Frozen in Time: 1986 Spanish Grand Prix
Spanish Grand Prix
“He apologized to me but said that he believed it was the right decision for him and the team. He stuck to his guns and got absolutely destroyed in the British press, but he still stuck to his guns. You have to admire the guy for sticking to what he thought was right. I think it was right for him – I’m sure it was right for him. He was hated by a lot of fans and a lot of press, but he stuck to his guns and those are the traits of a real champion. I would not have done that to another human being but that’s probably why I’m not a great champion.”
– Derek Warwick on Ayrton Senna and Lotus’ controversial decision on not signing him on in 1986
It was a new circuit, 4.218 km in length, a natural amphitheatre, surrounded by green hills. The weather was dry, with a slight breeze that April race day. But the circuit at Jerez that promised an exciting race was running on empty. The promised crowds were missing – it could have been the expensive tickets, the distance to the circuit, or just poor event promotion, the commentators posited. Murray Walker almost prophetically said that people would be missing an “intriguing” race. He wasn’t wrong. The practice and qualifying sessions had seen one man obliterate all competition – Ayrton Senna driving a Lotus with a new Renault engine. But this race wasn’t going to be only about talent. The drivers had to contend with a new fuel limit of 195 litres and had to watch their tyres. It would prove to be crucial towards the end of the race.
The start was trademark Senna, as the youngest driver on the grid pulled away, followed closely by Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell, almost super-strong in a Williams. But Mansell and Prost, who was in 4th, slipped down the grid in the early stages of the race, giving way to a charging Rosberg. Senna though was most focused on keeping Piquet behind and increasing the gap.
The war was on. But not everyone was having a bad day. The Ferraris in particular were having a miserable time, as Stefan Johansson crashed (and taken away on a stretcher. He was badly hurt), and later, 22 laps into the race, as Michele Alboreto retired with a wheel bearing issue. In fact, there were 17 retirements on that day. But it all faded into insignificance, as the race reached its final laps.
By lap 34, Mansell had managed to get past Senna and build up a four-second lead. But his tyres started giving way by lap 68, and he pitted for a change, only to emerge and find himself 20 seconds behind Senna. Not that it mattered. The British driver plowed his way through the field with a crackling lap, passing Alain Prost who was at second place.
The last corner was taken on the edge as Mansell chased Senna, pedal to the metal, even as the Brazilian somehow managed to stay ahead. It would come down to the finish line, and it did, as the two cars side-by-side chased the finish line. It would be one of the closest finishes in the history of F1 – remembered for all time. Senna took a first, with Mansell in 2nd place and Prost in 3rd, 21.552s behind the leaders.
The Ayrton Moment
It had been a controversial start to the season, especially after the Derek Warwick issue when Ayrton Senna had insisted that Lotus give the seat to a different driver. Senna believed that the Lotus team would not be able to manage two drivers vying for the number 1 slot. It was a move that would anger many in the media, people who wouldn’t forgive for a long time. The season started with the Brazilian Grand Prix and Nigel Mansell spun out during the race, while trying to pass Senna. The young Brazilian was now getting the ‘ruthless’ label, a man determined to win, no matter what the cost.
But he was also becoming a maestro when it came to qualifying and pole positions, as Senna clocked in stunning timings. Jerez was one such place – with Senna clocking in a jaw-dropping 1’21.605s. The second fastest driver was Nigel Mansell with 1’23.024 in his Williams.
The Spanish Grand Prix was exhausting, no doubt, for Senna. But it was also, as he said later said, the first win that he had to fight for. It was also the first time that he was leading the championship table.
But Ayrton Senna would have wait to become world champion. That would only come to him in 1988.
TOMORROW Racing With Ayrton Senna: 1988 Monaco Grand Prix
PREVIOUSLY Racing with Ayrton Senna: 1985 Belgian Grand Prix
[Quotes are taken either from the commentators while watching race footage, Ayrton Senna – Memories and Mementoes from a life lived at full speed: An interactive voyage by Christopher Hilton, and The Life of Senna by Tom Rubython]