Berger’s breakthrough win for Benetton sets up three-way title showdown

1986 Mexican GP flashback

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A dramatic twist in the 1986 championship 25 years ago today set up a three-way contest in the final round.

Gerhard Berger scored a surprise maiden victory in the first Mexican Grand Prix for 16 years.

But championship leader Nigel Mansell was left to rue a disastrous race.

Mansell under a cloud

Journalist and BBC Radio 5 Live commentator Maurice Hamilton covered the race for The Independent. Like many of his colleagues, he was keeping an eye on the progress of the world championship leader:

“He wasn’t quite himself,” remembers Hamilton. “You could tell that he was very preoccupied and he wasn’t feeling too good.”

Mansell had fallen victim to a stomach bug known as Montezuma’s Revenge. Making matters worse, a stingingly critical piece about him appeared in a British newspaper that weekend:

“On Saturday morning the fax machine clicked into life. Somebody had sent through from London a piece by James Hunt in The Times.

“It was a very scathing piece. And there was the fact that it was coming from the last British world champion, saying things that a lot of people thought.

“Typical James: he was coming out with it in a forthright fashion, saying that Nigel was actually not popular in the pit lane.”

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In his article Hunt said of Mansell: “His naivety may appear quaintly attractive to the public at home, but in the business it is often seen as crossing the border into foolishness – unacceptable in the sport’s standard-bearer.”

He added that paddock insiders: “by and large… do not want Mansell to win.”

This was the first glimpse the public had of Mansell’s fraught relationship with the media, which became more evident over the rest of his career.

“He just had this thing that unless you were writing nice things about him, you weren’t on his side,” said Hamilton. “Therefore you weren’t to be liked or trusted.

“He had this persecution complex – but the fans loved him to bits.”

Nor did Mansell have a happy environment in his team. He and Nelson Piquet had been at loggerheads since the season began, Piquet believing he had been promised number one status in the team, which he hadn’t received.

F1’s return to Mexico

Formula 1 made its first return to Mexico since the 1970 Mexican Grand Prix. That race had been marred by severe crowd control problems as the spectators could not be persuaded to abandon their vantage points sat at the edge of the track.

Despite the after-effects of a series of earthquakes which had killed over 10,000 people (and possibly far more), Mexico successfully held the football World Cup earlier that year. Now it welcomed F1 back to the track in the heart of Mexico City, named the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in honour of the late Mexican racing brothers Ricardo and Pedro.

But renovations to the circuit had not gone entirely to plan, as Hamilton explained: “Although they’re resurfaced it the equipment they’d used had made indentations in the track!”

This caused grumbles from the drivers when they took to the circuit for the first time on Thursday. The practice of giving drivers extra time to practice on a new circuit has since been abandoned.

The surface was been bumpy and low on grip. But the configuration proved decidedly satisfying with a long straight for overtaking, a Suzuka-esque series of fast, rhythmic sweeps, and the daunting 180-degree Peraltada at the end of the lap.

It was at this corner that Ayrton Senna showcased his astonishing skills by deftly catching the car as he hit a bump on the way to recording pole position on Saturday.

Mansell lined up third behind Piquet. He shared the second row with another driver who was feeling unwell – Berger.

He had been fastest on Friday in his Rory Byrne-designed Benetton B186. A problem with the BMW turbo on Saturday kept him from challenging for pole position, but he gave further indication of the car’s potential by heading the pre-race warm-up on Sunday morning.

But Huub Rothengatter’s weekend ended early as he crashed heavily in his Zakspeed. As the team had no spare car he was unable to take his place on the grid. With AGS not showing up the field was cut to 25 cars.

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1986 Mexican Grand Prix grid

Row 1 1. Ayrton Senna 1’16.990
2. Nelson Piquet 1’17.279
Row 2 3. Nigel Mansell 1’17.514
4. Gerhard Berger 1’17.609
Row 3 5. Riccardo Patrese 1’18.285
6. Alain Prost 1’18.421
Row 4 7. Derek Warwick 1’18.527
8. Patrick Tambay 1’18.839
Row 5 9. Teo Fabi 1’18.893
10. Philippe Alliot 1’19.257
Row 6 11. Keke Rosberg 1’19.342
12. Michele Alboreto 1’19.388
Row 7 13. Rene Arnoux 1’19.624
14. Stefan Johansson 1’19.769
Row 8 15. Alan Jones 1’20.090
16. Martin Brundle 1’20.198
Row 9 17. Johnny Dumfries 1’20.479
18. Jonathan Palmer 1’20.668
Row 10 19. Philippe Streiff 1’20.946
20. Christian Danner 1’21.069
Row 11 21. Thierry Boutsen 1’21.171
22. Andrea de Cesaris 1’22.470
Minardi-Motori Moderni
Row 12 23. Huub Rothengatter 1’22.230
24. Alessandro Nannini 1’23.457
Minardi-Motori Moderni
Row 13 25. Piercarlo Ghinzani 1’24.176
Osella-Alfa Romeo
26. Allen Berg 1’26.573
Osella-Alfa Romeo

Nightmare start for Mansell

On race morning the last Mexican to start an F1 race, Hector Rebaque, did a demonstration run in a spare car belonging to his former team Brabham, to make up for the lack of local talent on the grid.

When the real action started, Senna held his lead as far as the first corner before locking up, running wide, and letting his countryman Piquet through.

But Mansell had made a far worse start. Unable to select first gear, he crawled away from the line in second and completed the first lap in 18th place. With no chance of a safety car deployment, he faced a long grind from the back of the field.

By lap 11 he had dispatched several of the stragglers and was up to ninth. But suddenly he was in the pits with a blistered right-front tyre – the stop dropping him back down to 17th.

Tyre wear became an overriding concern as the track cleaned up and more rubber went down. One by one the front-running drivers on Goodyear tyres were forced to make stops.

Berger non-stops his way to victory

In the days before pit stops were mandatory, Berger stayed out

Berger, with Pirelli tyres on his Benetton, took a different approach.

Having fitted harder tyres to the outside (left-hand) wheels and softer tyres on the inside – a practice which is forbidden by today’s rules – he gambled on getting to the end of the race without pitting. With no mandatory pit stop rule forcing him to change tyres, Berger was free to do this.

Meanwhile Mansell, Piquet and Senna all had to make multiple stops. Although each visit meant around eight seconds stationary – rather slower than the three-second stops we see today – the lack of a pit lane speed limit reduced the time lost in comparison.

Alain Prost managed to get away with making a single stop for fresh Goodyears. But his tyre conservation owed more to just his light touch at the wheel.

After his pit stop he felt his McLaren’s TAG turbo engine firing on only five cylinders instead of six. Driving to preserve both engine and tyres, he could do nothing about Berger, who crossed the finishing line 25 seconds ahead.

This was good news for Mansell, whose championship rival was denied an extra three points. Mansell was forced to call off his pursuit of Piquet after Stefan Johansson’s Ferrari blew its engine, dropping oil a large part of the track.

Riccardo Patrese spun off on the oil, promoting Mansell to fifth. But under the “best 11 scores count” rule he had to drop the two points he earned.

Senna was already out of the championship hunt and he finished third, his tyres severely blistered. Piquet was fourth, setting a new lap record in between his visits to the pits.

Philippe Alliot, who like Berger was also on Pirellis, collected the final point for sixth place. After the chequered flag he tried to give team mate Rene Arnoux and Johansson a lift back to the pits, but his Ligier also came to a stop.

Fortunately Piquet pulled up and found room for all three of them on his Williams, with Alliot straddling the engine cover.

For the driver and team who had just scored their first victories, this was a watershed race. Eleven years down the line, they also scored their final victories together, at Hockenheim.

At the previous race Berger had signed a contract to drive for Ferrari in 1987. It took Benetton two more years to score their next world championship victory.

A thrilling championship conclusion

In the closing stages Hunt, commentating for the BBC, raised the question of whether Williams should instruct Piquet to let Mansell past, giving Mansell an extra point.

This would have been an enormously controversial decision as Piquet himself was still in contention for the title. Thankfully, Williams did not do this, and in the end that decision did not have a significant bearing on the championship.

Mansell high-tailed it out of Mexico. “Because Nigel had screwed it up, when he got out of the car he just disappeared,” said Hamilton. “We never saw him. There was nothing to be said because he didn’t want to answer awkward questions.”

He moved on to the final round in Australia where tyre wear would once again play a deciding – and dramatic – role in the determining the outcome of the championship:

1986 Mexican Grand Prix result

Alliot’s sixth place meant he scored his first world championship point.

Martin Brundle’s race started well, the Tyrrell driver climbing from 16th to seventh, but ended in confusion and acrimony.

Two cars went past him as he backed off having seen a red light, which he mistakenly believed was signalling the end of the race. Team boss Ken Tyrrell launched a protest without success.

Position # Driver Car Laps Gap/reason
1 20 Gerhard Berger Benetton 68
2 1 Alain Prost McLaren 68 25.438
3 12 Ayrton Senna Lotus 68 52.513
4 6 Nelson Piquet Williams 67 1 lap
5 5 Nigel Mansell Williams 67 1 lap
6 26 Philippe Alliot Ligier 67 1 lap
7 18 Thierry Boutsen Arrows 66 2 laps
8 23 Andrea de Cesaris Minardi 66 2 laps
9 17 Christian Danner Arrows 66 2 laps
10 14 Jonathan Palmer Zakspeed 65 3 laps
11 3 Martin Brundle Tyrrell 65 3 laps
12 28 Stefan Johansson Ferrari 64 4 laps
13 7 Riccardo Patrese Brabham 64 4 laps
14 24 Alessandro Nannini Minardi 64 4 laps
15 25 Rene Arnoux Ligier 63 5 laps
16 22 Allan Berg Osella 61 7 laps
Not classified
11 Johnny Dumfries Lotus 53 Battery
8 Derek Warwick Brabham 37 Engine
15 Alan Jones Lola 35 Radiator
2 Keke Rosberg McLaren 32 Tyre
27 Michele Alboreto Ferrari 10 Turbo
4 Philippe Streiff Tyrrell 8 Turbo
21 Piercarlo Ghinzani Osella 8 Turbo
19 Teo Fabi Benetton 4 Engine
16 Patrick Tambay Lola 0 Accident
29 Huub Rothengatter Zakspeed 0 Accident

Do you remember this race? Were you there? Leave a comment below.

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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34 comments on “Berger’s breakthrough win for Benetton sets up three-way title showdown”

  1. Was Mansell responsible for 1st gear on his car breaking? Most likely not. I fail to see how as Maurice Hamilton put it … “Because Nigel had screwed it up, “.

  2. Seems like the final races of 1986 panned out very similar to 2007.

  3. Those who are critical of HRT should note the 9.5 second gulf between first and last on the grid.

    1. Yeah, I was looking at that as well. Its really only the last 5-8 years that the whole field has been within a couple of seconds.

    2. And the race difference is even bigger than today’s, just the 3 first drivers were in the same lap at the end of the race.

  4. Interesting to see the figures in 1986, when we all like to think things were properly competitive, and the “boring qualifying” we have today indicates a lack of real competition.

    In those days, there was a single 1 hour qualifying session, where nobody came out at all for the first 50 minutes. If you look at the times, there are regular gaps of a second, or two seconds, between teammates. Alan Jones, World champion, is over a second behind his teammate. Was Alan Jones useless? Senna is almost a full four seconds ahead of Dumfries in the same car. All this on a circuit where the lap time is 85-95 seconds! Nowadays, a driver who ends qualifying half a second down on his teammate is viewed with embarrassment and mutterings that they’re on their way out the door, never having been suitable for F1 in the first place.

    Only 3 cars finished on the lead lap. Everyone from P7 onward was more than 2 laps down. Imagine if Massa had finished 2 laps behind Alonso this week. (Actually, that’s not too hard to imagine now that I think about it)

    The “big professional teams” – McLaren, Ferrari, Lotus had mechanical failures galore.

    And I can only imagine what hilarious quote Brundle would come out with if a competitor slowed down on the last lap, assuming that the race was over…. “nothing’s over til you cross the line, son, only an idiot relies on the lights” :)

    Yeah. Golden age of competitive racing, it was….

    1. In those days, there was a single 1 hour qualifying session, where nobody came out at all for the first 50 minutes.

      There were actually two qualifying sessions, each an hour long, one on Friday and one on Saturday. The fastest time from either session counted for the grid. It wasn’t always the case that no one came out until the last 10 minutes, but it was always a risk where track conditions were expected to get faster. The two session format sometimes led to large gaps between team mates – one session would often be faster so not being able to set a time in that session was a big problem.

      Alan Jones, World champion, is over a second behind his teammate. Was Alan Jones useless?

      Jones certainly wasn’t useless but was well past his best by late 1986.

      Johnny Dumfries wasn’t useless either but he was an inexperienced rookie in the number two spot at Lotus (never a good place to be, which is why Jackie Stewart declined an offer) to Ayrton Senna.

      1. You’re correct on both drivers. But how long did fat, over the hill Mansell last in the McLaren 10 years later? The competitiveness of the field was already increasing. Nowadays, with the exception of Ferrari, nobody would stick an obviously out of shape driver in the car.

        And as for a rookie being 4 seconds behind Senna – was Hamilton ever 4 seconds behind Alonso? Di Grassi and Grosjean were given the boot after one year, with significant damage to their reputations and prospects in the motor racing world, but they were never that far off their experienced teammates either.

        So there might well be reasons why there is such a discrepancy on times – but it doesn’t change the fact that it wouldn’t happen nowadays.

        1. And as for a rookie being 4 seconds behind Senna – was Hamilton ever 4 seconds behind Alonso?

          My point was that Lotus were always fairly notorious for not being able to field two fully competitive cars – no comparison with 2007-era McLaren.

          Jackie Stewart was offered a Lotus seat alongside Jim Clark but refused on the basis that the second driver at Lotus never really did anything. By 1986, Lotus was fairly strapped for cash and put most of their resources into their number one driver. Senna got the high-boost qualifying engines , sticky qualifying tyres and a car which was generally better prepared and set-up. Let’s not forget that Senna also veto-ed Lotus giving Derek Warwick the second seat for ’86 – not because he was frightened of a more experienced driver, but rather he was worried about Lotus spreading their resources too thinly.

          Dumfries’s car was an afterthought at best – four seconds is not a gap anyone wishes to see to their team mate. No one could seriously accuse 2007-era McLaren of not giving Hamilton parity of equipment with Alonso.

          1. Senna also vetoed Dumfries for ’87 because he proved to be quick, but was quite happy with Nakajima.

      2. It’s worth mentioning they could use as many set of tyres as they wanted and weren’t worried about lifespan of engines/gearboxes etc.

    2. The Alan Jones of 1986 was fat, unfit and driving purely for the paycheck. The Alan Jones of 1977-1981 ish was a very good driver.

    3. COTD right here.

    4. These ancient days of F1 shows why we shouldn’t pursue perfection. 25 years ago F1 consisted of a bunch of amateurs who did almost everything wrong, but it was awesome to watch.

    5. @hairs To be honest I always take ‘the good old days’ with a pinch of salt salt, I would never wish to go back, i’m all for progress and the current.

  5. I never saw races when they didnt have pit lane speed limits. Was there some sort of unwritten rule to take it easy in the pitlane or did they essentially just scream off the track, brake within metres of the box and throw it in, then scream back out?

    1. Pretty much the latter yes :)

    2. Ity was pretty much “scream in, stop for a bit while men in very short shorts change your tyres, scream out.”

      1. @GeeMac Oh I can just imagine the shorts :/ Not even flame retardant suits?

    3. @lachie The latter, you can imagine safety was improved a great deal when a pitlane speed limit was introduced!

      Oh, and @geemac forgot to mention they did wear gloves (just gloves) when they started experimenting with a fuel stop in the races :-)

  6. No you just legged it out as quick as you could. great fun though admittedly dangerous. “our nige” doesnt even look like he was all the way forward in his grid box. now theres probably a sensor that puts you 1 billionth of a millimetre behind the line

    1. now theres probably a sensor that puts you 1 billionth of a millimetre behind the line

      There is indeed. They installed them in, I think, 1995, a season memorable for the number of jump start penalties awarded a few laps into most of the races. Olivier Panis was notoriously prone to getting them, if I recall correctly.

  7. Yeah, I remember it, I have seen pretty much every GP since the early seventys (and have attended twenty something live). This one was pretty special, I was a passionate fan of Alain Prost by then, and also favored Nelson Piquet. And I loathed even more passionately both Ayrton Senna and Nigel Mansell. So I was happy with the result, as Gehrard Berger was not in the title contention. Then in Adelaide AP won both the race and the title so it was perfect for me.

    I know this is not a popular point of view but for me Alain Prost is the best ever (except maybe the great JM Fangio but I never saw him racing). If only he had been better in the rain he would have beeb just perfect. But Ayrton Senna used to own him in the wet, and I hated that. On the other hand, AP was consistently better in the dry than AS. Not simply my opinion, check the records if you do not believe me.

    1. I agree totally. AP is the greatest of them all.

    2. Well no. The records show that while they were together as teammates Senna won more races (14) to Prost (11) and more poles (26) to (4). Prost scored more points but Senna’s car broke down a lot more, particularly in 1989. Senna is in my opinion better than Prost but very few drivers would have been as consistently close to Senna than le Prof.

      1. Have you bothered to discount the wet races? I said and maintain that AP was consistently better in the dry

      2. three words here, Can-Of-Worms!!!!!

      3. Prost on his day when the car was setup to his liking was untouchable. Senna was better at “winging it”.

        There’s a story Nigel Roebuck likes to recount to demonstrate this about qualifying in 1988 at Estoril. Prost got the car setup how he wanted and went out early in the session and did the fastest qualifying lap, some 2s faster than Senna. He then came in, got out and changed, confident it was job done. Senna then spent the next 40 minutes trying to beat the time but never got close and couldn’t understand how Prost got the time. He just couldn’t touch him, despite his obvious qualifying ability.

        It’s not unlike Button vs Hamilton this year :)

  8. It was nice to see four drivers on one car – they looked more friendly towards each other than nowadays.

  9. ” t was at this corner that Ayrton Senna showcased his astonishing skills by deftly catching the car as he hit a bump on the way to recording pole position on Saturday.”

    Any video link please!

  10. the footage of piquet and his 3 passengers is great. if you tried that today, you’d probably lose your shirt. maybe your kids’ shirts too.

    1. @f1yankee Sidepods and engine covers are so much smaller on F1 cars these days there probably isn’t enough room for three people!

      Of course, Alonso did give Webber a lift at the Nurburgring this year:

      Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Nurburgring, 2011

  11. That circuit looks so much like Monza apart from sector 2, lovely and twisty. I bet that took some real time to set up for.

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