Senna holds charging Mansell back by a hundredth in Jerez thriller

Grand Prix flashback

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On this day in 1986, Nigel Mansell and Ayrton Senna crossed the finishing line in Jerez just 0.014 seconds apart.

The 1986 Spanish Grand Prix witnessed one of the closest finishes in F1 history.

Mansell came desperately close to scoring Williams’ first win since team founder Frank Williams had been dreadfully injured in a road accident.

And the three points he missed out on would have made him champion at the end of the closely-fought 1986 season. Here’s the story of that celebrated race and its epic finish.

The accident

One month earlier, Frank Williams had suffered a dreadful accident which cast a shadow over his team.

On March 8th, Williams were at Paul Ricard for the final test session before the season opened in Brazil. The new Williams-Honda FW11 was already proving competitive. Mansell and Nelson Piquet had put the car through its final paces, with Frank Williams keeping an eye on proceedings.

Satisfied with progress, Frank Williams set off on the 90 minute journey towards Cannes and Nice, with the team’s PR co-ordinator Peter Windsow in the passenger seat.

About 15 minutes into the journey in the hills near the village of Meounes-les-Montrieux, Williams lost control of the car. It ploughed nose-first into a field several feet below the road and landed upside-down. The left-front corner of the roof collapsed, trapping Williams underneath.

Williams survived but suffered paralysis and was kept away from his team for months while he made a slow recovery.

In his absence the team pulled together. Mansell said: “We will close ranks. We have already put Plan B into operation, with Frank’s approval. The best thing we can do, and myself and Nelson Piquet, is get the success the team and especially Frank deserves.”

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Rio de Janiero

At the season-opener at the Jacarepagua circuit in Brazil the teams had their first taste of racing under new fuel regulations, with the maximum permitted fuel load cut from 220 to 195 litres. This created an efficiency challenge which the Honda-powered Williams excelled at.

Piquet beat Senna’s Lotus-Renault, with 12 litres of fuel still left in the tank and still managed to shave a second off Alain Prost’s two-year-old lap record.

Mansell’s race was much shorter and less successful – he collided with Senna on the first lap and was out.

In his autobiography he said: “On the first lap of the race in Rio I got a good start and thought I had done enough going down the straight to pass him down the inside into the fast left hander. I got alongside, my right front wheel level with his shoulder and began braking, but he suddenly came across and hit me. I braked hard to avoid an accident, but his left rear wheel hit my right front and sent me off the road into the Armco, tearing off my left front wheel.”

“We did not talk about it afterwards, but I learned an important lesson about racing against him that day. If I hadn’t backed off we would both have hit the Armco and it could have been a serious accident. As it was I came off worse and it would not happen again. His tactic was to intimidate and I refused to be intimidated.”

Three weeks later, the teams were in Jerez for the Spanish Grand Prix.

Jerez de la Frontera

After a four-year hiatus, the Spanish Grand Prix had returned to the world championship calendar with a race at the brand new Jerez de la Frontera circuit near Seville.

It was a brand new circuit, 4.218km in length, 16 corners in all, and regarded as more than adequately wide everywhere. It has been modified since, as the map above shows.

But the spectators’ enclosure was almost empty. There was no Fernando Alonso or any Spanish driver or team to draw in the crowds. Others were put off by the cost of entry – £25 to get in then and at least another £50 for a grandstand seat.

Senna was typically dominant in qualifying, with only the two Williams drivers able to get within a second of him.

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1986 Spanish Grand Prix grid

Row 1 1. Ayrton Senna
Lotus Renault
2. Nelson Piquet
Williams Honda
Row 2 3. Nigel Mansell
Williams Honda
4. Alain Prost
Row 3 5. Keke Rosberg
6. Ren£ Arnoux
Row 4 7. Gerhard Berger
8. Jacques Laffite
Row 5 9. Teo Fabi
10. Johnny Dumfries
Row 6 11. Stefan Johansson
12. Martin Brundle
Row 7 13. Michele Alboreto
14. Riccardo Patrese
Row 8 15. Elio de Angelis
16. Jonathan Palmer
Row 9 17. Alan Jones
18. Patrick Tambay
Row 10 19. Thierry Boutsen
20. Philippe Streiff
Row 11 21. Piercarlo Ghinzani
Osella-Alfa Romeo
22. Marc Surer
Row 12 23. Christian Danner
Osella-Alfa Romeo
24. Andrea de Cesaris
Minardi-Motori Moderni
Row 13 25. Alessandro Nannini
Minardi-Motori Moderni

On Sunday morning, Senna got away from the line and it was the scene was largely uneventful at the first corner. At the end of the opening lap it was Senna, followed by the two Williams cars, then Rosberg, Prost and Arnoux.

Mansell said in his autobiography: “I was getting rather worrying information from my fuel consumption readout so I decided to drop back a bit and see how things worked out. It worked; by lap 19 the readout said that I was on target again and I put in some hard laps to try to make up some of the ground I had lost.”

He passed Piquet from second place on lap 34 and forced Senna to get boxed in behind a benchmarker for long enough to pass him. He opened up a lead of around four seconds and held it until his tyres began to disintegrate with ten laps to go.

A nail-biting finish

Today the 1986 Spanish Grand Prix is remembered as a classic. But some commentators at the time saw it very differently (how little has changed), not least of which Motor Sport’s venerated Denis Jenkinson.

His race report said: “As always, testing and qualifying was the most interesting time, the race itself being a different matter altogether and the 72 laps round the new Jerez circuit was no exception.

“With fuel limited to 195 litres and tyre wear being critical it was a race of tactics rather than gutsy racing. For the first half the leading bunch, of Senna, Piquet, Rosberg, Mansell and Prost, circulated in [single] file letting Senna set the pace, which he did on his fuel consumption gauge rather than his rev-counter.”

But what most people remember is the nail-biting finish.

By lap 62 Prost had closed in to make the leaders a trio. Senna saw a gap and dived through on lap 63 and Mansell retreated into the pits. His rear diffuser panel was coming loose and one of the rear tyres had picked up a slow puncture.

He came straight back out to record a lap time in the 1’29s from a standing start – just 1.3s slower than his fastest flying lap.

With eight laps to go, Mansell was third behind Prost, almost 20 seconds behind Senna. It took Mansell just half a lap to overtake Prost. With two laps to go, Mansell was 5.3 seconds adrift. One lap later, he closed that down to just 1.5 seconds.

Mansell said: “[Senna] was on the limit and so was I. Under braking from the final hairpin I was too far behind to try to pass, but coming out of it I was right on his gearbox. He weaved, but I wasn’t going to be deterred and I kept my foot in.

“We raced for the finish like 100m sprinters ducking for the tape and although I passed him halfway down the straight, he had crossed the line first by 0.014 seconds, or 93 centimetres. If the finish line had been five yards further down the road I would have won. And those [three] extra points would have made a big difference at the end of the year.”

The McLarens of Prost and Keke Rosberg finished third and fourth, believing they had severe fuel consumption problems when in fact they were seeing faulty cockpit readouts. The reliable Benetton B186s of Teo Fabi and Gerhard Berger took the last of the six points-paying places. Only two other cars were classified.

In the words of Nigel Mansell: “Afterwards Prost came up to me and apologised. He said: ‘I thought that Ayrton was too far ahead for either of us to catch him. If I had known you could do it I would have let you past!'”

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1986 Spanish Grand Prix result

Pos Car Driver Team Laps Difference
1 12 Ayrton Senna Lotus-Renault 72 01:48:48
2 5 Nigel Mansell Williams-Honda 72 0.014
3 1 Alain Prost McLaren-TAG 72 21.552
4 2 Keke Rosberg McLaren-TAG 71 1 Lap
5 19 Teo Fabi Benetton-BMW 71 1 Lap
6 20 Gerhard Berger Benetton-BMW 71 1 Lap
7 18 Thierry Boutsen Arrows-BMW 68 4 Laps
8 16 Patrick Tambay Lola-Hart 66 6 Laps
11 Johnny Dumfries Lotus-Renault 52 Gearbox
3 Martin Brundle Tyrrell-Renault 41 Engine
26 Jacques Laffite Ligier-Renault 40 Halfshaft
17 Marc Surer Arrows-BMW 39 Fuel System
6 Nelson Piquet Williams-Honda 39 Engine
8 Elio de Angelis Brabham-BMW 29 Gearbox
25 Ren£ Arnoux Ligier-Renault 29 Halfshaft
27 Michele Alboreto Ferrari 22 Wheel Bearing
4 Philippe Streiff Tyrrell-Renault 22 Engine
22 Christian Danner Osella-Alfa Romeo 14 Engine
28 Stefan Johansson Ferrari 11 Brakes
21 Piercarlo Ghinzani Osella-Alfa Romeo 10 Engine
7 Riccardo Patrese Brabham-BMW 8 Gearbox
23 Andrea de Cesaris Minardi-Motori Moderni 1 Differential
14 Jonathan Palmer Zakspeed 0 Collision
15 Alan Jones Lola-Hart 0 Collision
24 Alessandro Nannini Minardi-Motori Moderni 0 Collision

Were you at this race? Do you remember it? Tell us about it in the comments.


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67 comments on “Senna holds charging Mansell back by a hundredth in Jerez thriller”

  1. Great report

    I saw that race on TV I was only 8 years old and I still remember it. Funny thing the coverage of F1 was just qualyfing and the race and reports about fuel consumption were unknown at least for the viewers, there was no internet back then.

    That is why I appreciate web pages like yours, thanks for that

    Interesting how Senna was known by his behaviour on the track, one of the reasons it was not my favourite driver, never was actually.

    I will always remember Mansell and Prost they were gentlemen imho. Prost’s final statement desereves an own report, how really big was the rivalry between Senna and him we will never know…

    1. Yeh it’s always a case of rose-tinted glasses with Senna. If he was starting around today he’d have a legion of haters depending which team he drove for and be in the stewards’ office every race.

      I will never doubt his ability or begrudge him his success, but he had a deep flaw. Some people are put off by that, others don’t care, it’s when it’s swept under the carpet (not accusing anyone here of doing that) it annoys me.

      1. Deep flaw my ****.

        Strewth. Why does someone always have to come sailing in with his personal agenda whenever a particular driver is even mentioned?

        What exactly does your opinion of Senna’s ‘behaviour’ have to do with this article, which is about the 1986 Spanish GP? What exactly was the issue with Senna’s ‘behaviour’ in this race? It was an excellent, clean, race, like many many others of the time (and clean races like this were actually the norm, not the exception). Save the agenda-driven bitching for one of the ubiquitous discussions of, say, Suzuka ’89 and ’90 (which review will in any case show that the idea of Prost as the ideal gentleman, rather than the Machiavelli he clearly was (*), is a myth). Yes, Prost and Mansell were the F1 old guard and were united in friendship against the threatening new kid until they teamed up at Ferrari and fell out (partly, it is alleged by Mansell, over Prost’s underhandedness). So there’s nothing particularly insightful in the observation of that point.

        (*) “Mansell recalls one incident where at the 1990 British Grand Prix, the car he drove didn’t handle the same as in the previous race where he had taken pole position. On confronting the mechanics, it transpired that Prost saw Mansell as having a superior car and as a result, they were swapped without telling Mansell”. ( citing # ^ Mansell, Nigel My Autobiography page 222 Collins Willow ISBN 0-00-218497-4). Blah.

        But back to the 1986 Spanish GP!!!!!!!!

        This was actually a classic race of the type that current efforts with Pirelli and DRS are attempting to recreate. See-sawing pace disparities resulting from different car and tyre conditions, unplanned pit stops, big differences in the cars themselves, three drivers all quick at different points of the race and all potential winners, and a spellbinding finish. I recall that Senna’s tyres were beyond the edge and that he said he nearly lost the car completely a couple of times and only held onto it through sheer luck. The Mansell/ Williams combo was just coming on strong at this point, it was completely fascinating.

        I was watching truck races at Brands Hatch that day and I recall Senna’s hair’s breadth win being announced over the tannoy. These days I’d be pretty annoyed at them for doing that! The quality of the driving from all three of them is very evident when you watch this video – they’re all completely on it but no mistakes. Epic stuff and great racing.

        1. Great post Sean,

          The best drivers are all out for the win. They ALL try to “intimidate” the rivals. “Let Him Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone”

          Prost crashed Senna in Japan 89.
          Then Senna crashed Prost in Japan 90.

          And even today, “intimidation tactics” are alive and kicking.

          Hamilton didn’t let Alonso through on qualy in Hungary 2007, Alonso blocked him on the pits.

          Schumacher tried to put Barrichello in the wall =)

          If all of those are not “intimidating” I don’t know what they are.

          Depending on which media you are reading the “bad boy” will change. Nowadays, if you read british media, the bad boy is Alonso, but if you read spanish media, he is an angel, and the bad boy is Hamilton. Years ago it was the same with Schumacher, and before that, Senna.

          Hopefully, everyone enjoys this kind of intense battles as much as I do. I still have a favorite and also have a “bad boy”, but I still think the sports needs those kinds of rivalries.


          1. That is exactly my point Vic. If Senna were around today he would be the bad boy, polarising opinion and not the darling viewed from 20 years in the future. People like you see what Senna did as a natural part of racing. Good, that’s your opinion. I don’t necessarily even disagree with it. It’s just when people decide he’s a genius, not in spite of what he did but by ignoring what he did, was my point.

            I thought the aspect of “looking back 25 years” would open up a tiny bit of debate on how we view things and drivers that have long gone. Foe example, the point I make further down the page was that the race so a good one even before the famous finish, yet we seem to only remember the finish. Oh well.

        2. I was feeding off a comment made by someone else, not the article. That’s why I replied to that person, not with an original one.

          The truth is Senna often forced people to either let him pass/not pass him or hit him. I never claimed he did anything in this particular race.

          Perhaps before you go screaming in with accusations you might want to, you know, read what the person wrote? Hmm?

          Sorry for having an opinion.

  2. i was there. And the thing i remember vividly is the quali lap senna did. I was in the fast right hander behind the pits. Those were the years of the qualifying tyres, and the 1000bhp engines. And it was amazing to watch the brazilian giving it everything. That bend, even if not as famous as others in the calender, was one of the best i have ever seen. A few years later martin donelly had a huge accident there.
    After the race i got into the paddock, and bob dance, lotus chief mechanic, gave me a nacional cap that was on top of a tool box. Not a bad weekend at all.

    1. Awesome stuff, thanks kowalsky. Am not a little jealous!

      I’ve been to Jerez for testing and they still don’t use the fast right-handers. There is a lot more run-off there now than there used to be, though perhaps still not quite enough for F1 cars, particularly at the second bend.

      1. that’s what puts me off about f1 nowadays. They destroy the challenge with those chicanes.
        Years after that day, i read in a book that that particular saturday, senna did two quali laps good for pole. After he did the first one, he went to the box and his engineer told him to get out, bacause the lap was out of anybody’s reach. But the great brazilian said he lost a couple of tenths and knew he could improve. Even though the team tried to stop him they couldn’t. He went out again and he came back with the lap time he said the car was capable of doing. I witnessed one of those laps, wich one i don’t know. But who cares when you had the chance to see the great ayrton senna at his very best.

    2. Wow, that sounds really good Kowalsky!

    3. Nice one Kowalsky!

  3. Great article! Looks like Laffite is listed twice on the grid, and whoever was 10th is missing.

    1. Thanks have corrected it.

      1. Just in case Peter Windsor has a peek. You’re going to want correct the spelling of his name (currently Windsow, third paragraph under heading The Accident)

  4. superted666
    13th April 2011, 8:22

    Great, not i’m going to start watching all the old season previews again.
    Hours will be wasted i suspect!

  5. Fantastic stuff! I love that quote at the end too.

    Looks like Arnoux and Brundle did decent jobs in qualifying, as did Palmer.

    I always liked the Jerez circuit, even though it’s totally unsuitable for F1 nowadays.

    1. I liked that as well, nothing like a good feud between certain drivers!

  6. At the timeit wasreally a case of : to finish first, you first have to finish!

  7. great article!
    interesting to see the amount of retirees back then!

  8. Great article Keith.
    Am i correct in thinking that this was the race where Mansell once claimed that he thought he’d won because the Start/Finish line had been moved for the race?

    1. Thanks but check the name under the headline – this was Cari, not me!

      And you’re right about the finishing lines – you can see the second line on the video.

      1. Apologies Cari, an enjoyable read.

        1. Thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  9. Great read. Thanks Cari.

    I Was just going over the list of retirements. 15 drivers dropping out due to mechanical troubles! You never hear of so much attrition these days. And I’ve never heard of a Halfshaft failure. What is it?

    1. A half-shaft is the word for a driveshaft that drives the wheels when it comes directly from the gearbox, I believe.

  10. I don’t mean to criticise the article because it’s very good, but the race was even more exciting than it makes out, with an early battle between Mansell, Senna and Prost, including Mansell going from 1st to 3rd in two corners as I recall. Shame you couldn’t get more comprehensive highlights to show.

    The BBC’s Classic F1 repeat of the highlights is still up (UK only, sorry), so I urge people to watch the fulllot:

    1. Great site.. is there an index of these videos? Or any other site where I can watch good quality classic races? Thanks..

        1. thanks for that!

  11. I was only 2 yo at the time of the race.
    But fortunately recently I could have the DVDs of all races since 1977, and I finally could see this great great race and imagine how exciting it would have been if I didn’t knew the final outcome.

  12. One thing I’ve always wondered about this race when seeing clips about it is how those cars are left in the circuit.

    There is a Johansson’s Ferrari in Dry Sack corner and Jones’s Lola in Angel Nieto corner in the middle of sand traps. And looking the laps on which they retired, you can see that cars were there almost for the whole race!

    The car just next to pit exit isn’t that big problem. Can’t see really which car it is, probably Streiff’s Tyrrell.

  13. I’d never noticed just how much the Jerez layout is like Sepang before. Hairpin onto pit straight, tricky first complex followed by fast left-right…

    1. Scaled down a bit though!

  14. Nice quote from Prost.

  15. Love that seating position for Senna,… it’s virtually an office chair.

    1. jose Teixido
      13th April 2011, 15:31

      Though the same thing, is like driving a toilette seat with a 1000BHP mill on the back.

  16. Great memories of this era. I remember a great comment about the Minardi-Motori Moderni cars being too slow – “Their Motoris are not Moderni enough”.

    1. Fantastic.

  17. HounslowBusGarage
    13th April 2011, 13:14

    Very nice article. I remember the race – more particularly, I remember the tension of the last few laps and the anguish of Mansell losing by that miniscule distance.
    A good read and good memories. Thanks

  18. ‘I thought that Ayrton was too far ahead for either of us to catch him. If I had known you could do it I would have let you past!’

    What a great character Prost has!

    1. Made me smile!

    2. That shows the utter hate Prost had for Senna. He just knew back then that he wasn’t in the same league as Senna.

      It reminded me of Alonso in 2008 vouching his help for Massa, to prevent Hamilton from winning the championship.

      So is Massa the new Mansell? I doubt it.

      1. That shows the utter hate Prost had for Senna. He just knew back then that he wasn’t in the same league as Senna.

        This race happened in ’86, the Senna/Prost rivally happened a few years afterwards, and im not even sure that Prost hated Senna before then.

    3. Would he have? It’s easy to say, hard to do

  19. I was five months old, so probably sat in my nappy somewhere at home!

  20. That’s such a great read, thanks Keith.

    Interesting reading about the fuel consumption. I don’t know what 12 litres relates to these days with regards to fuel effeciency but it does sound like an awful lot to be carrying around, but then to beat the lap record as well? Brilliant stuff.

    1. 13 April 2011 by Cari Jones

      Just though i’d point it out.

      Just noticed the title says 0.01 seconds…It wasn’t that close that I do know.

      1. Not sure why you think it wasn’t that close.

        I remember watching it live and it was/still is the closest winning margin of 0.014 seconds.(14/1000ths)

        Unless you have evidence otherwise?

        1. I think the Italian Grand Prix in either 69, 71 or 73 was 10 thousandths (0.01).

          1. Peter Gethin won the ’71 Italian GP by 0.01 seconds. And the top 5 were covered by 0.6 seconds. Simply unimaginable today! But that was on the old Monza layout, before Rettifilio, Roggia and Ascari were added.

  21. i wish we could go back to those days of close racing.
    will we ever see a finish similar to this again in my lifetime? i’m getting fed up of drivers winning races by 10, 20, 30 secs.

    1. On those times, there where a lot of wins with 20, 30 or even bigger gaps. It was common to have laped drivers on the podium. Having the first 10 on the same lap was almost imposible in the 80s.

      1. even so during the race there was far more overtaking on track and not in the pits!!!

        1. Rubens/Schumacher at indy 2002 wasn’t close enough for you? 0.011

          Oh wait memories begin to return…

  22. Great article, wish the archives were more open.

    By the way the mobile version doesn’t list authors.

    1. Good point, will look into that.

  23. Senna was a product of kart racing, and carried that into F1 (unlike other drivers who previously karted). He greatly preferred karting as the purest form of racing. So alot of that came out in his aggressive driving, where it is typical to bump and get very close. That’s not to say he was justified in alot of the aggressive moves that happened, but its simply the reasoning behind it. He felt he was right because he was doing what came natural – as a kart racer.

    Additionally, he was a product of the period, where you didnt get a penalty for moving across the track to defend your position – this was the 70’s (karts), 80’s (FFord, F3, F1) and 90’s where racing was…allowed.

  24. Too bad, I wasn’t even borned when this race happened :( I bet Mansell was angry after losing to Senna in an inferior Lotus.

    1. Neither was I, but there are many places to find full seasons of BBC coverage of the F1 races (typically races only) and I have watched every season since 1984 :)

  25. Really nice article. This right on the edge of my F1 memory and it’s brilliant to get that refresher.

  26. Quite easy for Prost to state that he “would have” let Mansell pass. Knowing Senna I have no doubt that he “would have” honored the recovering Sir Frank by letting Mansell have the win – was it not for the championship points and personal career to be considered.

    After all it was Sir Frank that gave Senna his first F1 test for which he was forever grateful.

    Great article and comments by Sean.

  27. How the hell did Mansell manage to decrease the gap by 3.8 seconds? Was Senna being deliberately slow?

    1. His tires were completely run down but he didn’t have time for a stop so he chanced it and won.

  28. This was a great race and a very well detailed article Carl!

    I don’t know why people are commenting on Senna, to me the star of this race was Mansell.

    He was involved in most of the overtaking in the first part of the race and then after making a late pitstop produced fastest lap after fastest lap to try and hunt down Senna.

    To be fair to senna, the lap he produced on the penultimate lap most probably kept him that race win, as Mansell had been closing at over a second a lap, and on the last lap but one Senna managed to produce a matching lap to Mansell to give him a bit of a cushion for that last lap.

    But for me Mansell made this race electric, just look how late he breaks in to the last hairpin on the last lap, desperate to get as close to Senna as possible.

    Good days…

  29. Keith

    I’ve got tickets to the Senna premiere in London. Are you going? @Grandprix diary is organising some beers afterwards if you are..


    1. I’ve already been to see it so I’ll leave the place for someone who’s not been yet. Would be up for meeting up though.

  30. Se houve uma vitória de Senna, que Prost adorou, certamente foi essa…

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