19 October 1985
The South African Grand Prix was no stranger to controversy – the 1981 edition had been declared non-championship during the FISA-FOCA wrangles, while the next year’s race had seen a driver boycott over Superlicence clauses – but this year was a bit different: the controversy was larger than F1, reaching into the realms of world politics. Although the despicable Apartheid regime predated Formula One as a sport, and despite boycotts of the regime from other sporting organisations including the Olympics (since 1962), FIFA (1964) and the International Cricket Council (1970), Formula One had continued happily visiting the country throughout this period.
However, opposition to Apartheid had become a hot-button topic over the previous few years and by 1985 a groundswell of public opinion was forcing governments to take a harder line, particularly those on the political left, where much anti-Apartheid sentiment was rooted. As part of this, the socialist government in France – led by Guy Ligier’s old mate Francois Mitterrand – had taken steps to encourage the French teams to boycott the 1985 race at Kyalami. FISA’s official line remained that sport was sport and politics was politics and the two shouldn’t mix, and the race went ahead despite pressure to cancel it. Renault and Ligier duly complied, neither team having any real gains to make anyway, but despite pressure from the Brazilian, Swedish and Finnish governments for their drivers to withdraw, nobody else did. Marlboro had their names removed from the McLaren cars, but the iconic red chevrons remained – likewise Barclay and Beatrice had their decals taken off the Arrows and Lola cars respectively, though all three companies were still named in the entry list. All in all, with so many drivers looking to put themselves in the shop window for 1986 and the Constructors’ championship still very much on, the boycott turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, even if Prost did get some stick from the French press for racing anyway, despite having already secured the championship, rather than joining in.
All in all, aside from the absence of Renault (who were still present as engine suppliers to Tyrrell and Lotus anyway) and Ligier, little changed on the grid. Ligier driver Phillippe Streiff was there though, in Tyrrell overalls: he had been told by Ligier he wasn’t in their 1986 plans and was rumoured to be under consideration for a Tyrrell drive, so took over the second car from Capelli for the weekend. Niki Lauda was back in the McLaren, despite his vocal criticism of the race (and rumoured to have been offered a substantial sum by Brabham to defer his retirement for a year). Zakspeed, their programme of European races concluded, were absent, as were the impoverished RAM outfit.
Nigel Mansell secured his first Williams pole position (and career second) with next year’s team-mate Nelson Piquet alongside, despite the Brabham being faster along the straights. Rosberg and Senna were on row 2, Surer was 5th, on a high after his brilliant performance at Brands Hatch, de Angelis 6th, Fabi 7th, Lauda 8th, Prost 9th and Boutsen 10th. The Ferraris, still fighting for the Constructors’ Cup? 15th (Alboreto) and 16th (Johansson) and looking like they wished they’d boycotted the race. Alan Jones had qualified 18th but withdrew on the advice of F1 doctor Sid Watkins after coming down with a fever during practice, so there were 20 starters for the race, with Martini and Rothengatter at the back as usual, just behind the two Tyrrells.
It was, as usual, very hot on race day, and 85,000 spectators came expecting the Pirelli runners (notably the Brabhams) to do well. When the lights went green, Mansell got a rocket start, heading into the first corner all by himself, while Piquet held second and his team-mate Surer got ahead of Rosberg and Senna to slot in behind. De Angelis also got a good start, similarly passing Rosberg and Senna to go 4th at Crowthorne, before moving up to third past Surer. The Swiss driver was having engine trouble, though, and soon began dropping back down the order. Towards mid-grid, the two Alfa Romeos got in a tangle with Ghinzani’s Toleman and both ended up parked beside each other on the verge, with team “mates” Patrese and Cheever having a full and frank exchange of views on whose fault it was.
On lap 3, Rosberg squeezed back past Senna and set off in pursuit of the leaders, and the top five – Mansell, Piquet, de Angelis, Rosberg, Senna – were already pulling out quite a gap from sixth-placed Niki Lauda, while poor Marc Surer trailed into the pits to retire with a sick engine. A lap later, Rosberg was past de Angelis and into third, and then past Piquet and into second – both times a simple slipstream coming down Crowthorne. Piquet was also having engine troubles, though, and he retired on lap 6, by which time both Tolemans were also out with engine problems (in Ghinzani’s case, “problem” meant “explosion”) and Rothengatter’s electrics had gone on lap 1, leaving the much vaunted Pirelli tyres only running on Pierluigi’s Martini’s Minardi. Oh well.
Senna followed Rosberg past de Angelis at the same place, but by that time Mansell and Rosberg were well away out front. Rosberg got past his upstart team-mate on lap 9, but it wasn’t to last – the pair hit oil from Ghinzani’s spectacular engine blowout and Rosberg span backwards into the sand while Mansell slithered but held it on the road. The Finn kept his engine running and rejoined in 5th – not 6th, because Senna was in the pits having the Lotus crew tinker with a faulty engine, to no avail. With Alboreto out with a blown turbo, there were already just eleven runners left after ten laps completed. Mansell held a good lead over de Angelis, who had Prost and Lauda crawling over the back of him, and Rosberg behind them trying to make up ground.
A simple mistake by de Angelis – locking up a little too hard avoiding Ghinzani’s oil slick – let both McLarens through, and Rosberg followed them on lap 18, but after his off his tyres had worn quicker than usual and he came in two laps later for a new set, followed in by 6th-placed Johansson, and only de Angelis got past while he was in. Brundle was promoted into 6th in the Tyrrell, with Johansson rejoining behind him, while Mansell had suddenly found his mirrors full of red and white as Prost and Lauda caught up. However, as the trio lapped Johansson, the McLaren team took note of how easily the lapped Swede was able to keep pace with them, and brought their men in for new tyres. Prost suffered from a sticky left-rear and was delayed and dropped to third behind Lauda, while Mansell’s own stop was superb and put him back out in the lead.
Niki Lauda’s rotten luck in 1985 continued, retiring with a blown turbo even as Mansell was heading back out of the pits, while Prost had to ease off when an electronic problem started interfering with his engine. Rosberg might have caught Mansell again but had to stop for a third set of tyres, having wrecked the second doing his trademark gung-ho driving to catch up. De Angelis went out with an engine failure, ending whatever mathematical hopes Lotus had of winning the Constructors’ title, and Johansson had backed off to save fuel so much that he was having trouble keeping Berger’s Arrows behind him.
And so the race settled into survival mode for the last few laps – Rosberg got the hammer down again, leaving Prost standing around the outside at Clubhouse on lap 70 of 75, with the McLaren’s TAG engine starting to also stutter. Mansell took his second career win (and his second win in a row) with Rosberg second and Prost just hanging on for third place. Stefan Johansson took fourth to keep Ferrari’s constructors hopes alive (albeit on life-support) with Berger scoring his first career points in 5th and Thierry Boutsen sixth, having taken the place from Brundle when a stuck wheelnut delayed his pitstop.
Considering most of the season had been a McLaren vs Ferrari battle, Williams-Honda seemed to be emerging as the form team at the end of the season and Nelson Piquet could at least look forward to joining them in 1986.
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