The teams arrived at Jaracepagua for the first race of the season with the Formula One world abuzz with speculation about the new season, but also with concern for Frank Williams. The team principal had been injured in a car accident on his way to the airport after Williams’ final testing session at Paul Ricard – his rental car had rolled over and although passenger Peter Windsor was able to pull Frank from the car, after some time in hospital it had become obvious that his spinal injuries were serious and that he had been paralyzed from the waist down. He would watch the season-opener in Brazil from his hospital bed back home in England, and the TV coverage showed his mechanics and drivers sending messages of support.
A bumper and very partisan Brazilian crowd turned out to watch their two heroes, Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet, and they weren’t disappointed in the two practice sessions. The Williams cars were running well, showing every signs of maintaining their form from the end of last year, and Piquet and Mansell were the class of the field – until Senna went out in the black Lotus and put in a blistering lap near the end of Saturday’s session and nicked pole to thunderous cheers from the home fans who now had two local boys on the front row. Piquet and Mansell lined up second and third, with the two Ligiers a stunning fourth (Arnoux) and fifth (Laffite) on the grid, ahead of the Ferraris of Alboreto (6th) and Johansson (8th) and McLarens of Rosberg (7th) and Prost (9th). Johnny Dumfries was an encouraging 11th for his Grand Prix debut, while the new Benetton team were 12th (Fabi) and 16th (Berger). With 25 entries, everyone qualified; Nannini brought up the rear in his Minardi, just behind Danner’s Osella.
The sun was out and the atmosphere was lively on Sunday, as the cars lined up to begin the season. When the lights went green, it was Mansell who got the best start, leaping ahead of Piquet into second and harrying Senna for the lead. A few corners later, he lunged for the lead, but Senna held his racing line, the cars touched and Mansell spun into the barriers and out. Piquet took up the chase, reeling the Lotus in but showing more patience than Mansell to wait for just the right moment to pounce and take the lead, which he did on lap 3. The home crowd were loving it so far, but there were wary eyes on Prost’s McLaren. The Woking team traditionally had mediocre qualifying performances but made up for it by meticulous race preparation and reliability, and Prost was now scything his way through the field, running fifth. Meanwhile, the Ligiers had dropped behind Michele Alboreto who was up to third place, and soon fell victim to Prost as well.
Two of the race’s former champions dropped out within a lap of each other: Alan Jones’ distributor arm packed up on lap 6, and Keke Rosberg trailed in with a rare TAG engine failure a lap later. By lap 16, Prost was up into third and looking dangerous to the two Brazilians. Three laps later, Piquet came in for new tyres, sending Senna through into the lead, but not for long: Prost came past on lap 21, to take the lead. Senna came in for his tyre stop and Piquet re-took second place, but Prost didn’t budge – it looked like the McLaren was going to run a one-stop strategy instead of the two stops most other people were running, and it looked like it was working for him.
Piquet got the hammer back down, and with fresh tyres and Honda power he reeled in Prost and blasted back past on lap 27, the cheers from the crowd almost drowning the whining turbo engines. In the meantime, there had been a clutch of other retirements – both Minardis (which had until then been running well in midfield), both Osellas with engine problems, Surer’s Arrows with overheating, Tambay’s second Lola, Palmer’s Zakspeed, Patrese’s Brabham and most recently Johansson’s Ferrari when his brakes locked up and spun him out. Elio de Angelis was still going despite having lost his front left wheel and steering his “Brabham Tricycle” round to the pits for a change.
Prost and the McLaren team decided to bring Prost in for tyres to prevent him losing too much ground to Piquet, and the stop was a good one – but to no avail; a lap later a thin plume of grey smoke emerged from the back of the McLaren and Prost was out, leaving Piquet with a big lead over Senna, who in turn had a big lead over Arnoux, back up to third in the Ligier. A consistent drive and retirements had seen Johnny Dumfries up into fifth place, but as he peeled into the pits, chaos reigned – the Lotus team were unprepared for him and put a set of Senna’s tyres on, then took them off and put another set on, then sent him out nearly a minute later, still having not fixed the electrical problem that was the reason he’d come in.
Senna briefly overtook Piquet when the Williams made his second stop, but Senna in turn had to stop and Piquet re-took the lead. The Brazilian TV director was understandably focussing on his two countrymen, but did deign to show the terrific scrap between the Ligiers over third place, with Laffite the latest in a string of team-mates to find out how hard it could be to get past Arnoux. Eventually, and with the hearts of the garage team in their mouths, Laffite got through into third – and the director cut back to Piquet as he processed to a great win on his Williams debut, with Senna second and Laffite third to cap a great race for the Ligier team. The roars of the Rio crowd could have been heard in Frank Williams’ hotel room as he watched the celebrations, while Arnoux, Brundle and Berger picked up the last points – Martin finally getting his first official points, and Benetton scoring on their debut. The four remaining finishers were Streiff, de Angelis, Dumfries and Fabi – and apart from Mansell, every single retirement was down to technical problems.