In the aftermath of a dreadful Monaco Grand Prix, the Brabham team had headed for the Paul Ricard circuit between races to do some testing, but disaster struck when Elio de Angelis’ rear wing suddenly collapsed on the long Mistral straight, pitching him into a spin which saw him cartwheel over the crash barriers and come to rest, upside-down, before bursting into flames. Because it was only a test session, there were few marshals around and they took several minutes to arrive, clad in shorts and t-shirts and carrying small fire-extinguishers. It was another half-hour before the injured Italian could be extracted from his car and put in a helicopter to be taken to Marseilles hospital. He died there of smoke inhalation, 29 hours after his crash. His only injuries from the crash itself were some light burns and a broken collar-bone, neither life-threatening, and in the aftermath of the accident changes would be made to ensure that safety procedures at test sessions would be the same as those at races. Jean-Marie Balestre also announced that an extraordinary meeting of the FIA would take place in June, amid widespread speculation that steps would be taken to limit the allowed engine sizes.
In the meantime, though, the paddock was in shock as the teams arrived in Belgium: de Angelis had been a popular figure in the paddock, widely regarded as one of the last of the “gentleman players” and the figure who had kept the iconic Lotus team going during its darkest period. The Brabham team were there in Belgium with just one car, for Riccardo Patrese, while de Angelis’ former team-mates Mansell and Senna looked particularly pensive, as did his great off-track friend Keke Rosberg. Brabham had announced just before the race that Derek Warwick would drive the second car from the next race in Canada.
A more pleasant surprise awaited on Friday qualifying where rising star Gerhard Berger used the power of his BMW engine to go fastest and set provisional pole. It was only a gung-ho lap from Nelson Piquet in the spare car (after grenading the Honda in his race car) that kept the Austrian from his first career pole, and he had to be satisfied with his first front-row start instead. Prost and Senna took the second row with Nigel Mansell fifth and Teo Fabi completing a good couple of days’ work for Benetton in sixth place. Arnoux, Rosberg, Alboreto and Tambay rounded out the top ten with the second Ferrari of Johansson down in 11th and the second Lotus of Johnny Dumfries 13th. With no non-qualifiers, the two Osellas of Ghinzani and Danner brought up the rear of the grid.
The grid lined up and TV viewers were intrigued to see the pictures from the TV camera attached to Phillippe Streiff’s Tyrrell, following a successful experiment by the Renault team last year. The lights went red, then green and the cars swarmed off the start; Rosberg dove left and left the track briefly, kicking up dust from the sand at the side of the track, while Berger got away tardily and was swamped by Prost going past on his right and Senna on his left, while Arnoux got a flyer to leap up to fifth. Like Monaco, Spa has a tight first corner that invites accidents as twenty-plus cars all stream through on lap one, and so it proved: Berger turned into the hairpin and caught Prost, both cars coming to a stop right at the apex of the corner. As Piquet and Senna disappeared into the distance, everyone else came to a grinding halt and tried to find a way through. Fabi stopped dead and had to go the long way round, while Rosberg found himself with nowhere to go except peel round in an outward circle and rejoin right at the back. Once everyone was past, both Prost and Berger got moving again and limped round to the pits for repairs – Prost’s front wing was noticeably flapping. In fact, the only retirement from the accident was the innocent Patrick Tambay, who had gone round the outside of the stationary cars but run over some debris and broken something in his suspension.
Piquet was already pulling out a handy lead over Senna, with Mansell some way back in third place. Fourth was Johansson, who had been fortunate to be in the right place and could drive right past the accident without stopping, with Dumfries up to fifth, ahead of Laffite, Jones, Boutsen, Alboreto and the Tyrrells of Brundle and Streiff, all in a long conga of cars. Prost and Berger, after lengthy stops for repairs, rejoined at the back of the field. Mansell, meanwhile, had caught a struggling Senna and passed him for second place, and the Brazilian was now being threatened by Johansson’s Ferrari. Further back, Rosberg was on the move, up to 12th, while Alboreto had likewise overtaken Boutsen for 8th. By lap 3, both Osellas had already retired with engine failure and Jones and Alboreto had both moved ahead of Laffite – the new Lola chassis looking good for the 1980 champion – while Rosberg was now ahead of the Tyrrells and himself gaining on Boutsen’s Arrows. Meanwhile, Mansell spun on lap 5 and dropped back behind Johansson and Alboreto, though he soon re-took fourth from the Italian.
Rosberg’s fine charge came to a premature end on lap 7 when his TAG engine had a rare failure, and on the following lap Dumfries damaged his car in a spin and had to retire, and Boutsen’s electrics packed up – six retirements already. After that the racing settled down for a while, with the best entertainment being Mansell’s chase of Johansson, finally getting past the Swede for third on lap 15 and charging after Senna. Suddenly, that became a fight for the lead, as Piquet toured into the pits and climbed out, his turbo boost controls fritzed. On the same lap, Alain Prost put up the fastest lap as he charged through the midfield – his race not run yet.
Mansell was the first to come in for tyres, the Williams team getting him out in a stonking 8s, and the next lap it was Senna’s turn, the Lotus mechanics doing almost as well but still getting him out behind Mansell, while Johansson went into the lead – the first time a Ferrari had led in 1986 – for a single lap until he too pitted and Mansell became the fourth leader of the race, with a gap now of some 3 seconds over Senna as the two made their way through to lap the midfield cars. Alboreto had also got ahead of Johansson in the pitstops and the Ferrari twins were now fighting over third place. Prost, meanwhile, was up to seventh, aided by the retirements of Arnoux (engine) and Brundle (gearbox). Senna was steadily reeling Mansell in, getting the gap down to 1.5s by lap 28, roughly 2/3 distance.
Little changed in the last third of the race; Prost made his way up into sixth when Jones came in for a lengthy tyre stop, while Mansell pulled out again from Senna, and the two Ferraris had an entertaining duel over third place, which ended with Johansson taking the place from his team-mate. And that was how they finished; Mansell took his third win, and his first of the season to go third in the table, while Senna’s second place saw him back into the championship lead. Johansson took his first podium place since his second place in Detroit in 1985, and Alboreto posted his first finish of the year in fourth. Laffite finished a lonely fifth place with Prost picking up the last point after a good run from the back after his accident – a point that was sufficient to keep McLaren atop the Constructors’ table.