Nostalgia: Senna and Mansell take it to the wire in Spain
The 1986 season was a tremendously exciting affair which saw an iconic battle between the likes of Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost for supremacy. After a Piquet-Senna one-two on home soil at the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix, the Formula 1 circus moved swiftly back to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix – the first since 1981 – for an absolutely enthralling 72-lap race which defined the excitement which that era produced.
Due to Nelson Piquet’s victory several weeks beforehand during the season opener around the Jacarepagua circuit, both the Brazilian and Williams led their respective Championships as the sport moved on to the all-new Jerez circuit for the return of the Spanish Grand Prix. Under clear skies and warm weather conditions, Ayrton Senna once again produced a masterful qualifying performance to secure his second consecutive pole position by just under a second from fellow countryman Piquet. The second row consisted of Britain’s Nigel Mansell, with reigning World Champion Alain Prost alongside in the McLaren.
As the field lined up in preparation for the start of the 72-lap race, Alessandro Nannini was unfortunately unable to start with a differential issue striking his Minardi. Once the green light shone signalling the start of the race, Ayrton Senna catapulted himself into a secure lead ahead of Nelson Piquet with Nigel Mansell third. Further down the order the usual freneticism ensued, with Teo Fabi’s Benetton receiving a small tap which launched a piece of debris flying into the air during the melee. After the close proximity of the field during the first few corners, former World Champion Alan Jones collided with Jonathan Palmer, which sent the duo spinning into retirement. Andrea de Cesaris soon joined them in retirement after the first lap, with a differential issue bringing a premature conclusion to his continuation.
Senna was a half a second clear of Piquet as the Lotus man completed the opening lap, while Mansell began to slip through the order as Keke Rosberg – in the McLaren – muscled his way around the Briton for third position. Further down the order Teo Fabi was forced to pit in the Benetton after his opening lap collision, which saw him rejoin the action at the back of the pack some 40 seconds behind Christian Danner’s Osella. As the opening laps ticked away, Senna’s lead ebbed and flowed, as Alain Prost became the next driver to make an overtaking manoeuvre on the Williams of Nigel Mansell for fourth. Meanwhile Riccardo Patrese was forced into retirement in the Brabham due to a gearbox issue, with Piercarlo Ghinzani following the Brazilian into retirement several laps later due to an engine issue on his Osella.
Whilst the top four at the front remained relatively unchanged, Stefan Johansson’s race was brought to an explosive conclusion in the Ferrari, as the Swede speared into the tyre barriers after a sudden brake failure. Despite removing himself from his car under his own steam, Johansson later required a stretcher and was immediately taken to the trackside medical centre after having trouble breathing. Meanwhile, the race raged on around the Jerez circuit, with Senna’s lead still being kept within a second by Nelson Piquet. Danner became the next retirement in the Osella on lap 14, with yet another engine failure bringing the Italian outfit’s race to a complete conclusion.
After exiting the pit-lane in the Brabham, Elio de Angelis almost forced race leader Ayrton Senna off of the track as he was lapped by the leading trio on lap 18. Despite struggling to place de Angelis a lap down, Senna’s lead at the front soon began to increase with the Brazilian driver opening up a +1.691 second lead over Piquet by lap 19. After dropping through the order in the early phase of the race, due to fuel preservation in the Williams, Nigel Mansell’s resurgence soon picked up as the Briton scythed past Alain Prost’s McLaren for fourth. Ferrari’s race was finally run on lap 22, when Michele Alboreto pitted and was then forced into retirement due to a wheel bearing issue.
Several laps later Frenchman Rene Arnoux added to the growing list of retirements in the Ligier, with a halfshaft issue plaguing his car. With Ayrton Senna now two seconds clear at the front, his next major issue became lapping the back markers on lap 30 with Teo Fabi and Marc Surer in particular making themselves difficult to overtake in the Benetton and Arrows respectively. During the ensuing melee with the back markers, Nigel Mansell managed to nip past Keke Rosberg’s McLaren for third. Several laps later the Briton’s resurgence continued as he stormed around team-mate Nelson Piquet for second, with Senna now just two seconds ahead in the black and gold Lotus. Immediately the gap between the duo began to be diminished, with Piquet dropping off at a phenomenal rate to his team-mate in third. Whilst the battle for the lead began to intensify between Senna and Mansell, the McLaren duo swapped positions with Prost overtaking Rosberg for fourth.
By lap 38 Mansell was swarming all over the rear of Senna’s Lotus, with the duo separated by mere tenths of a second. As Surer became the next retirement in the Arrows due to a fuel system issue, Mansell and Senna crossed the start/finish line literally side-by-side, with the Williams driver eventually making the move stick into turn one for the lead of the race. Whilst Mansell catapulted away into a commanding lead, his team-mate Nelson Piquet was forced into retirement in a plume of white smoke as an engine failure struck his Honda-powered car. Jacques Laffite and Martin Brundle also retired in the Ligier and Tyrrell respectively, as the rate of attrition continued to intensify around the Jerez circuit.
Whilst Mansell continued to assert his authority over the field at the front, Gerhard Berger performed a routine pit-stop for Benetton which enabled rookie Johnny Dumfries to move up into fifth position in the second Lotus. However, the former British Formula Three Champion’s race was soon brought to a cruel conclusion after a gearbox failure struck his car on lap 52. As the Spanish Grand Prix entered its closing stages, the gap between the leading trio drastically began to close with the top three separated by only +2.601 seconds. Such was the dominant pace of Mansell, Senna and Prost that they soon found themselves behind Rosberg in fourth to lap him.
Unlike de Angelis earlier in the race, Rosberg made himself relatively easy to lap, as Senna soon began placing Mansell under severe pressure for the lead of the race. On lap 58, Senna tried to overtake the Williams ace around the outside at turn one, a manoeuvre which only saw him lock-up in his desperate attempt. Meanwhile the recently lapped McLaren of Keke Rosberg returned to the pits for a fresh set of Goodyear tyres. Once again Ayrton Senna strove to overtake Nigel Mansell towards the end of the 58th lap, only for the Briton to defend heavily and practically force Senna onto the grass.
However, Mansell soon became unstuck as Senna finally returned into the lead of the race. In his desperate attempt to keep the Brazilian behind, Mansell also allowed Prost through in the McLaren which saw him amazingly drop from first to third in a matter of seconds. With Mansell a clear lap ahead of Rosberg in 4th, he immediately elected to pit for a fresh set of tyres in a bid to take the fight for supremacy back to Prost and Senna. Due to his stop Mansell found himself only +19.186 seconds behind the leading duo with nine laps remaining. It only took him five laps to catch Alain Prost in second, such was his superior pace on the fresher set of tyres, with the duo battling hard for track position until Mansell made the move stick a lap later.
With Ayrton Senna six seconds ahead in the Lotus with laps running out, an absolutely enthralling finale was witnessed as Mansell squeezed every ounce of pace out of his Williams in a bid to deny the Brazilian his third victory in Formula 1. As the final laps ticked away, so did the gap at the front until the duo exited the final corner literally side-by-side, with Senna holding on for victory by +0.014 seconds, one of the closest finishes in the history of the sport. Alain Prost eventually crossed the line a distant third, some 20 seconds behind the duo. Only eight drivers managed to finish the race, with Patrick Tambay the last runner in the sole remaining Lola, some six laps off of the pace.
The 1986 Spanish Grand Prix set the tone for the remainder of the season, one which would feature a titanic battle for supremacy between Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, with the Frenchman eventually securing his second successive drivers’ crown by two points from Nigel Mansell after the explosive conclusion around the streets of Adelaide. Despite the excitement Jerez managed to produce during its inaugural race, the Spanish Grand Prix would move to the all-new Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona for 1991, where the race remains to this very day. The Jerez circuit would make its final appearance on the Formula 1 calendar in 1997, as the host of the nail biting championship decider between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve.