A pause of about five months elapses between the 1986 final race in Australia and the opening one in Rio de Janeiro for the new 1987 season. A long, unusual lethargy for Formula 1, even if, despite the engines remaining off until the tests in Imola and Jacarepaguà, there is never a shortage of news.
Jean-Marie Balestre animates the off-season a bit: on December 5, 1986, the FISA president undergoes a delicate heart operation, from which he emerges in excellent health; to prove it is himself, who just thirteen days after the surgery announces his farewell to the federation he presides. The Frenchman declares that he is fed up with the continuous smear campaigns against him, and that he wants to have more freedom of action.
In fact, after eight years of presidency, his leave does not change absolutely anything, since Balestre remains in any case at the head of the FIA, of which FISA is only an emanation.
However, he re-takes his role in FISA a few weeks later, as no one is applying to take his place. In practice Balestre only gives journalists the opportunity to write something in the sports newspapers in a moment of absolute lean for Formula 1.
Meanwhile, Senna, who has earned three million dollars a year, buys an apartment in Monte Carlo, on the ninth floor of the Houston Palace condominium and leases a Learjet to use it during long-haul travel.
Behind the scenes, the teams work hard to best prepare their cars for winter testing. Tyrrell, AGS, Larrousse, March and Coloni are the teams that opt for the naturally aspirated engines, now allowed again, probably still too far behind in comparison with the turbos.
The huge gap between the turbo-driven teams and those that have returned to naturally aspirated leads to the decision by the Federation to draw up a separate ranking for the teams nominated earlier, assigning the Jim Clark and Colin Chapman awards to the best pilot and the best team with aspirated engine.
As for the top teams, on the other hand, in addition to McLaren, which on February 18, 1987, presented in Stockholm the new car that will be driven by the reigning world champion Alain Prost and former Ferrari driver Stefan Johansson, Lotus is undoubtedly the team for which there are high expectations following the agreement with Honda.
The agreement with the Japanese is not the only novelty for the team headed by Peter Warr; at the tests in Imola, Senna and the new teammate Satoru Nakajima begin to test the new electronically controlled hydropneumatic suspension, better known as active suspension.
A complex and technologically advanced system that helps to increase the ground effect, but which on the other hand forces Lotus to a greater commitment to try to optimize its use as soon as possible, to the point of neglecting other fundamental parts of the car, in particular what later becomes the biggest problem of the 99T: the aerodynamic load.
In addition to this, the 99T suffers terribly from weight, given that the complex system that controls the electro-hydraulic active suspensions is managed by oil pressure, in turn generated by a pump mounted on the Honda engine. A factor that also limits the power of the engine. The Honda engine, which is very different from the Renault one, also offers some headaches.
First of all, before the 1987 championship, Patrick Head and Gerard Ducarouge meet with Katsumi Ichida, engine designer, to decide which type to use for the current year and how to develop it. Head asked to redistribute some engine components, lowering the center of gravity. But following the agreement, where Ducarouge expresses his confidence regarding the goodness of the chassis and the active suspension project, this development is frozen and re-proposed to McLaren in 1988.
Thus, with the old engine with a higher center of gravity, in the test session in Rio de Janeiro, after a few laps Senna returns to the pits alarmed, thinking that some components are about to break after experiencing strong vibrations. From the telemetry everything is according to the norm, so it was decided to allow Nakajima, Honda test driver and obviously more experienced with this type of engine, to hit the track. And in fact, once back in the pits, the 34-year-old on his first experience in Formula 1 says:
"It's all right, why are you worried? Aren't the other motors vibrating like that?"
However, the yellow Lotus, sponsored by Camel and no longer by JPS, which abandoned due to disagreements with Honda, is not the only team to introduce active suspension. There is also Williams, which unlike Lotus tests the new components with extreme calm without forcing the times, the FW11B will only be equipped with this innovation starting from Monza, in the final part of the championship.
The choice of Frank Williams and Patrick Head has its reasons. Being able to count on the fact that their car was clearly the fastest in the past season, just stick to the lines of the '86 car, with a few improvements here and there, to make sure you are still on top. This time maybe, also taking home the drivers' title, which escaped the last Grand Prix in Australia.
In the Imola tests, Williams and Lotus monopolize the top positions of the timetable. Both the new McLaren Mp4/3, designed by Steve Nichols, and the Ferrari of the much acclaimed John Barnard struggle to keep the pace. The new Ferrari is also eye-catching because it is very narrow, the narrowest of all the cars participating in the Formula 1 World Championship.
Michele Alboreto, used to wearing only the suit, now first fastens the anklets, then the knee pads, then the elbow pads and finally applies two prostheses carefully on the shoulders: when he finally puts on the suit he suddenly seems to become a giant.
This preparation is due to the fact that when he enters the passenger compartment, the elbows hit the upper edges of the bodywork, the shoulders are pressed by the rear profile of the body, the knees touch, and the ankles remain tucked in between pedals, springs and plastic supports.
"The real problem is another: if I get fat just a little I won't get into the car anymore. I even had to stop working out because my muscles are already at the limit. I suspected it was uncomfortable since I saw the drawings of the new machine hanging on a wall last autumn. I asked: what is it, the small-scale model? No, they told me, it's the one in natural size but don't worry, everything fits in. A little time later I saw the wooden model for the wind tunnel and I could hardly believe it was also full size, but they kept telling me to keep calm, that they had made the car of my perfect size. Mind you, if this car was twenty centimeters narrower but it was also definitely a winner, I would get in anyway at the cost of folding myself in two. I can assure the fans that I will do my best to give my best, but the car still needs testing. So far it hasn't driven much. Even here in Rio we have had to suspend track activity because of the rain. The thing that worries me least is the new engine. The rest needs to be fine-tuned day after day. This is the Ferrari that more than any other I've ever driven has been pushed to the limit: in terms of size, weight, aerodynamics, like everything. So we still have to discover it".
The situation at McLaren is quite different. It seems absurd, but the farewell of John Barnard had its specific weight, perhaps not in purely performance terms, since the main problem of the Mp4/3 is the TAG-Porsche engine, despite the proclamations of late 1986, rather disappointing. The newcomer from Brabham Gordon Murray, on his first day of work, first asks for a document attesting all the technical problems the car had during the season, not only of the main components, but also of the apparently insignificant ones. The response of the technicians is lapidary: there is no document, John Barnard has kept everything to himself, in his brilliant head.
During the winter, therefore, the South African designer finds himself unable to work as he would have liked on the reliability of the components, and the result was evident. Numbers in hand, seventy-four total breaks. An enormity for a top team that aims to fight for the championship, even more serious if there is already a lack of competitiveness. Just to make a comparison, in 1988, when Murray finally has the information he wanted, the failures will be just fourteen.
At the first race of the year Alain offers everyone a lesson on how to manage the tires and at the same time go fast, an absolute specialty of the house. In the meantime, the two-time reigning champion, in the traditional days spent in Sestriere by the pilots, is polemical towards the new regulation:
"A very interesting championship is about to begin with a lot of news, but don't come and tell me that something has been done for safety. This year there will be two categories of cars on the track, those with turbo engines and those with aspirated engines. Explain me what can happen in overtaking, in difficult situations, between cars that have very different speeds and powers! Admitting naturally aspirated engines immediately was madness, we should wait. Another inexplicable fact concerns Monte Carlo. On that track the problem I mentioned will be even more evident, and as if that wasn't enough, FISA has decided to admit six cars more to the race instead of the usual twenty, with the risk of a disaster. Obviously, we pilots have not been asked for anything".
Alain's statements are just a small appetizer of what awaits the drivers upon their arrival in Brazil to compete in the first round of the 1987 World Championship. Almost as if we had returned to 1982 in South Africa, a dispute arises between FISA and pilots regarding super-licenses. In fact, Balestre wants the drivers to pay for it, adding to a taxable base a percentage that increases according to the points won in the past season. To give an example, Prost would have to pay a sum that is around the current 12.000 euros.
An absurd and senseless taxation, which the pilots refuse to pay. But the even more incredible thing is that in December 1986, in Paris, the Federation had decided what was said only on March 23, 1987, when drivers discovered the horrible device of this new tax. But what is the reason for this new tax? It is easy to say:
"Since you always complain about safety, that there are no helicopters, that the runways are dirty and so on, you also contribute and we consider this tax as intended to pay for all services relating to your safety".
At this point the front of the drivers split: some paid, others continued to say no. Alboreto, Prost, Piquet, Mansell, Senna and others started to counterattack, declaring:
"Very well. If the money is for safety we pay, but we want to know how it will be spent, so let us join a special commission".
Clear and sensible speech. But when this comes to the Federation, the latter turns around saying that this money is not actually used for security but to cover the budget deficit. The mockery of the FIA immediately triggers even more angry reactions even from the drivers who until now had been following the story absent-mindedly:
"They don't know how to manage the federation and we should pay the liabilities? Never. And then why only us? May all our colleagues pay for the other car formulas too".
Moreover, the federal budget of the Federation will be put further in crisis also by the well-known judicial sentence of a Parisian court that sentenced FISA to pay several billions to Peugeot for the damages it caused with the case of the disqualification at the Sanremo Rally in 1986.
It is Alain himself who has revived the GPDA, determined to go ahead with this protest also to increase the political weight, currently almost nil of the drivers. At this point, Balestre, who is not present in Rio, sends to say that if the drivers do not pay, they will not race in the world championship.
"The federation asked us to pay a supertax as a contribution to security. Very well, we all answered, asking immediately afterwards: but what will you do for security? No one has answered us yet. I know that when De Angelis died last year the helicopter was missing, that days ago in Rio there was a helicopter missing, that the tarmac was full of mud and nobody cleaned it. When Arnoux nearly killed himself in Jerez two months ago, the helicopter was again not present. Then either the Federation tells us what it intends to do or we don't pay. But I have no illusions, the truth is that we drivers do not count for anything for the Federation and the teams, so in the end everyone will pay and the championship will be saved. But the bitterness remains to realize that in the face of safety problems everyone does only empty promises and this is not nice for a sport that is at the top of attention all over the world".
Michele Alboreto declares bitterly. In the following hours, the pilots threaten to start a strike, as in 82, when Alain was still a young man who was listening to the speeches of old foxes like Lauda and Pironi. But then a solution is found on Thursday: the pilots will pay a fixed sum according to the value of the inflation in force in the EEC. After this decision, someone criticizes Prost for not being given enough guarantees, or in less formal terms, that he was fooled.
Once the dispute is over, you can finally get on track to start the championship, in which the Ligier, strangely left without an engine, temporarily does not take part. The French team reached an agreement with Alfa Romeo, but the harsh criticisms of Renè Arnoux regarding the lack of competitiveness of the Italian turbo engine meant that relations were immediately interrupted. Another cause, perhaps the main one, is the takeover of Alfa Romeo by Fiat, with the Agnelli family intending to reduce its contribution to Formula 1.
Arnoux and Ghinzani hit the track again for the second race at Imola, after the signing of an agreement between Ligier and BMW, which continues to supply engines under the false name of Megatron, a US insurance company.
Under the scorching sun of Rio, Williams immediately sent a strong signal on the Jacarepaguà circuit: Nigel Mansell took pole position ahead of Piquet; Senna, third, is two seconds away.
Prost is fifth behind Teo Fabi's Benetton, three seconds behind the poleman, but despite a surreal gap does not cause drama: according to the Professor, the gap is caused by the fact that the Honda engine is much faster in qualifying, but this difference in perofrmance is going to be smaller in the race. The two seconds that Senna got, however, also driven by the Honda engine, mean that Alain's statements are not so reliable. Williams are even stronger than last year.
On Sunday, the race initially goes in the direction of Piquet and Senna, who took the lead after a bad start by Mansell, fell to fifth position behind Fabi's Benetton and Belgian Thierry Boutsen. The British, followed by Prost, manages to get back third and close the gap to Senna.
Nigel however fails in overtaking Ayrton, and begins to suffer from an anomalous overheating, as does Piquet. Both Williams have their side bellies clogged with debris, more precisely, as claimed by Piquet, with the candies thrown on the track by the fans. The real factor that decides the fate of the Grand Prix, however, is tires.
Goodyear, who remained the only tire supplier on the grid, had announced that they would give each team ten sets of tires per weekend, only to retract for those races affected by extreme heat such as in Brazil, where the manufacturer decides to exceptionally deliver twelve sets per team.
The sultry heat, together with a historically abrasive track, make the race play on tire management and on the best strategy adopted, a factor that will trigger a plebiscite of criticism after the race. Insiders will even go so far as to say that it is a shame that we have gone so far to ridicule the efforts and investments that so many industries make in this sport.
Never before in Rio the name of Pirelli had been invoked, which as soon as it managed to make a durable tire, cleverly thought of retiring from racing the previous year. The Professor cannot be wrong: he makes two stops against Piquet's three and passes Mansell who subsequently falls victim to a puncture that relegates him to the sixth and lapped at the end of the race.
Senna, on the other hand, is ousted from the race by a Honda engine failure, but even for him there would not have been much to do against Alain, who never misses an opportunity to demonstrate his extraordinary race and tire management skills.
The podium is completed by Piquet and Johansson, who together with Prost make up the exact same podium of the last race in 1986, with the only difference that the Swedish driver drives a McLaren, no longer a Ferrari.
About the Ferraris, Berger finished fourth in his first Ferrari race; Alboreto loses a duel against the Austrian and finishes eighth following a puncture. After this incredible victory for Alain, the McLaren team decides to party with dinner at the Copacabana restaurant, but something incredible happens along the way. Already a little tipsy from the caipirinha drunk before dinner, Jo Ramirez puts Prost in the driver's seat of a taxi containing him and four other McLaren mechanics, with the driver happy to act as co-driver:
"When I tell friends that Alain Prost drove my taxi...my wife will never believe me".
Alain himself, on April 22, 1987, is again the protagonist of a further controversy against FISA. In Paris, after having had a long meeting with Balestre, the French driver hints, speaking with journalists, that for the Monaco Grand Prix, FISA could retire the decision to admit twenty-six cars at the start and limit, as in previous years, the grid with only twenty cars, as loudly requested by the pilots. Teams that, using naturally aspirated engines, do not have the opportunity to qualify would thus be excluded from the Grand Prix.
At the same time, the missed victory was not enough for Pique, who is involved in an unpleasant episode a few days after the Grand Prix. He is denounced by a Rete Globo cameraman, met at the exit of a court by Piquet who was there dealing with matters related to his divorce, and where he pushed and punched the victim, guilty of having caught him at the exit of the judicial office, something not appreciated by the Williams driver, already shown nervous in the post-race interviews when in an angry way he blamed the fans and their candies for the never obtained first place.
In the first five races of the season, from Brazil to the Detroit street circuit, the script is practically identical to 1986: Senna and Prost against the two Williams, who flaunt a certain superiority that they do not always manage to exploit. After Rio, in collaboration with Autosprint Senna talks about the first impressions provided by the Brazilian race, as well as on the various technical innovations:
"McLaren is still there, as usual, and always has the characteristic of going very well in the race. Williams is very strong especially in qualifying, and in the race, apart from the problems in Rio, they will not be outdone by the McLarens. the championship that has just begun would seem to repeat the same situation as in 1986. The Benettons are also strong, but we will have to wait at least three races to see who, among those who are competitive today, will be able to keep up with the pace of evolution and stay at the top. Forget about Ferrari, for which I am sure it is only a matter of time: Barnard is someone who knows what he is doing. We too need time to fine-tune the new electronically controlled suspensions. It is not true that if I had raced with the traditional ones I could have worried Prost; even now, with the active suspension the car is faster than the version with the conventionals. We just need a little time to fix all the combinations".
"In Rio last year I was overtaken on the straight by the Williams. This year, however, no one overtook me on the straight, even when they were back there, in my slipstream. Thanks to the solution of the active suspension, we should have more grip and more stability especially on the jumps. It could be the winning weapon of this year. The pop-off valve was another of the most talked about topics in Rio. The first day of testing this device was a disaster for everyone. Perhaps only McLaren, which uses a lower pressure than the others, or something like that was saved. On Friday night the FISA people changed the valves and they have improved a lot. The problem on Friday was that the valves, adjusted to a pressure of 4 bar, went down to a lower level. Since Saturday the problem has been greatly reduced, although there is still some work to do. However, I remain of the opinion that these valves are the best way to improve power".
Of the aforementioned five opening races, the team of Frank Williams brings home just one, in Imola with Mansell, who passes the poleman Senna on the first lap at the Tosa and is only seen on the podium to celebrate. A good battle on the track, Ayrton always offers it in Imola with Michele Alboreto, on one of the very rare occasions in which the Italian is able to fight for the podium.
During the race, Michele surprises Ayrton with a great overtaking at the Variante Alta, thus conquering the second position, then back in the hands of Ayrton's Lotus thanks to a drop in power of the Ferrari due to a crack in a manifold of the fuel system.
However, it is a bittersweet success for the Williams team, considering the nasty accident of Nelson Piquet during the qualifying session on Friday at the Tamburello corner, which went off the track at a speed of 270 km/h due to the sudden dechapping of a tire that makes him lose control and throws him towards the barriers.
Piquet is transported to the hospital in Bologna, but fortunately does not suffer serious consequences. Indeed, he asks to review the incident, so the nurses bring him a television. Then, he gets very hungry, so the nurses always bring him fettuccine with meat sauce, which apparently are so good that once finished, Nelson exclaims:
"Maybe I'll still have appetite at midnight, keep a plate aside".
All while continuing to watch the accident. A few hours later, as Nelson falls asleep, two trucks loaded with Goodyear tires arrive at an English airport. The big tires are stowed on a plane and the plane takes off immediately. They land at 4:30 in the morning at Guglielmo Marconi airport in Bologna where two other trucks take them to Imola. When the Italian circuit opens its doors to the public only a few realize that the tires mounted on the cars are no longer those of the day before.
A commendable precaution, all the more necessary for those who remember an episode of a decade ago, when a driver was killed by a tire blow off and the widow planted a long lawsuit at the end of which the parties agreed on twenty million dollars.
Meanwhile, Patrick Head, Williams technical director, one of the best designers of the circus, expressing his opinion on the incident, says:
"The car is in such a state that it is impossible to get any information on the dynamics of the accident. I think instead that the cause is to be found in a tire. I told this to the Goodyear people and I think they have already taken some action".
But doubts still remain. For example, can a very powerful and very fast Williams-Honda be considered the same as an Osella that occupies the last place in the standings and has a top speed of at least 40 km/h lower? And can a Williams who travels close to the ground be considered the same as the others to reproduce that ground effect that has been forbidden for years? If the car is stick to the ground with aerodynamic devices, the tire is subjected to an enormous effort.
Now someone in the world is starting to wonder why it is almost always on Williams that tires cause serious problems, as happened at the Australian Grand Prix the previous year, when Mansell was throwing tire pieces in the air.
In the meantime, the next day, luckily Piquet is already in the paddock eager to take the wheel again, but Sid Watkins strictly forbids him to drive, due to the possible persistence of a confusion that no instrument observes or denies with precision.
Another trauma could be fatal to him. So, to fill the time, after taking a tour of the circuit aboard a scooter to greet the audience, Piquet accepts an offer of hundreds thousands dollars from RAI to comment on the Grand Prix together with Regazzoni and Poltronieri.
"I suffered a lot, I could have scored nine or six points for the way things went. I'll be back to racing in Spa. In any case it was an interesting, stimulating experience. I realized that it is not easy to be a sports commentator. It was a good race, Mansell won easily in my opinion, a sign that our car is superior at the moment".
Mansell's opinion is obviously conflicting with that of his teammate:
"It is true that my Williams was superior, but I had problems with the rear brakes and I was disturbed by the vibrations of a wheel until the tires were changed. And what a bother the wind that blew across the straights. In short, I got this vicotry sweaty and I think I also deserved it. It's always nice to finish first, I almost didn't remember. And then to win at Imola...".
Excluding this victory, there is very little to save for the British at the beginning of the season, in which he conquers four poles - the only one to escape him is precisely that of Imola where he then goes to win - in race, however, he scores two retirements, in Belgium and Monaco, the sixth place in Rio and the fifth in Detroit conditioned by a cramp in the right leg, without which perhaps a success or at least a podium would have come. The zero of Spa-Francorchamps makes a lot more noise than that caused by the failure of the turbo while he was leading in Monte Carlo.
Precisely in Spa, Friday May 15, 1987, thanks to the rain, Gerhard Berger's Ferrari took first place on the provisional starting grid, while Alboreto set the third fastest time, behind Mansell. To Ferrari it seems like a miracle, given that twenty-five Grand Prix races have passed without a win, a worrying negative record:
"I don't know what to tell you, we have never tested this car in the wet".
Declares Michele Alboreto, amazed by the result obtained. The mood in Maranello lately is no longer positive and accustomed to the high-sounding results, as demonstrated by what happened the previous day inside the Ferrari garage: a new mechanic, just arrived, had put himself at a certain point behind the engine with the gun in hand to set it in motion. And he was there ready to insert the barrel of this compressed air tool into the appropriate keyhole. But another mechanic pounced on him just in time like a fury, telling him:
"What the hell are you doing? That's the gun to unscrew the wheels".
Fortunately, it was not a crucial moment. This is to say that it can all go wrong, but when the cars go and the wheel of fortune turns well. On Saturday, in the absence of external agents, everything returns to normal, with Mansell on pole ahead of Piquet and Senna, while Gerhard and Michele are fourth and fifth more than a second behind.
At Spa, the Belgian Grand Prix has yet to take place and there is already a fight over the next one, that of Monte Carlo which will take place at the end of the month. Twenty cars instead of twenty-six have always taken the start on the roads of the principality. The reason lay in the dangerousness of that circuit built on narrow city streets, twisted and close to brick walls. But the pressure from the sponsors was strong; denying six cars the right to be seen on the world's most coveted motor show would be enormous damage.
So FISA decides to let them all hit the track this year, none excluded. Obviously the drivers do not take it well, and they declare that there would be no problems if all the competitors were serious and tested professionals; now there are also inexperienced drivers who at each race are over the limit of conscience and regulations, with maneuvers like hindering the trajectories of others or accidentally taking closed roads of the circuit.
In short, things to make you shiver if they happen in Monte Carlo. To solve the problem, there are those who propose to run twenty cars as before and those of twenty-three, or who even propose to change the current power limiting valves by further reducing the maximum limit.
It must be said that the most experienced drivers are certainly not at all wrong, and to give a strong hand to their opinions there is the race on the Ardennes, where two starting procedures must be carried out, since at the first start a bunch of cars is formed at Eau Rouge after Philippe Streiff crashes and is hit by the other Tyrrell driver Jonathan Palmer; it becomes necessary to stop the race to clear the track, and then repeat all over again.
At the second start Senna takes the lead in front of Mansell, who does not want to stay behind and at the S of Campus he tries a risky maneuver, attacking Senna on the outside. The two cars touch and turn at the same time as in a waltz. Ayrton has to retire, Mansell restarts from the rear, but the damage is such that he cannot continue that much.
Getting out of the car, Mansell loses all light of reason: he absolutely does not want to admit his faults, Frank Williams suggests him to go to the Lotus garage anyway to apologize to Senna. He actually listens to the advice and heads to the Lotus garage, where, however, he does not get lost in gossip or even less in apologies, and punches Senna who cannot escape.
Kicks and punches fly until the two fighters are separated with difficulty. A rusty relationship already in recent years due to disagreements on the track, in those cases more due to Senna's impetuousness; this time it reached an all-time low due to Mansell's questionable behavior, absolutely out of place on both occasions, both in the accident on the track and in the fight in the pits. The contact between Lotus and Williams is in fact caused by his haste to take back position.
"That one is crazy, I saw him come frothing at the mouth. He pressed me against a wall and hit me. I had to defend myself, returning the blows. Maybe I even kicked him in the groin. He wanted to try to overtake where it wasn't possible. Nobody passes at that point of the track, I couldn't do anything. He behaved like crazy".
So tells Senna what happened following the accident. The other version, that of Mansell, is instead the following:
"He could have braked, because I had already passed him with half a car. Instead he insisted, causing the collision. He is an unfair racer, everyone knows. He deserved a lesson. And he can consider himself lucky because he was faced man to man, so that next time he will be able to behave correctly on the track".
Behaviours not at all fair, doubtful physical condition following the cramp that limits him in the United States (with journalists accusing him of spending more time playing golf rather than training and even doping), and advancing age, Mansell is strongly questioned.
The press calls him an idiot and Honda is getting bored because two cars driven by their engines have been eliminated by his hand; the only one to break a lance in Nigel's favor is fellow countryman James Hunt, who criticizes him anyway, but in much lighter terms.
The second victory in Belgium, on the other hand, has a special flavour for Prost, because the Professor reaches twenty-seven successes in Formula 1 like Jackie Stewart, who is in Spa to watch the race as a television commentator. Obviously, the first to congratulate Alain is him, after which he spends words on the microphones of the journalists for the two-time reigning champion:
"Fantastic. He's very good. At the moment Prost is the best of all, I'm happy that he was the one to join me and soon to beat me".
While Alain explodes with joy declaring:
"I'm happy, Stewart and Lauda were the drivers I most admired as a young man, even if I can't say that the Scotsman was my idol, or my point of reference".
The only fright in his pursuit of Sir's record is caused by Alliot, who with his Larrousse goes into a spin in Blanchimont and almost involves Prost too. If Prost celebrates and is celebrated, Senna is also talked about in this beginning of the championship, but a little less for his exploits on the track: the improvised meeting in the pits with Mansell has almost overshadowed the historical record achieved by Prost, but after the hot statements of the two negative protagonists who insult each other, Ayrton, cooled the hot spirits, at Autosprint analyzes the diatribe in a more objective way:
"In these cases it is important to know how to cool the brain before speaking or acting. I am not here to repeat my version of that incident, which, however, was not caused by me and saw me totally unable to avoid it. But, if Nigel had thought twice before coming to my box with bellicose ideas, he probably wouldn't have done it. And that's also why, rather than commenting on his action, this time I preferred to think about it and do first a nice walk to unload me".
Even when the tension has subsided however, when Mansell tries to shake his hand two weeks later in Monte Carlo, Ayrton flatly refuses. After the Imola accident, even Piquet has nothing to smile about as he has to deal with constant headaches and insomnia in the following weeks. After the Detroit race won by Senna, Nelson has not yet reached the top step of the podium, he has only come close with three second places, in Rio and on the city circuits of Monaco and Detroit.
Two placings that are anything but to be thrown away, considering the visceral hatred felt by Piquet towards the city circuits. In the USA specifically, the two-time World Champion has to come back from the rear due to a puncture that forces him to stop early on lap three. The second place at the end of the race therefore turns out to be an injection of confidence for him, who states:
"We also tried active suspension, and I assure you that only on city roads this solution can give some good results. With the return to classic tracks, Williams will be the car to beat again".
However, the chatter is of little use, to really speak is the ranking: Senna has won two races and is in the lead with twenty four points, Prost also won two races, in Brazil and Belgium, and counts twenty-two points. The two Williams drivers, who are in the fastest car, are chasing by the moment. Piquet has eighteen points and not even a win, Mansell with twelve points is even behind Johansson's other McLaren.
Looking at the current standings, as already said at the beginning, one can only expect a rematch of the 1986 season, perhaps with an even more aggressive Senna, no longer having to run with the Renault engine handicap. On the Monegasque podium, Ayrton is as always irrepressible after a victory, and finds a way to exaggerate by inadvertently sprinkling champagne on the royal family, with Peter Warr trying in vain to act as a shield:
"It is not my best victory, because my greatest joy would be to finish first in Brazil, but for the moment I am satisfied. This is a prestigious race and I am happy for a success that I have built lap by lap in the race, without leaving me get the urge to overdo it".
But it's not just the challenges on the track that make people talk. In Detroit, on June 19, 1987, Ferrari organized a sumptuous dinner in a Japanese restaurant with the hope that the soft and brooding oriental atmosphere could push Italian journalists to soften the tone, given that the Maranello team has recently been increasingly criticized, and not only from the Italian ones. In fact, writes Derek Allsop of the Daily Mail:
"Ferrari's troubles all arise within the team in the sense that they have been waiting for the messiah in Maranello for too long and now that the messiah, Barnard, has arrived, now they get nervous because the miracle is missing. In my opinion there are too many bosses at Ferrari and nobody commands. Some time ago I went to visit the factory and when I asked: how many engineers do you have? First they answered eighteen, then twenty, then they said maybe even more. To be honest I am not surprised that things go to make a team work, like any small and medium-sized company, it takes only one boss with clear ideas, as happens at McLaren where orders are given by a single man, Ron Dennis".
Jean Sage, former Renault sporting director, adds:
"I have so many friends at Ferrari, but what a disaster. Barnard is good, he has talent, he has done exceptional things, but he is not the man capable of making others work with enthusiasm. I would not be surprised if they told me that he beat up. Too many feet inside the Ferrari and then it could even be assumed that inside the team seeing Barnard lose can even please someone".
Wagner Gonsales, journalist of the O Estado de San Paulo follows him, and writes:
"Perhaps the insuperable obstacle is that of getting an Englishman to accept Italians and Italians to an Englishman. Second problem: the current car is not a creature of Barnard, but of Ferrari: patching it up is difficult. Third: in my opinion it is useless to design the new cars in England and then build them in Italy. It never worked with the British, neither in Brazil nor in America, why should it work with you Italians?"
Patrick Camus, Auto Hebdo, adds:
"Ferrari lacks adequate structures, they have taken a too abrupt step from craftsmanship to industry. Then there is a human problem: there are many good engineers and many good mechanics, but they lack the right people in the right place. A team is like an orchestra, it requires harmony, enthusiasm, conviction, in short, a good working environment. Enzo Ferrari's personality is so strong that his employees often end up doing badly for wanting to do too much. Finally I have a suspicion: that between Maranello and Guilford an unbridgeable moat is going to be created. I find it difficult to imagine an Anglo-Saxon general leading Latin infantry".
And Mike Doodson, Grand Prix, concludes:
"In my opinion the Italians are trampling too much on Ferrari. You have to be patient. The current car is a hybrid, Brunner's chassis, Postletwhaite's aerodynamics, English suspensions, Italian brakes, American clutch and maybe there are even pieces made in Albania. I am not a friend of Barnard, but I know that when he can make a car the way he wants things will work out. Perhaps he was too indiscreet with his recent interview, which I read and in my opinion is all true, but also Enzo Ferrari has been indiscreet many times".
But what was it that gave rise to all these particular opinions? It is soon said. Shortly before, John Barnard had given an interview to an English newspaper in which he heavily criticized the Maranello-based company. Ferrari makes you a Ferrarist, Barnard told the English newspaper, hinting that the new verb meant that the environment envelops you in a web of compromises and a quiet life for which in the end you no longer know how to behave.
"That's why I prefer to stay in England".
From what emerged from the aforementioned interview, John Barnard essentially wants to drive out half of the mechanics from Maranello, guilty of having unintentionally caused some serious accidents by not tightening the brake bolts well. The British designer would consider some mechanics present in the pits to be lazy, riotous, a little vengeful and too fond of Lambrusco.
At this point, the journalists would expect someone who knows about some furious reactions and instead here in a Japanese restaurant a little voice from inside the Ferrari in the ears of the journalists says:
"Maybe he's not completely wrong, we need to change a few people".
Yet, despite someone from inside the Ferrari giving Barnard reason, the diabolical voice from inside the Ferrari whispers that it is not true at all that Barnard knows how to design a racing car, far from it. According to some spokespersons alongside the sporting director Marco Piccinini and Michele Alboreto, both present at the dinner:
"He goes on his own without knowing what this car has. Do you know what has changed on the cars prepared for Detroit? The steering box and the differential which is the same used by McLaren. A little bit for seven billion lire of salary".
The next day, intrigued, the journalists ask how these new differentials copied from McLaren work, but the mechanics present in the Ferrari pits answer:
"What differentials? They are always the same".
That kind of chaos reigns in Ferrari. Perhaps also for this reason, a few days later, exactly on May 21, 1987, Alain Prost denies the rumors of his passage to Ferrari and reconfirms his loyalty to the English team on the day of the inauguration of the new plant in Woking, a plant where works by hand with the help of electronic tools used only in the design phase. The French driver spoke at the presentation of the project of the historical museum of McLaren cars where he found journalists waiting for him:
"I will consider leaving McLaren only when the proposal comes from an even more competitive team. But for now I have no reason to leave McLaren, we are the strongest, the only opponent capable of frightening us is Williams. At Ferrari they are doing a good job to get back competitive, in two months they will be again. My next goal is to beat Jackie Stewart's world record that I have already equalled, twenty-seven wins, the last one at Spa in Belgium. The twenty-eighth victory I hope will be that of Monte Carlo on May 31, a Grand Prix that I have already won for three consecutive times".
Starting from the sixth round of the World Cup, things take a decidedly different direction, even if paradoxically, it is similar to the previous season. The difference is that this time the third wheel, Senna and not Prost, fails to mock the Willliams, whose overwhelming power is inevitable starting with Paul Ricard, where a streak of six consecutive victories starts.
The torrid heat of Le Castellet does not stop Frank Williams, who shows up on the circuit a few kilometers away from the place where the accident that made him disabled the year before took place. With forty degrees in the shade, Frank never separates himself from his bottle of water, and with courage and a lot of passion he stays in the pits to support his team.
The least that Piquet and Mansell can do is to give him a great satisfaction, which obviously equates to a victory. Mansell still conquers the pole, while Piquet now makes clear the trend that sees him inferior in qualifying in comparison with the British; he is fourth behind Prost and Senna.
Porsche continues to work hard to narrow the gap with Honda, and brings some new features to its engine; same thing goes for the Lotus which instead pays a lot in terms of aerodynamics. Ducarouge brings a new rear wing to France. A project, that of Lotus, targeted by Piquet, who accuses the English team of copying Williams as best as they can.
In France, after the second place obtained in qualifying, Alain is optimistic, as he says he is always and perhaps too much. According to the French driver, being competitive at Paul Ricard means being able to go fast also for the rest of the season.
But the Le Castellet race brings both Alain and Ayrton back down to earth, up to the previous race at the head of the World Championship: the Williams are from another planet, too strong for the McLaren that continues to squabble with Porsche, and the Lotus obsessed with the success of active suspensions.
The following day, the two yellow and blue cars are already in the lead at the end of the first lap, thanks to Piquet who immediately gets rid of the drivers in front of him. Under pressure from the French Prost, Nelso goes wide after a heavy blocking of the front left at the first corner, consequently he returns the position back on the nineteenth lap.
Alain, together with Nelson who still does not shrug off him, tries to worry Mansell too after the first series of pit stops, taking the position by exploiting the error of the British who returns too late to change tires. In any case, Piquet leads the way, the most advantaged in the stops. Aided also by the lapping of Nakajima that blocks the McLaren, the mustache of the Isle of Man does not have to struggle to re-establish the hierarchies more suited to him, and gets rid of the transalpine. Nigel is in the day, not one of those where he fights or throws everything up, no; one of those in which nothing and no one can oppose him.
Having closed the gap with Williams number 6, Piquet makes another mistake in Beausset and leaves the door wide open for Mansell, who wastes no time and slips in. Piquet tries a change of strategy and goes back to the pits to put on fresh tires, hoping to re-overtake Mansell and take the victory, in the meantime Prost is slowed down by electrical problems that do not allow him to keep up with the leading duo.
Nelson tries, but his feat is made even more difficult by his pit stop which lasted sixteen seconds due to the sudden shutdown of the engine. He restarts third, easily gets rid of Prost and tries to close the gap on Mansell. But there is not enough time.
It is Williams double, second win of the season for Mansell, while Prost is third at fifty five seconds, Senna instead closes lapped in fourth position. Now more than ever, the FW11B has looked above the competition; it is only a matter of time and then the general classification will attest to this.
The internal struggle of the Williams team continues on the home circuit, at Silverstone, when the cars have not yet taken to the track. Frank Williams tries in vain to placate the spirits, but his two drivers don't like each other at all, even more so now that the superiority of their car can realistically allow them to dominate the championship; there is only one real obstacle for both, the teammate. Piquet accuses Mansell of being overly aggressive in France, then states:
"Mansell is not a phenomenon, and he still makes many mistakes. If he continues like this, Williams will lose the world title again".
Mansell in turn replies to his teammate saying:
"Piquet thinks about racing since this year he has done nothing but keep up with me. This means that I am going faster than him and it is right that the team help me and took my needs into account".
The British certainly has an ally, as seen on previous occasions, in James Hunt, who even urges Nelson Piquet to retire, then firmly denies the rumors in the Brazilian newspapers that accuse Williams of reserving Mansell as the first driver.
In qualifying both search the limit, so as Mansell spins at the new Chicane Bridge before the finish, Piquet is framed as he goes around the English meadows. To win in qualifying is the latter, thanks to a small advantage of seventy thousandths. In front of his fans, however, Mansell absolutely cannot be beaten by his rival.
At the same time, if on the home circuit Prost managed to keep the pace with Piquet and Mansell until an electrical problem slowed him down, in the race at Silverstone two corners are enough to make him understand that there will be nothing to do. Started from the third box, the Professor burns the two Williams who monopolized the front row to take the lead, but the power of the Honda engine is such that once at Becketts, Piquet is already first again, while on the Hangar Straight Mansell doesn't even have the need to pull a deep braking to put Alain back in his place, later overtaken also by Ayrton, with whom however he tries to hold on, giving a good fight to the public.
The umpteenth failure then expels Alain from the race, and leads him to launch a sort of ultimatum at Ron Dennis' address: either things change or he'll leave. But as mentioned, the fight is mostly internal to the Williams team.
Two laps from the end, Mansell takes the slipstream of the opponent, until then firmly in the lead, on the Hangar Straight, pretending to go left towards the outside but then makes a shot that takes him inside, where he throws in without thinking twice.
The overtaking is completed successfully, and the spectacular maneuver drives the fans crazy, who at the end of the sixty-fifth and final lap, invade the track to celebrate together with their driver, who was left dry on the honour lap. Mansellmania officially broke out.
A burning defeat for Piquet, who sportingly shakes his opponent's hand on the podium, whose performance can only be praised. If we exclude the fratricidal fight he has to witness, everything seems to be going well for the team of Frank Williams and Patrick Head, but in reality some movements in the shadows have already begun for some time that could put at risk the clear superiority of the English team.
The Japanese are tired of Frank's management denying them the decision-making powers they would like to have. Honda does not hide its preference for Piquet, moreover it has already started a flirtation with McLaren and Ron Dennis, tired in turn of the lack of competitiveness of the TAG Porsche engines, which among other things has made it known that they have no intention of producing aspirated engines in the next seasons.
Another point in favor of closing an agreement between McLaren and Honda is Prost, who has always been a fan of the Japanese. And given the tense situation in Williams, a new luxury couple could also emerge in Ron Dennis' court, such as Prost-Piquet.
To give a hand to this theory is the renewal of Alain's contract until 1989, he who had recently given an ultimatum to the great boss Ron Dennis.
On Tuesday July 20, 1987, Prost announces that he renewed his contract with the McLaren team for another two years, definitively extinguishing the rumors that he was about to move to the Maranello team:
"The new Formula 1 regulations will offer great possibilities for technical innovations and the signing of this contract reflects my confidence in McLaren's capabilities".
In addition, Gordon Murray, who was very loyal to Ecclestone at Brabham until last season, who ended his relationship after the disastrous BT55 project, is already working in the new Woking headquarters. The South African designer joined McLaren at the end of the 1986 season, by which time the new car was practically ready. In 1988, his footprint on the car will certainly be greater.
Among the many market rumors, the head to head between Mansell and Piquet continues in Germany and Hungary, between the end of July and the beginning of August.
Even if, rather than making the duel continue, these two races give the decisive turning point to the championship in favor of one of the two. Mansell wins two poles, the sixth and seventh this season, trimming Piquet more than a second in both cases, and further confirming the trend of this season which sees him clearly faster than the Brazilian.
Mansell, however, is also the one who retires at Hockenheim due to a Honda engine failure, while Piquet wins undisturbed also thanks to the withdrawal of Prost, who, before being betrayed by the alternator, was trying to do the miracle and beat the yellow and blue racing cars; but then comes the breakdown and the consequent mockery. Once out of the car, Alain stands alone on the side of the track at the entrance to the dense German forest, and is framed staring into space, reflecting on the mysteries of life, or perhaps simply cursing his car which continues to break down.
The following Tuesday, Jo Ramirez flew to Elizabeth Town at Gates Rubber Inc to purchase drive belts that showed no wear defects; it's just a pity that the championship for the French driver is now compromised.
With Senna also blocked by a damaged wing that forces him to stop one more time, Piquet remains alone in the lead and can celebrate the first success of his season.
Nineteen drivers retire due to technical failures, mainly engine failures. In fact it is particularly stressed on the long straights of the German circuit; Nelson is part of the small circle of drivers, six to be exact, who don't have to deal with these problems. On the podium with him is Johansson's McLaren together with Senna, followed by the two Tyrrells of Streiff and Palmer, and finally Alliot's Larrousse.
Ferrari, on the other hand, cannot find peace, and also at Hockenheim becomes a negative protagonist of the news. In Germany, a new biplane aileron arrived from Maranello on Friday, studied in the wind tunnel by Harvey Postlethwaite. An aileron used on both Alboreto and Berger machines.
But if the new aileron guaranteed Alboreto the third row, in Berger instead it had not brought great benefits, since it had detached and flew on the stands fortunately semi-deserted, causing a spectacular accident.
When the car was returned to the pits, the Ferrari men realized that nothing had been improved by the wing. Hence a protest by Ferrari with the organizers, who are generally required to keep the wrecks stationary on the track. And so out of zeal, the organizers themselves started asking for help with the loudspeaker, turning it all into a giant joke that made the whole Hockenheim laugh:
"Anyone who has found a red and black spoiler is requested to hand it over to the direction".
The speaker repeated this message for a long time in English and German, until finally someone introduced himself:
"Interested in this little black piece?"
They asked for crowds of people intent on carrying crumbs of what was once a wing, for the simple reason that the rightful owner, Ferrari, had promised in exchange a different type of wing and a ticket to follow the race from the pits.
Apart from Ferrari's bad luck, a media bomb is dropped on the Eastern European country before it gets on track for the next Grand Prix in Hungary: Nelson Piquet officially leaves Williams to marry Lotus. The two-time world champion explains, once he arrives in Budapest, the reason for his choice:
"It's like when I decided to leave Brabham to join Williams, when I had the certainty of being treated as the number one of the team. Last year we lost a world championship due to home fights with Nigel. This year the same could happen, and I don't want that to happen again in the next few years. Lotus offered me to be number one, and I accepted".
The question at this point is logical as well as legitimate: where will Ayrton go
After three seasons of demanding treatment as a first driver forcing the farewell of de Angelis and vetoing an arrival of Derek Warwick - it is unthinkable to see Senna in a team with Piquet, also because the two don't really love each other.
In fact, before Piquet signed for Peter Warr's team, he had already been informed of Ayrton's decision to leave the team, through a letter from the Brazilian's lawyer informing him that his client would exercise the clause that allowed him to release from the contract at the end of the season. Concluding his interview, Piquet jokingly has his say on who could replace him at Williams:
"They should take Senna in my opinion".
Obviously seeing the two punching each other in Belgium on the same team is pure utopia, but Nelson never misses a chance to get a laugh. Meanwhile, what is certain is that Piquet's departure further weakens the relationship between Williams and Honda, which probably saw Nelson's stay as the only motivation for the partnership. The Brazilian, however, with his passage to Lotus will still remain a Honda driver, a fact that in the following weeks feeds Mansell's paranoia.
Grabbed yet another pole of the season in front of a surprising Gerhard Berger, at the wheel of a Ferrari that is slowly coming out of the tunnel of mediocrity, Nigel dominates the race far and wide, without needing to look with particular attention to what happens behind him, namely the Ferrari retirements caused by the unreliability of the components, the spin of Prost to avoid Johansson stopped in the middle of the track, or the rival Piquet who gets into second position but is unable to worry him.
With six laps to go, however, when he is about to enter turn 4, the nut on the right rear wheel suddenly breaks and comes off, leaving Mansell unable to continue. That of the British is the fourth retirement of the season, arrived when on all four occasions he started from pole. This, most of all, has the taste of a terrible defeat.
Two consecutive zeros also counting the retirement in Hockenheim, simultaneously with the eighteen points won by Piquet in the same races. Eighteen points could easily have been conquered by Mansell, but if luck is blind, bad luck seems to see very well with him. Piquet wins and flies to fourty eight points in the standings, while Nigel remains stationary at thirty.
With Senna at fourty one points, the mustache of the Isle of Man risks even having to shoulder his hated boxing mate in the following races.
"When I saw Nigel standing still, I almost didn't believe it. I laughed like a madman under the helmet. What a stroke of luck! A really nice gift. It's a speech I've already given on other occasions, many times the same thing has happened to me. Anyway I am very happy, I tried to approach Mansell but I couldn't, also because in the lapping game I lost contact. There are still seven races to go, the championship is long, and after all I am only seven points ahead of Senna. Mansell is now far away, but anything can still happen".
It may not have been the emblem of sportsmanship, but at least Nelson's sincerity in expressing his emotions after Mansell's retirement is to be appreciated. Nigel, for his part, disconsolate confesses:
"It is unimaginable, impossible to lose in this way. The nut of the rear right has been unscrewed. In practice we put a safety clip, but in the race it is different, because with any tire changes we would lose too much time. detachment is an abyss, I don't have much to hope for. Yet I made no mistakes, everything was perfect. I was always the fastest, I proved to be the best, but what is it for...".
A week later, in Zeltweg, for the Austrian Grand Prix, Mansell celebrates his hundredth start in Formula 1, but his discouragement for the two consecutive retirements seems to affect him in qualifying, where for the second time this season Piquet manages to be ahead of him. To make the situation even more painful is the extraction of two teeth before the race weekend begins, which offer journalists a Mansell always in the company of an ice pack to cover part of his face.
In free practice a particular accident, but which could have resulted in tragedy, involves Stefan Johansson. The McLaren driver is speeding at 240 km/h when a deer suddenly cuts his way; the Swede tries to avoid it but hits it with the right front tire, in such a way that the McLaren takes off and begins to capitulate until it is destroyed. Johansson gets away with a broken rib and some bruises, but certainly the event thickens the shadows on the safety of the circuit, already on the eve of the criticism.
The presence of a group of activists protesting against the holding of the event increases the controversy; in short, Austria appears increasingly distant from Formula 1.
The race is rather troubled as regards the start, to be repeated three times for the accidents that occur in the first two attempts, the second caused in part by Mansell, who remains almost planted in the middle of the track. Riccardo Patrese swerves to the right to avoid it but does not notice that Eddie Cheever is standing next to him. The two collide and in turn a traffic jam of damaged cars forms, fortunately without causing injuries.
Despite another slow start, Mansell reacts like a lion and goes on to win the race, still gaining the position on Piquet on the track, in this case also thanks to the presence of many backmarkers that disturb the Brazilian. Not bad for Nelson, who finishes second and loses only three points. But if it is not the race that is talked about, it is the after-race that gives memories and emotions.
In fact, at the end of the race, during the lap of honor, Mansell gets on a jeep to reach the podium but, standing up, while he is intent on celebrating, he does not notice the iron walkway in front of him, going to clash sensationally with the forehead.
From here follows a rather particular podium, with Mansell particularly stunned at the award ceremony, and the journalist Murray Walker who, during the next interview, reaches out and touches poor Nigel's forehead, apologizing for a moment after seeing him react in pain.
If the first three positions were consolidated during the race, the fight on the track was in the rear, where Senna and Alboreto fought for points. During the battle, due to old rusts dating back to the previous German Grand Prix, when Ayrton zigzagged along the straight in order not to let the Italian driver pass, Michele decides to take revenge by giving a small blow to the brake, breaking the driver's front wing Brazilian. The two drivers then meet after the race in the pits, but they don't say anything.
Important news in view of 1988 arrives in Monza: Honda formalizes the conclusion of the partnership with Williams, in fact refusing to respect the contractual terms that provided for the supply of the engines also in the following season.
And at the same time, on Friday afternoon the radiant Ron Dennis is in the company of Senna and Prost in in Monza to have lunch with them, before declaring to the press that from 1988 McLaren will have Honda engines and Alain and Ayrton in the team.
An engagement, the latter, supported by Alain Prost. In fact, in the previous months, the choice of the driver to support Alain was between the Senna and Piquet, who was brought to the factory during closure to show him the company and the plans for 1988. But the only words Nelson expounded on the tour were:
"How much? How much?"
Referring to the economic remuneration. For this reason, when he went with Ron Dennis to Japan, the previous month, to meet the Honda men, Alain pronounced himself in favor of Ayrton, because, according to the Frenchman:
"He has talent like no other and for me the good the stable comes first of all".
Two days earlier, on September 2, 1987, TAG announced its farewell to Formula 1, concluding a winning experience thanks to the three drivers' titles and the two manufacturers'.
"The collaboration with the English McLaren team and the TAG company will not continue in the 1988 season. The turbo engine used in these five years of presence in Formula 1 will not be supplied to other teams".
Porsche retires after winning three world championships as an engine manufacturer. And to say that in 1983, when Ron Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh had signed, Porsche was clear: they could not use the name of the German car manufacturer, but the name TAG, because we are convinced that the Formula 1 project, in such a competitive environment, would have ended in bankruptcy, and therefore the name was not associated with it.
And instead, over the years, Germany had even come to read about the victories of Porsche-McLaren. While McLaren prepares a frightening battleship for 1988, Frank Williams does what he can and agrees to have Judd engines, and in the meantime he brings active suspension to the Monza circuit for the first time, but only on one car, that of Piquet who says:
"It doesn't make the car faster, but it makes it easier to drive".
Speed or not, without a doubt the aid is an advantage for him compared to Mansell, who instead has to do without it at least for now. In qualifying, only ninety-nine thousandths separate Piquet from his teammate, a distance that increases in the race, where Nelson manages to be once so much faster than his rival.
His victory was in doubt only for a short phase of the race thanks to Senna, who tried to go all the way without changing tires. A risky choice that was almost about to pay off, but then, with the tires finished, Ayrton forced a lapping on Ghinzani's Ligier, at the Parabolica and went into the gravel with eight laps to go. The short excursion allows Piquet to take the first position and win his third race of the season, as in the two previous occasions, which came thanks to retirements or mistakes of others. Ayrton declares at the end of the race:
"By now I was on the canvas and to stay ahead with the car I had, I had to take risks with every lapping. Of course if I had stopped to change tires as everyone else had done I would not have made mistakes, but I would have crossed the finish line in third or fourth place".
Mansell is third at the finish line, now twenty points away from Piquet with five races to go, and always behind Senna, who holds up to fourty nine points in second position:
"Next year Williams and I will no longer be partners with Honda, Piquet will. It is logical that it is more convenient for them to have their own world champion. Nothing is enough, a few seconds of computer wizardry and the game is done. I hope they are not doing it and they will not, the fact is that I am having a lot of problems".
It is therefore a Mansell with a poisoned tooth who shows up at Estoril for the twelfth round of the World Championship, against Honda, which according to him is helping Piquet with a more performing or simply more reliable engine. But this is not the only thing that occupies Nigel's thoughts during the Portuguese Grand Prix.
In fact, for months already, following the physical pains accused in the first seasonal outings, someone had insinuated that these difficulties encountered by the British were not caused exclusively by lack of physical exercise, but even by the use of illicit substances. After the physical problems of Detroit, Le Castellet and more recently also in Budapest where he could hardly get out of the cockpit, Mansell is accused by the English press of using drugs. Under investigation for supplying Mansell with these substances is Dr. Grajales Roblès, who in his defense and Mansell's one declares:
"Mansell is not the only driver who has this type of problem. It is certainly not the use of drugs, but his poor physical preparation. Nigel does not exercise regularly, he does not follow a strict diet, so his resistance to stress brought by driving an F1 car is insufficient. Unfortunately Nigel thinks more about going to the golf courses rather than going to the gym and taking care of his imposing physique. His case is not unique, even Ayrton Senna, at the beginning of his career, was subject to fainting at the end of some races".
Beyond the doping or non-doping issues, in the Portuguese Grand Prix the hegemony of the FW11B is slightly undermined, which after nine poles in a row and six wins has to deal with Berger's steadily growing Ferrari on Saturday - Ferrari hasn't been on pole since 1985 - and on Sunday with Prost's McLaren, who won the race. We start from Saturday.
During qualifying, the sky above Estoril is heavily covered with threatening rain clouds. After just twenty-eight minutes of testing, Piccinini senses what might happen on the sky, so he calls Berger to change the tires and send him back on track. At the same time, in Alboreto, which was already on the track, the engineer Nardon told him via radio not to stop.
Piquet, after just one lap, had to retire with a broken engine. And with an eye to the clouds swears Mansell, who ventured for the first time in the official tests with the intelligent suspension and the black box that governs them immediately broke.
Berger, after having recorded the best time, comes back with an excited face, he feels he has driven in perfect conditions. Gerhard would like to go out again but the mechanics put him inside the garage, because it started to rain and he didn't notice.
Then when they show him the time monitor, the Austrian driver explodes, jumps out of the car and starts to walk up and down the garage; he can't believe it, he even speaks for himself: he won his first pole position.
When he gets out of the car he is so confused that he wants to go away, gather with the reporters, get inside all the cameras that are in front of him; for this reason, Piccinini lifts him up and pushes him back into the car.
After practice, Bernie Ecclestone brings champagne to the Ferrari mechanics to toast this pole position. No one at Ferrari had thought of such an auspicious event and so the galleys were empty of all sorts of sparkling spirits to be used in moments of celebration:
"What do you want champagne to do for me, with the Brabham that I find myself? So let's toast to this Ferrari, let's toast to the Commendatore from Maranello who is putting salt and pepper back on the championship".
Exclaims Bernie, happy to see Ferrari again in the first places. The mechanics, the old ones hardened by so much bitterness and so much criticism and the young ones who are enjoying the first Grand Prix of a career that will be very long for them, all abandon themselves together for once to leaps of joy, hugs and smiles. The Spaniard Villadelprat, order carrier of John Barnard still absent from the racing fields, recalled the harsh daily reality, made up of wrenches and greasy hands:
"Now enough, everyone at work".
In fact, there is a race the next day, which, as mentioned, is won by Prost, who in doing beats Jackie Stewart and rises to twenty-eight career successes. Between continuous failures and therefore few chances to fight for the top positions, Alain arrives in Portugal for the twelfth stage on the calendar with thirty-one points to his credit, and a deficit of thirty three points from the leader Piquet. The despair in his words on the eve of the Portuguese race was inevitable:
"Hope is the last to die, I will not give up until mathematics condemns me. I know very well that I have practically no chance of making up for the disadvantage accumulated against my opponents, but honestly what worries me is that Williams, Lotus and now Benetton and Ferrari have become faster than us. I can only try to give my all as I always did. Last year I won the title at the last race in an amazing way, but I was there fighting with the others. Now I'm too far away".
At the start Mansell takes the lead in front of the poleman Berger, while further back the other Ferrari driver Alboreto has a contact with Piquet. Shortly after, Derek Warwick spun his Arrows, and to avoid it, Nakajima and Brundle, respectively on Lotus and Zakspeed, collide. Other drivers pass over the wreckage of the cars, with the result that Christian Danner, Adrián Campos, Philippe Alliot and René Arnoux are involved in the accident. This causes a red flag and the interruption of the race. All drivers are able to take part in the restart, except Danner.
At the end of the first lap, Berger hoisted himself into first position ahead of Mansell, leaving the two Brazilians Piquet and Senna fighting for third position. On lap 11 Piquet overtakes Senna, and three laps later Mansell, who had put pressure on Berger up to that point, had to stop for the umpteenth time due to a progressive engine failure. Senna begins to slow down and returns to the pits with an electronic problem, while Piquet and Alboreto duel for second position.
After the pit stops, Prost gains the second position ahead of Piquet and Fabi, while Alboreto, confirming the lack of reliability of Ferrari, suffers from a transmission problem. Prost begins to catch up on Berger, and the race order remains stable until the 68th lap, when the Austrian's car suffers from a loss of pressure and spins. Prost takes the opportunity to pass and go on to win the race in front of the Ferrari driver, who has to settle for second place when he seemed destined to win.
At the checkered flag, the joy is such that Ron Dennis almost throws himself on the track to celebrate with his driver, but Berger is immediately consoled by the Ferrari top management after the mistake that cost him his first victory for the team; it is even Enzo Ferrari who calls him to cheer him up. Alain, on the other hand, is logically radiant:
"It was a hard and long race, and I complicated my life during the weekend by lapping little and doing a bad qualifying. After my first stop and Senna's problems, I found myself second at about sixteen seconds behind Berger, who was pushing a lot. But I also gave everything, increasing the engine thrust to the maximum and driving to the limit. On the other hand, I had nothing to lose. I approached Ferrari, I knew that Berger would be difficult to overtake, so my only chance was to force him to make a mistake. With three laps to go I was seconds away, and Gerhard spun around. I have to say that this was one of the most beautiful but at the same time tough races of my career. Breaking Jackie's record made it even sweeter".
Piquet is third at the finish line, for what is actually his worst result of the season in the races he has concluded, given that he did not race at Imola, and in Belgium he retired. But it is also his ninth consecutive podium, a result that allows him to match the streak of Jim Clark in 1963 and Niki Lauda between 1975 and 1976.
He may have been lucky on more than a few occasions, but perseverance, the main virtue that a driver must have to be crowned champion, was certainly not lacking. The active suspensions also present on his car are a very small consolation for Mansell, who was out of the race after thirteen laps due to an electrical system failure that caused the engine to shut down. Nigel no longer knows what to say, breakdowns are on the agenda for him, and this only increases his suspicions:
"I don't really know what happened to the engine. Already at Monza I had some doubts, now I don't know what to think anymore. Since I'm a sportsman, I won't say anything bad against anyone. Only the results count: when I manage to race I'm faster than my teammate. Now I can only wish Piquet to win the championship. All of you can draw the conclusions you want about my championship, I don't want to hear about it anymore. What I can say is that I've always done my duty, it's not my fault if the engines keep breaking down. And I beg the fans to have patience: my career is not over yet, there will be other years, better than this".
Desolation mixed with confidence for the years to come, in Spain in Jerez, Piquet has his first match-point: if he wins and Mansell and Senna don't score, it's done. Although the layout of the Iberian circuit does not allow for easy overtaking maneuvers, the race offers a lot of spectacle: from Mansell who at the last corner of the first lap surprises Piquet for the lead with a bold maneuver, to Piquet himself, who, fighting for the second position with the two Ferraris, Prost and Senna, tries at the first corner to overtake Alain as he did with Senna in Hungary the year before, with the difference that this time he in going sideways is unable to maintain control of the car and turns, yielding various positions. Then he comes back effectively, and finding himself behind Prost again, he passes it.
Stabilized in second position about ten laps from the end, Nelson slips on the oil left on the track by the engine of Berger's Ferrari, goes through the meadows and has to return to the pits to clean up the debris collected by the front wing, which made the car undriveable. All in all he feels like luxury, considering that Thierry Boutsen just behind him failed to keep control of the car and ended up getting bogged down in the gravel. Back on track in fourth position, there is not enough time for the Carioca driver to attack the McLarens of Prost and Johansson, who therefore go to the podium together with the undisputed dominator of the race Mansell.
For the first time this season Piquet finishes a race without getting on the podium, also committing a few too many inaccuracies, which in fact cost him second place. In addition to the excessive enthusiasm shown in the moments described above, Piquet commits another naivete at his first pit stop, when he forgets to keep his foot on the brake, so that the rear wheels do not continue to turn. This makes the work of the mechanics difficult, and consequently the pit stop is long.
Nelson still has reason to celebrate together with what is still his team for now; in fact, Williams mathematically won the fourth constructors' championship in its history, not that there had ever been any doubts about this success, as McLaren and Lotus are light years away.
A championship that now only awaits the mathematical certainty of Piquet's success in the drivers' championship, especially since Mansell retired twice in a row in Germany and Hungary, is in danger of opening up after the Mexican Grand Prix, where Piquet still fails a match-point.
At the Hermanos Rodriguez Autodrome, for the third to last round of the World Championship, Mansell shows up with bottles of water imported from England to avoid any intestinal problems, which instead had caught him and in a heavy way the year before. Nigel arrives in Mexico also knowing that he must win all the remaining races to be able to hope again for a title that at the moment seems pure utopia.
The Briton meanwhile took pole, despite a nasty fright on Friday, when in an attempt to snatch the best time from Berger, exiting the last corner leading to the main straight, he put two wheels on the grass at a speed of about 250 km/h and then start spinning like a pirouette; his race ends violently against the pit lane wall, right in front of his garage position.
The driver comes out of the car unharmed but limping, but fortunately only a bruise on his right leg is found at the medical center. On Saturday Nigel is in top form, and qualifying for the fifteenth time in the front row, he equals Alberto Ascari in this special classification. Although at only eighty thousandths, Piquet is third behind Gerhard Berger, with a Ferrari now officially back in the ranks of the greats, despite the fact that for Ferrari, October 17, 1987, was an agitated day, which began in the middle of the night with a Michele Alboreto to say the least. not very restless and unable to sleep, as his wife Nadia is expected to give birth next week.
"If something happens to me, even a trivial spin could cause a premature birth. So I phone them all the time to reassure her, you never know: one opens the radio in Italy and learns of an accident that may have been inflated because my name is news".
So Alboreto telephones Milan every half hour, until at a certain point the news that was in the air reached him. Nadia ran to the clinic and Alice was born. While everyone rejoices with the new dad in the pits, Harevy Postlethwaite is sprawled on a sofa. Postalmarket, as it is affectionately called in Maranello, has not wasted its time: not being able to deal with the machines, it has dedicated itself to a scientific calculation on spaghetti. For three days, in fact, Luigi Montanini, nicknamed Pasticcino, as well as an excellent cook, had been serving overcooked spaghetti at Ferrari. They told him:
"Careful, here at 2300 meters they have to cook more".
So Postlethwaite - between a stomach ache and the next - started to do some calculations by building a real cooking curve on a graph which showed that at 2300 meters the spaghetti had to cook six minutes more. After the test, the result was perfect and it is truly the height that a pure Englishman has to teach something about an ancient art for us Italians. Berger also has his reasons for concern, but of a different matrix:
"This track is too dangerous".
The Austrian pilot murmurs with good reason. In fact, continuous bumps and hollows make the cars shake in a frightening way. Returning to the World Cup dispute in Mexico, the race is not going very well for Piquet, rammed after a few corners by Prost; the transalpine retires, Piquet instead starts again at the push of the commissioners.
His comeback is also favored by the interruption of the race caused by the departure of Derek Warwick on Arrows on the thirtieth of the scheduled sixty-three laps. At that moment the carioca had climbed up to fourth place.
With the second route Piquet even manages to take the lead, but the final result of the race is based on the sum of the times of the two tranches of the race, so the victory is once again won by rival Mansell, who celebrates his sixth seasonal success.
Of course, after the race resumed, confusion reigned on the track: the audience present saw Piquet pass, who extended the pace on Mansell, but the rankings led the British. For quite a while no one has understood anything, except Olivetti who processes the timing data.
To increase the chaos the arrival of the Grand Prix that is given on the sixty-third lap instead of the sixty-fifth, only because the race director due to half-sleep, his uncertainties and the great mess born from the indications of some manufacturers, given that there is some say that sixty-three laps have passed, some sixty-five, others sixty-eight, got bored and gave an invisible wave to the checkered flag. Stuff you would not believe.
Piquet is second, but adds only three points to his classification by having to discard the fourth place obtained three weeks earlier in Jerez. And so, unexpectedly, we have a world championship reopened. Piquet climbs to seventy three points, Mansell is stopped at sixty one, and there are two races to go.
Nigel's hopes are all based on the rule of discards which provides for the counting of only the eleven best places, in addition to the fact that he must also win the two remaining races, a not impossible feat considering the car he drives and the constant superiority in terms of speed shown on Piquet, whose results are now strongly influenced by rejects. A second place would be worth only two points, as he would have to discard third place in Portugal; a third place or worse, on the other hand, would be equivalent to a retirement.
Under these circumstances, the tension obviously rises: Mansell accuses Piquet of having tried in Mexico to throw him out during the very first stages of the race, and defines him as an incorrect driver. The Brazilian does not wait for his reply:
"Mansell's nonsense, if I had really wanted to throw him out I would have done it, I would have also won the world championship, but I behaved in a professional way, with conscience. In any case, now I can't back down: I have to win one of the last two races".
In short, everything is ready for an incandescent championship finale, but in the weekend leading up to November 1th, Formula 1 flies to Japan to return to compete in a Grand Prix in the Land of the Rising Sun after ten years; the location is the Suzuka circuit. Honda, on its home track, is very motivated to make a good impression, and the fight for the title between two of their riders can only make it even more exciting. On Friday afternoon, however, the World Cup reaches its epilogue. At 1:30 pm, half an hour after the start of the first qualifying session, Piquet leads the ranking with a time of 1'41"423.
Mansell therefore decides to return to the track to respond to his rival, but in his attempt something goes wrong: at the exit of curve 6 and at the entrance of curve 7, the Dunlop, Mansell goes on the dirty part of the asphalt, the car ends up over the curb and put two wheels on the grass; the car swerves and spins towards the tire-protected barriers on the other side of the road. The impact is very violent.
Mansell immediately takes off the steering wheel but then remains motionless, aching inside the cockpit. Once extracted, he is transported to the Nagoya hospital where he is admitted to intensive care. There are no fractures or injuries of any kind, but a multiple concussion categorically excludes the title contender from the race, and therefore, also from the race for the title.
And this is how Nelson Piquet, while sitting in the pits observing the conditions of his teammate, wins his third world title in his career. A success that arrived perhaps in the least welcome way, but still a success, as he himself states:
"I'm happy for the title, although I'm sorry for Nigel. I know what it's like in moments like that, but unfortunately they're part of the racing world. At least he didn't get hurt. I am convinced that I am a lucky man, but beware, I too have had my problems. Take last year: I could have won if the team had respected the agreements and had treated me as the number one of the team instead of fomenting the fight in the family".
"As for this season, I think I have not stolen anything. It went well for me in some races, but I also had one less race, the one in San Marino, and I have never made any serious mistakes, apart from Jerez. Mansell he can complain a lot, but I too could have ended the game earlier if everything went the right way. Now I'm just tired, I can't sleep, I don't understand anything with time zones anymore, from Mexico to the United States to Europe to Japan, I can't take it anymore. A championship is won with points, I have more than him and it is not my fault that Nigel is not here. I am not angry with him, but it is true that in Mexico I faced him decisively: him he accused me of having wanted to throw him off the track and I explained to him that he had to calm down".
"The truth is that he has always been the privileged one and that's why I'm leaving Williams. When I signed the contract in 1985 I demanded the first driver clause. But I trusted my word and good intentions, we didn't specify in those sheets What was the exact meaning of first driver. Then Frank Williams had the car accident that forced him into a wheelchair. The management of the team passed into the hands of Patrick Head and trouble began for me. I could have appealed to Frank but I did not have the courage, in the conditions in which he was, to go and bother him with my problems. It was a mistake because Mansell started having a tantrum, he went to sign with Ferrari and Patrick not to let him escape he promised him seas and mountains. I was forced to fight even over the forklift. In these conditions you no longer work well, there is too much tension, it takes a lot of aggression and I feel I don't have any more".
"I changed after the Imola accident. Do you remember that bang? Those black tire shapes that were stuck on the wall? I saw them for a long time. For at least three months I couldn't sleep well anymore, I woke up in the heart of the night and I was wondering where I was. Then I began to think that I had saved my skin, that health was still there and when you start thinking about these things it is difficult to have a charge of aggression on the track. I changed mentally after that. accident, I felt dazed for a long time, empty. And I realized that I could no longer live my way in that team".
"I am not one who lives concentrated entirely on racing, only on racing. I have many other interests in life and I like to look after them. And then I realized one thing: the day after you win the world title you realize that your life is not changes, it remains what it is. Of course, when I won the first world championship in 1981 after just two years in Formula 1, I felt like I touched the sky. Now it's different, I'm no longer a kid, I like winning, I do this job to win, but then there is more. But if the worst moment was at Imola, the best was the victory at Monza. In Monte Carlo my foot hurt so much, then second place in Detroit cheered me up".
Of course, Mansell has a lot, a lot to complain about this season and beyond, it is well established. Nigel won six races against Piquet's three, took eight pole positions against his rival's four, and when he finished the races without technical or physical problems limiting him, he finished behind him only in Italy, when the Brazilian had active suspensions available while he is not.
The lack of reliability was certainly a decisive factor, but also the mistakes, or the psychological collapses like in Spa and his fist fight with Senna are not elements to be overlooked in looking for the reason for this burning defeat, the second, after the joke of 1986.
The British press is not lenient with him, labeling him a fast driver, who knows how to take pole and win races, but unable to handle the pressure of an entire season, and therefore unable to become world champion, now or ever.
The difference with Piquet was all here, on the management and on the consistency of performance, even if the carioca's victories all came after the abandonment or a mistake of those in front of him. Nelson was rarely the fastest, but certainly the most consistent, and the seven second places in total are there to testify. Without forgetting that he too has faced difficult situations, such as the frightening accident in Imola, or the tension inside the garage of a team that was completely split to support him or Mansell.
The remaining races of the season are won by a great Gerhard Berger, who leads the Red to success after a long fast over a year and a half, and makes the Reds' prices skyrocket in the seasons to come.
Nelson does not finish either of the two remaining races in Japan and Australia, stopped in both cases by technical problems. It's up to his replacement for the 1988 season, Riccardo Patrese, to take the seat of the unavailable Mansell in the last race in Adelaide, where unfortunately also the Italian will have to retire a few laps from the end due to an oil leak.
A season stingy with satisfactions for the good Riccardo, who already at the beginning of the year, during the Belgian Grand Prix, has to think about how to extend his experience in Formula 1, looking for another team.
At the Fourcroy chalet, adjacent to the Eau Rouge, the ten years of the Paduan driver's stay in the top car category are celebrated, and Bernie Ecclestone, who has long been intent on selling the Brabham at a price of twenty-six million dollars, with Nissan and Chrysler showing interest, during the evening in progress, after a few glasses of wine too many, he announces to all his employees that he will sell the shack, with the difference that he is now willing to do it at any price. At that point Patrese intervenes, who exclaims to Bernie:
Ecclestone jokingly replies, who then bursts into laughter.
"You are the one I sell at the most expensive price".
The return to Brabham after the two-year experience in Alfa Romeo proved extremely disappointing, but unfortunately for Patrese, even 1988 will not be a turning point in his career. A championship dominated but ended with a double zero, with the defending champion headed for a rival team as well as the powerful Honda engines. In short, the last two releases of 1987 are a prelude for Frank Williams of what will be the 1988 of his stable. Same thing goes for Piquet, who won't find exactly the winning mentality team he was hoping for at Lotus. Having come to the end of his three-year experience with Lotus, Ayrton draws conclusions in collaboration with Autosprint, thanking the team and explaining the reasons for his farewell:
"Six Grands Prix won and sixteen pole positions in three years are a good result, and if I found myself in a position to be able to choose to race for another team I have to thank Lotus for giving me the opportunity to achieve these results. nothing to complain about in the past. Someone said that I am leaving because I no longer get along with Gérard Ducarouge. In reality, if there is an engineer that I would still like to join me, it is him. From 1988 we will no longer work together, but I hope that in a hypothetical future our pairing can reform".
"I had the idea of leaving Lotus already in March, even before the Brazilian Grand Prix. I wanted to have a very competitive season, but from the first tests I had the feeling that this would not happen. Our potential was not enough. and the problem was not in the skills of our technicians, but in the structure and organization of the team. Despite this, I did not lose heart, there was a lot of work to do, from setting up the active suspensions to using the new Honda engine. We all knew it was going to be tough. The results, however, have been seen, so much so that, even in a situation of technical inferiority, in mid-season we were in championship tests with two victories to our credit, in Monte Carlo and Detroit. It was on this occasion that everyone shouted a miracle active suspension, forgetting, however, that exactly one year earlier I had won the same Grand Prix with the traditional suspension and the Renault engine".
"My opinion is that the concept of the car was wrong and that the whole team concentrated on the active project hoping that this would work the miracle. But the computer controlled suspension could not make up for a chassis that had not been developed properly. If I think about my three years at the lotus, I have to admit that from a chassis point of view we got worse along the way. In 1985 I had the best chassis ever, but the Renault engine consumed too much. In 1986 the French technicians made great progress, even if the chassis was no longer that of the year before...this year we had the best engine and despite this the Williams managed to qualify with an advantage of a couple of seconds per lap and if in the race this gap was halved, there was still little to do".
"At Hockenheim I told Peter Warr I was leaving. I did it out of fairness to the team, to give them a chance to find another driver as long as there were any on the market. As a response to my fairness, the team has issued a statement in which it seems that I was fired to make way for Piquet...not that the fact has damaged me in any way, but that behavior is very sorry. For me it was a tough season, I had to carry out a project and to do it I had to try to believe in it. For me, the time has come to change".
The 1988 is the beginning of a new era, where the rest of the grid stands on the sidelines to act as a spectator, observing and admiring two phenomena from the top class battle to the end for glory. Two phenomena that have already clashed on the track, which are in two different phases of their respective careers, but have the same mad desire to prevail over the other. And we all know very well who we are talking about.
Davide Scotto di Vetta