My personal reminisces of bygone seasons has reached 1986, certainly not one of my favourite periods of Formula One as I was never a fan of the excessively powerful, fuel-guzzling, self-detonating turbos. With the situation getting out of hand (if it had ever been in hand) the season was to be the last to be all turbo and consequently saw the sport’s most powerful cars ever. With no restriction on turbo boost for qualifying, the wealthy manufacturers spared no expense with qualifying engines, gear-boxes and associated drive trains built to last just a few minutes – enough to allow one or two laps. For the race, the cars had to run less turbo boost in order to last the distance and save fuel, although running short, or even out of fuel, was not uncommon (sounds familiar?).
Having been there to see Nigel Mansell win his first race at the last one I attended in 1985, he then proceeded to win all the races I attended in 1986. With five victories he was the winningest driver whilst team-mate Nelson Piquet won four, meaning Williams won nine of the sixteen rounds and the Constructors’ Championship. But neither was to win the Drivers’ Title.
The first race I attended was the Belgian Grand Prix on a gloriously sunny Sunday at the end of May. I had a couple of ‘freebie’ general admission tickets and with a friend motored down overnight and sat on the grassy bank on the Kemmel Straight just after the exit of Raidillon, a section of track that was still public highway. Spa was looking its best in the spring sunshine with the fresh green countryside and blossom on the trees. Having lead at the start, Piquet’s engine expired early on leaving the win for Nigel Mansell.
Next up was the British Grand Prix at what would turn out to be the last to be held at Brands Hatch. I had pit-lane and paddock access for the practice and qualifying days so I was able to catch up with Johnny Dumfries who I knew from his Formula 3 days. He was number 2 driver at JPS Lotus, having passed the ‘Senna approval’ test at the expense of more experienced applicants. Brands Hatch was packed and it was the first time I started to feel uncomfortable with some elements of partisanship that Nigel Mansell’s success was bringing. There was a large number of noisy Union Jack clad ‘supporters’ only there for the beer (Fosters of course) who had no interest in the race as a sporting event. For race day I stood on the packed grassy South Bank, where a few years before you could drive in and park to watch the race from the comfort of your car. A start-line accident involving several cars was terrible luck for Jacques Laffite (Ligier) who broke both legs so did not equal Graham Hill’s record of 176 Grand Prix starts and would never race again, but was good luck for Nigel Mansell whose car had already expired. After a delay of one and a half hours the race re-started and Mansell in his spare car beat Nelson Piquet in a flag to flag victory. It is hard to imagine now that the little circuit of Brands Hatch could ever have hosted events with so huge a crowd and such powerful cars.
Finally, I took in the Portuguese Grand Prix as part of a week’s holiday in Lisbon. Getting to the circuit was easy enough by train to Estoril and then walk the couple of miles to the track or catch the shuttle bus. I had a general admission ticket which meant sitting on the grass or a bolder on the in-field, very basic but with a good view of several sections of this twisty but pretty little circuit. Estoril was the last European round and although there were two more races to go and the Championship far from decided, it had an end-of-term feel about. In the evenings the streets of Estoril and adjoining Cascais were full of both race fans and workers alike. I got chatting to Gerhard Berger’s helicopter pilot who told me a few interesting anecdotes about his employer and ate in the same fish restaurant as René Arnoux and his entourage on the Sunday evening.
After Estoril and with two rounds to go Nigel Mansell had a ten point lead over team-mate Nelson Piquet and an eleven poiunt lead over Alain Prost (McLaren) – with only nine poits for a win. What could go wrong for Nigel Mansell?
I got up at the crack of dawn to watch the final three-way title showdown live on TV from Adelaide. I could have got up at a sensible time and watched it on the video, but it’s not quite the same. By this time, factoring in the dropped scores attributable to the messy points scoring system Mansell lead Prost by six points and Piquet by seven. Lap 64 out of 82 the order was Piquet, Prost and Mansell, enough to give Mansell the World Championship. And then came one of Formula One’s most dramatic moments as Mansell’s rear tyre exploded leading him to retire, fortunately without hitting anything, as well as one of Murray Walker’s most excited pieces of commentary. Piquet was called in for a precautionary tyre change leaving Alain Prost ro win the race and retain his World Championship by a two point margin.
The season also saw the retirement of two previous World Champions, Keke Rosberg and Alan Jones, both going out with a whimper and the death of Elio de Angelis whilst testing at Paul Ricard. Geoff Lees, who had partnered de Angelis for one race at Lotus in 1982, and his wife, had both commented on how helpful he had been and what a gentleman he was.
Note: Many of these images are taken from original prints, negatives and slides that are nearly 40 years old and are therefore not reproduced to the same standard as current day digital images. All reasonable attempts have been made to ensure these images are reproduced to the best possible standard, however, in some instances colour casts and blemishes may be present.