Classic Australian Grand Prix: The 1986 title decider Down Under
We go all the way back to the final race of the 1986 F1 season to remember a legendary 3-way title scrap around Adelaide.
(Photo credit: Michael Barera)
After Gerhard Berger’s surprise win in Mexico, Nigel Mansell lead the drivers’ standings by six points ahead of the defending world champion, Alain Prost. The third driver in the title equation was Mansell’s Williams teammate, Nelson Piquet, who was a further point behind the Brit. Williams were the team to beat in 1986, the FW11 being the fastest car on the grid by some way. Reliability and intra-team squabbling had cost them points through the season, but the Grove outfit still claimed the constructor’s title with two rounds to go. Prost was proving to be a thorn in Williams’ side, however, consistently being best of the rest behind Frank Williams’ men and capitalising when Mansell’s and Piquet’s machinery let them down.
Qualifying produced a familiar-looking grid, with Mansell claiming just his second pole of the season and Piquet alongside him on the front row. Ayrton Senna again impressed in his Lotus by qualifying third and Prost, despite being over a second behind the leaders, lined up in fourth.
When the lights went out, Senna shot into second going into Turn 1 and then muscled his way past Mansell into the lead. Piquet lost another position as Keke Rosberg powered past the Brazilian into third in the other McLaren. Things would quickly go from bad to worse for Mansell as both Piquet and Rosberg overtook Red 5 on the long Brabham straight.
The order remained static until Lap 7, when Rosberg, in his last Grand Prix, took the lead from Piquet in a typically brave move around the tight and twisty street circuit. It had been a year to forget for Rosberg who suffered numerous mechanical failures and had been consistently out-performed by Prost, but the Finn was now showing the speed that made him a World Champion four years ago.
Despite a poor first lap, Mansell recomposed himself to get past Senna and back into a podium place. Prost would replicate the Williams driver’s move a few laps later and then move into third at Mansell’s expense. But it was still advantage to the Brit in the title battle, and his position was improved further when his teammate handed him a lifeline. Just past the quarter distance mark, on Lap 23 of 82, Piquet spun from second place, dropping to fourth. Prost would also plummet down the order just a few laps later, suffering a puncture but recovering to the pits for a fresh set of boots.
Race of attrition
As was so often the case during this period of Formula 1, it was very much a case of, to finish first, first you must finish. After the half-way point, the 26 drivers dropped like flies, with Senna of Lotus the first of the front runners to shudder to a halt. Piquet recovered masterfully from a spin and passed Mansell for second place on Lap 44, the Brit wisely choosing not to fight this one too hard.
Rosberg was comfortably leading the race, but that came to an abrupt halt on lap 63, when he too suffered a puncture. However, Keke wasn’t as lucky as Prost, as the Finn was forced to park up and call it a day, handing the lead to Piquet and promoting Prost onto the podium once more. But that wasn’t the end of the punctures on that Sunday afternoon.
“And look at that!”
Prost was on a charge, the Frenchman had nothing to lose – he had to get ahead of the Williams drivers to stand any chance of winning the title. He passed Mansell soon after Rosberg’s puncture but when lapping Philippe Alliot’s Ligier, he probably wouldn’t have believed his eyes. On the long Brabham straight, Mansell’s tyre exploded at almost 200mph, producing an explosion of sparks and one of motor sport’s most iconic images. Thankfully, Mansell got the car slowed before touching the barriers.
With Mansell out, Piquet was now in pole position for what would’ve been his third title in the sport. However, the Brazilian understandably pitted for fresh tyres himself, dropping behind Prost into second and putting the ball in McLaren’s court. Piquet thrashed his Williams around the streets of Adelaide, breaking the lap record time and time again, the gap between the first and second relentlessly decreased.
But Prost, as he so often did, brought his McLaren across the line to cap a remarkable race and season. After heartbreak in 1984, he was now one of a select few drivers to have won back-to-back Formula 1 world championships. For those that say a driver in the best car always wins in F1, show them this race – this sport is as unpredictable as any. Despite the late pit-stop arguably costing Piquet the title, he made no complaints about the decision and won the 1987 championship.
Stefan Johansson had a quiet race but brought his Ferrari across the line in third, albeit a lap down. Martin Brundle classified fourth with his Tyrrell teammate, Philippe Streiff in fifth, despite the latter running out of fuel. The last man to claim a point was Lotus’ Johnny Dumfries, in what would be the Scot’s last race in F1.