Nigel Mansell scored a remarkable home victory at Brands Hatch 30 years ago today driving his team mate Nelson Piquet’s spare car.
But Mansell would never have had the chance to win the race had it not been for a race-stopping first-lap crash which ended Jacques Laffite’s F1 career.
Frank Williams returns
The Honda-powered Williams FW11s were flying high as the 1986 season passed the halfway point. But the man behind them had been laid low. Returning home from a pre-season test session at Paul Ricard in March, Frank Williams lost control of his rented Ford Sierra and crashed in field near Marseille. The car landed on its roof, inflicting injuries on Williams which left him paralysed below the neck.
Four months later, Williams had recovered sufficiently from his injuries for him to attempt the visit to the circuit to see his team in action. This was no mean feat for a man still adjusting to a new life in which he had become utterly dependent on others.
On the Friday of practice he flew to the circuit in Bernie Ecclestone’s helicopter and received a warm reception from the crowd. He returned on Saturday to watch his drivers lock out the front row of the grid for the team’s home race. But by then he was exhausted, and he opted to watch the race from home.
Despite Williams’ absence from the pit wall his team had begun 1986 strongly. Piquet won on his debut in Brazil but arriving at Brands Hatch it was Mansell who’d won three of the previous four rounds and closed to within a point of championship leader Prost. But Mansell’s swift rise rankled with his team mate.
When Piquet had signed a highly lucrative $3.3 million contract with Frank Williams the year before his future team mate was yet to win a race. But as the Williams-Honda package came good Mansell swept to a debut win at the European Grand Prix, held at Brands Hatch, and followed it up with another success at the next race in Kyalami.
Piquet believed he had agreed undisputed number one status at Williams. This was the treatment he had enjoyed at Brabham where he had won two championships while partnered by the likes of Hector Rebaque instead of Ayrton Senna, who Piquet strived to keep out of his team.
But Frank Williams’ accident complicated matters. Number one status was not specified in Piquet’s contract – he believed it had been agreed verbally with Williams himself, who was no longer around to run the team. In the meantime Mansell had stolen a march, and Piquet was determined to reassert his superiority in the British driver’s back yard.
Farewell to Brands Hatch
The race day crowd at Brands Hatch was estimated at being between 115,000 and 150,000-strong. It proved a fitting audience for the final grand prix at the Kent circuit.
For over two decades the British Grand Prix had alternated venues between Brands Hatch and Silverstone in Northamptonshire. The organisers of the race, the Royal Automobile Club, were keen to see this continue and even add a third host, Tom Wheatcroft’s revamped Donington Park in Leicestershire.
However Bernie Ecclestone, whose responsibilities as Brabham team principal were increasingly eclipsed by his commercial obligations within F1, preferred to see a single host for each race. Jean-Marie Balestre, head of the governing body, initially gave approval for Britain to continue using two venues. But, under pressure from Ecclestone, Balestre fell into line and from the beginning of 1986 made it clear a new principle of ‘one country, one circuit’. would be enforced.
Ecclestone duly signed a new five-year deal for the British Grand Prix to be held exclusively at Silverstone. The vast crowd which lined the circuit on race day therefore expected they would not see an F1 race at the track for a long time.
Piquet beats Mansell to pole
Senna had taken pole position for five of the previous eight races. But even with first use of Renault’s uprated EF15C turbo engine and the benefit of a special, lighter spare car with a smaller fuel tank for qualifying, he couldn’t beat the flying Williams FW11s.
But to the disappointment of much of the crowd it was not Mansell who claimed pole position, but Piquet. The Honda turbo engine now offered the best blend of outright power and fuel consumption in F1, and at Brands Hatch rumours spread that Lotus would have access to it the following year.
A fired-up Gerhard Berger in his Benetton relegated reigning champions McLaren to the third row of the grid despite the Woking team pre-heating their tyres in blankets for the first time. Keke Rosberg set the early pace in qualifying but was delayed after a tangle with Jacques Laffite’s Ligier.
Derek Warwick put his Brabham BT55 in ninth on the grid. The team was so perplexed by the failure of Gordon Murray’s radical low-line concept to come good that they had brought a 1985 BT54 chassis for his team mate. But Ricciardo Patrese could only manage 15th on the grid, almost four seconds slower than Piquet had gone in the same car the year before.
Warwick formed a trio of home drivers on the grid with Senna’s team mate Johnny Dumfries and Martin Brundle in the first of the Tyrrells. Behind them was the first of the Ferraris, Michele Alboreto’s F1/86. His team mate Stefan Johansson might have been there instead but he was told to get out of the team’s spare car during qualifying and let his team mate drive it instead. An incensed Johansson could only look on as he slipped to 18th on the grid.
1986 British Grand Prix grid
Laffite’s crash aids Mansell
The second the lights went out it seemed Mansell was about to fire past Piquet into the lead. The second after that his hopes appeared to be crushed.
“As soon as I changed gear something exploded at the rear of the car,” said Mansell. His differential had failed, and as Piquet led the field over the crest around Paddock Hill bend Mansell was already beginning to drop back.
But behind him there was consternation. Thierry Boutsen’s Arrows had snapped out of control. “I started to brake for the corner and everything was under control, no problem,” he explained.
“Suddenly the car pulled to the left really bad. I couldn’t control it, I hit the wall with the tyres, the car spun and came back into the middle of the track.”
Johansson swerved right to avoid him but Laffite was already alongside the Ferrari. The Ligier travelled a short distance over the grass and struck a barrier head-on. The race was stopped.
The first doctor at the scene was one of Laffite’s rivals: Jonathan Palmer, who clambered from his crashed Zakspeed and went to Laffite’s aid. The front of the Ligier was destroyed and it took over half an hour to remove him from the car. He was then flown to hospital with a broken pelvis, legs, ankles and feet.
While all this was going on the Williams team sprang into action to ready the spare car for Mansell. This had been set up for Piquet, and even with a lengthy delayed before the start of the new race there was only time to install Mansell’s seat and belts – it didn’t even have a drinks bottle.
“We’re getting into a car which hasn’t been set up for me and it’s going to be trust to luck whether it’s going to go or not,” he reflected as the drivers prepared to start again. But, he added, “I’d rather the accident not happen and I be out of the race because I believe Jacques has hurt himself.”
1986 British Grand Prix
Mansell took it easy at the second start. So easy, in fact, that Berger slipped by him into second position halfway around the first lap at Pilgrim’s Drop. But after two more laps of sussing out his team mate’s set-up Mansell began to press on. He re-took Berger at the same spot and went off in pursuit of his team mate.
Behind them Senna was holding fourth and briefly looked set to come under attack from Rosberg. The pair had fought bitterly at the same race the previous year, but there was to be no resumption of hostilities as a gearbox fault sidelined Rosberg early on. Later Senna lost fourth gear and also retired. And Berger’s strong run in third was halted by an electrical fault after 22 laps.
Around the same time, Mansell had closed right onto Piquet’s tail and was hunting for an opportunity. Remarkably, his team mate offered one: accelerating out of Stirling’s Bend he missed a gear and Mansell was through in a flash. But the need for a mid-race tyre change presented an opportunity for his team mate to retake the lead.
Piquet came in first, which today would be considered advantageous because of the ‘undercut’ but wasn’t necessarily the case at a time when pre-heated tyres were a recent innovation. Now had tyre changes been drilled to astonishing speeds seen today. Piquet was stationary for 9.04 seconds, Mansell 9.57 when he came in shortly afterwards.
As Mansell accelerated out onto the track Piquet was right on his tail. Mansell covered his line at the Druids hairpin but Piquet stalked him all around at the lap. At Paddock Hill bend Piquet went for the outside then swept across for the inside line at Druids – but found Alessandro Nannini’s lapped Minardi in the way. Mansell had bought the time he needed for his tyres to come up to temperature.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The two Williams drivers were now on maximum attack. Laffite’s lap record fell to Piquet before half-distance, and Mansell responded by lowering Piquet’s 1’11.250 to a 1’10.713. The remaining half of the race was a flurry of ever-tumbling times. Piquet produced a 1’10.089 on lap 54 and got under the 70 seconds barrier on the 68th tour with a 1’09.805. But Mansell could match him and more: a 1’09.593 on the 69th lap finally broke Piquet’s charge. Six laps later Mansell came by to take the chequered flag in front of the delirious crowd.
Prost arrived in third despite making two pit stops after losing a wheel balancing weight early in the race. He had spoken to Laffite before the restart and was shaken by his friend’s injuries, but persevered on a day when McLaren’s Honda-powered rivals were uncatchable. Rene Arnoux gave Ligier some small cheer by collecting fourth.
Warwick’s Brabham would have been fifth but he ran low on fuel late four laps from home allowing the two Tyrrells by. Patrese’s 1985 Brabham stopped with a dead engine. The final point went to Philippe Streiff driving the only car in the race which had an onboard camera.
1986 British Grand Prix result
Frank Williams watched from home as his wife Ginny, who had cared for him in the dark days, weeks and months after his accident, accepted the trophy for the race-winning constructor on his behalf.
At this stage in the season Williams unquestionably had the car to beat. But there was no mistaking the escalation in the rivalry between its drivers which threatened to go unchecked in Williams’ absence.
For Mansell, however, all seemed to be going his way. Britain seemed on course to celebrate its first world champion in a decade, as Mansell’s victory gave him the points lead ahead of Prost.
But he was well aware that his lucky turn had arisen from Laffite’s misfortune. The Ligier driver spent a month in hospital following the crash and although he went on to compete in touring cars he never returned to grand prix racing.
Laffite’s crash prompted a rethink of Formula One car design. To improve the leg protection offered to drivers new rules were soon introduced requiring the pedal box to be moved behind the front axle centre line, meaning more of an impact would be absorbed by the car instead of the driver.