The last Spanish Grand Prix had been in the 1981 at the Jarama circuit near Madrid, but the Spanish public seemed to have little enthusiasm for Formula One and the Royal Automobile Club of Spain had lost interest in hosting the race. However, the city fathers of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia – bankrolled by sherry giant Tio Pepe – decided to build their own track to host Formula One and promote the town. The facilities were new, the track nice and smooth and the Tio Pepe grid girls very dapper in their bolero jackets and wide-brimmed hats, and there was a good feeling about the race despite the thin crowds.
No changes to the field from the first race in Brazil, and few in qualifying either; Ayrton Senna took pole by nearly a second with Nelson Piquet alongside and Nigel Mansell third. The much-improved McLarens were next, Prost ahead of Rosberg, with the Ligiers 6th (Arnoux) and 8th (Laffite), bracketing Berger’s Benetton, while Fabi’s Benetton and Dumfries’ Lotus made up the top ten. Ferrari continued to struggle, the red cars 11th (Johansson) and 13th (Alboreto). Bringing up the rear of the grid once more were the two Minardis, with Nannini at the back.
Race day was sunny and as the red lights came on, Senna seemed to creep forward before they went green, and everyone got away more-or-less cleanly with Senna leading Piquet, Mansell, Rosberg, Prost and the Ligiers round lap one. Mansell soon started dropping back though, with Rosberg barging past his old Williams team-mate on lap two and Prost a lap later – by which time there had already been four retirements – both Minardis with technical failures, and Jones and Palmer who had collided on the first lap. Moreover, Teo Fabi had been in to the pits to replace a front wing knocked off in the early jockeying for position.
As Senna began to pull out a lead, Patrese pulled over with a duff gearbox on his skateboard Brabham and Johansson’s brakes failed again, pitching the Ferrari into a spin and a sand-trap just as they had in Brazil. The unfortunate Swede climbed out of his Ferrari and keeled over, being stretchered off with a suspected leg injury.
By lap 18, Senna had a moment when he came to lap former team-mate Elio de Angelis, exiting the pits in a sick Brabham, who didn’t see him and nearly carved him up. As the rest followed through, Mansell re-took fourth place from Prost, while other cars continued dropping like flies; both Osellas and Streiff’s Tyrrell with engine failures, Michele Alboreto on lap 22 with a wheel bearing and on lap 30 there were two more retirements; de Angelis’ gearbox and Arnoux’s half-shaft letting them down. As Senna, Piquet and the other carved through the traffic on the same lap, Nigel Mansell – almost unnoticed among the jockeying cars on the start-finish straight – got past Rosberg and back into third. Three laps later, he passed Piquet for second place, and started working on the 2-second gap to Senna.
By lap 39, Mansell was right behind the Lotus, while Piquet dropped back and had to hold off the two McLarens (Prost now ahead of Rosberg). The Williams team held its breath; Nigel had accused Senna of slamming the door unfairly in Brazil, but here he got through cleanly, passing Senna lapping Brundle in one smooth move – just as Nelson Piquet’s Honda expired in a cloud of smoke and he pulled off. Mansell quickly pulled away from Senna, while Prost began to catch up on the Lotus. Laffite came in from fifth to retire with the same half-shaft problem that had put paid to Arnoux, promoting Berger and Brundle into the points – but not for long, as the Tyrrell pulled in with a sick engine, so Johnny Dumfries moved up into sixth. This became fifth when Berger stopped for tyres, but sadly for the young Scot, it was again not to last as his gearbox packed up on lap 52 and put him out of the race, just as he had retired from a points position in Brazil.
By this stage, Senna and Prost had caught Mansell and formed a three-car train who soon came to lap fourth-placed Rosberg. Once past, Senna started really going at Mansell, locking up at turn one then going onto the grass later in the lap trying to get past the Williams, while Prost hung back a little hoping to benefit if the two took each other out. Mansell stuck stubbornly to his racing line while Senna tried everything to get past – finally, at the hairpin, Senna squeezed Mansell out, with Prost diving through in his wake as Mansell lifted. The Brit’s response was to come into the pits on lap 64 for new tyres, rejoining nearly 20 seconds behind Senna. He had a big job to do, but started carving chunks out of Senna’s lead, reeling in 4s a lap, disposing of Prost at the cost of dropping 0.7s that lap, but rallying and charging the Lotus down.
With the laps ticking down and commentators everywhere raising their voices in excitement, Mansell was only 1.5s behind Senna as they began the last lap. By halfway round the lap, Mansell was tucked up under the Lotus’ rear wing and shaping up to try a slingshot off the last corner – the Williams pulled out, Senna jinked left to block him and the two crossed the line almost together. Almost: Senna had it by 0.014 seconds in one of the closest finishes ever recorded. Prost finished third, Rosberg fourth and the Benettons of Fabi and Berger fifth and sixth.
After the race, Senna admitted his tyres were going off and he wouldn’t have been able to keep Mansell back any longer, while Mansell was asked about Senna’s block at the end, but he expressed himself satisfied that the move was fair, and joked that as close as it was they should split the points for first and second place and give him and Senna 7.5 points each. “Sorry, Frank – next time!” he finished, addressing the still-convalescing Williams team boss.