion. Senna was fading backwards and was soon passed by Prost, who now set about closing the gap to Mansell. On lap 11 Prost passed Mansell for third place, demoting Mansell to the danger zone of fourth place, but with Rosberg leading from Piquet, Mansell still in virtual possession of the drivers title….just about, as Rosberg was willing to hand Prost the victory should he find his way past Piquet in order to secure his McLaren team-mate the title.
Prost quickly bridged the gap to Piquet, the McLaren clearly working well on the day, and on lap 23 the title situation took another twist as Prost passed Piquet for second place as Piquet spun, but with Piquet dropping behind Mansell as a result, Mansell still looked good for the title. Prost’s hopes seemed to evaporate then on lap 32 when he suffered a puncture and was forced to pit, the lost time dropping him behind both Williams. Prost emerged from his stop in fourth place and started pushing to try to regain the lost ground, but the odds seemed firmly stacked against him, with Mansell able to afford to allow Piquet past in second place. When Prost’s tyres were inspected, Goodyear formed the opinion that wear rates were low enough that the other drivers would not need to stop. This judgement would prove to be incorrect, and probably decided the fate of the championship, as on lap 63 Rosberg pulled off the track and walked around to the rear of his car to see what the issue was – his right rear tyre had had come apart and had been smacking the rear bodywork. Prost, who on fresh rubber had steadily reeled in Mansell, passed the Williams just after Rosberg pulled off, leaving Piquet in the lead from Prost then Mansell. Mansell’s third place was enough to guarantee the title, but the following lap his left rear tyre came apart at full speed coming down the Dequetteville straight just as he passed the lapped Ligier of Phillipe Alliot , sparks flying as Mansell tried to control the flat out Williams and prevent it slamming into a wall or the lapped Ligier. Mansell managed to safely bring the Williams to a stop in an escape road without hitting anything, but his dream of a driver’s title had been cruelly ripped from his grasp (as Nigel would later observe, had he been unable to bring the car to the escape road then the race may have been red flagged, which would have seen him crowned champion as half points would have been awarded).
Prost’s misfortune in the early puncture had turned out to be his savior. With hindsight, Williams could easily have pitted Mansell and secured the third position needed for the title, but the chance was lost now. The title fight was now between Piquet and Prost, with Prost on the fresher rubber just a couple of seconds behind Piquet, with the winner to be crowned champion. But we would be denied a dramatic shootout over the final laps, as Williams had to pit Piquet for fear of another tyre failure, and as a result Prost was left with a clear run to the flag. Or at least it looked like a clear run… Prost, who had been forced to push to make up ground after that early puncture, was running perilously low on fuel, and he eased up noticeably towards the end of the race, allowing Piquet to close back to within 5 seconds, but the McLaren fuel tank had just enough to see Prost take the chequered flag in first place, and in so doing defend the title he had won in 1985. For Piquet it was a narrow miss, but for Mansell, who had won more races than any driver that season, it was pure heartbreak.