Brabham began life without their talismanic team leader Nelson Piquet with an eye-catching new car: the BT55 had an ultra-low profile, with the BMW engine placed sideways to allow for the reduction in bodywork getting more air to the rear wing. The driver was almost laid down in the cockpit – a common posture in the cigar-cars of the 1960s but less common by 1986. BMW had produced a special engine to go in the chassis, and Italians Elio de Angelis and Riccardo Patrese – both race winners in the past – were signed for driving duties. There was a sense, though, that the two drivers were both refugees – de Angelis driven away from Lotus by Senna’s form and Patrese a victim of the Alfa Romeo debacle – and signed because they were available and Italian, rather than the best around. This feeling was reinforced by the persistent rumours in late 1985 that Niki Lauda was in talks to drive in 1986 for Brabham, leading to the inescapable conclusion that at least one of them was second choice.
Patrese had won two races with Brabham in 1982 and 83, but had failed to impress in his second year with the team and departed for Alfa Romeo, which turned out to have been an even worse move and Patrese often seemed disinterested at best and petty at worst, falling out with team-mate Eddie Cheever very quickly and memorably taking out Nelson Piquet in Monaco in 1985. His return to Brabham raised a few eyebrows considering the manner of his departure, but he could regard it as a second chance of sorts.
After six years with Lotus, Elio de Angelis had been simply blown into the weeds by Ayrton Senna in 1985 and decided to move on, signing terms with Brabham to drive the new “skateboard car” as it had been instantly nicknamed. De Angelis’ testing experience (he had had the lions’ share of Lotus testing) came in handy for the team but there had always been questions over his sometimes petulant attitude at Lotus and everyone at Brabham hoped this would prove a new beginning for him.