The Grand Prix circus returned to the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France for the first time since Elio de Angelis’ fatal accident, and a decision had been made to cut out the high-speed corner where the Brabham had crashed, at the end of the long Mistral straight, using the racing school track to curtail Mistral and shorten the circuit overall.
FISA had also announced some radical plans for the future. Turbocharged engines, which had been compulsory in 1986 for the first time, were now to be banned in the interests both of safety and of curtailing spiralling costs. Rather than an outright ban for 1987, however, it was decided to “phase out” the turbo engines. In 1987, turbocharged engines would be restricted to four bars (ie 4x atmospheric pressure) of boost and a 1l engine, while a new category of 3.5l normally-aspirated engine would be allowed. For 1988, then, the turbo boost would be further restricted to 2.5 bars, and an outright ban from 1989 onwards. The FIA hoped that the boost restrictions would encourage existing teams to convert early and new teams to enter, as well as easing the transition.
In team news, Patrick Tambay was back in action for Team Haas Lola, along with his new race engineer, Adrian Newey, hired away from the March IndyCar project.
Despite the Ligier team’s good showing at Detroitl local hopes rested largely on Alain Prost in his McLaren, but the Woking cars had traditionally focussed on race results rather than qualifying and Prost duly put his red and white car fifth on the grid, just behind Arnoux’s Ligier. At the front was Senna’s Lotus, with Mansell alongside and Piquet in third. Alboreto put his Ferrari in an encouraging 6th place, followed by Berger and Fabi in the Benettons and Johansson rounding out the top ten in the second Ferrari. The two Osellas again brought up the rear, with Berg the Laterne Rouge for the grid.
Alboreto’s encouraging qualifying came to naught as he stalled on the grid and Piquet got away slowly, while Mansell stormed away into the lead ahead of Senna, Arnoux, Berger, Prost and Dumfries (who had got a cracking start from 12th in the second Lotus). Rosberg got past Dumfries during the first lap, while Johansson came in before the end of the lap for the Ferrari mechanics to take the back off his car and poke at the engine. It looked like it was going to be another long, frustrating race for Maranello.
A couple of laps later, with Jones already retired, Andrea de Cesaris was removed with an explosive turbo failure, and on the following lap, the fourth, Ayrton Senna skidded on the resultant oil slick and put his Lotus into the tyre barrier and out of the race. Mansell thus led with an increased margin, with Arnoux now second but gaining as Mansell was already encountering backmarkers, with Warwick, Rothengatter and Johansson all having made pit stops in the early stages. Behind Arnoux, Berger was now third, but holding up the two McLarens of Prost and Rosberg.
Prost got by Berger in traffic on lap 5, just as Johansson came in again, this time to retire with turbo issues, and Rosberg followed his team-mate past the Benetton shortly afterwards. Prost was soon up behind Arnoux and wasted little time in muscling his way past his compatriot and former Renault team-mate on lap 16, with Rosberg following through two laps later.
Prost was now up to second, with just over 4.4s between him and the leading Williams. Unable to keep up, Arnoux pitted for tyres at the end of lap 18, but undid a lot of the team’s good work when, on rejoining, he was forced to stamp on the brakes in order to avoid colliding with Tambay. Mansell, meanwhile, had pulled out another half-second over Prost as he continued carving through traffic, while Rosberg was being thoroughly left behind by the pair of them and his third place was coming
under threat from Piquet. The Brazilian made a (sub-9 second) tyre stop on lap 22, just as Berger collided with Danner’s Arrows and removed himself from proceedings. Danner called in for repairs but was able to continue.
Two laps later, with Prost having eaten up the gap, Mansell peeled off into the pits himself. The Williams team put him out in just 8.12 seconds, rejoining third just ahead of Jacques Laffite, who came in for his own stop a couple of laps later, while Mansell set about catching the McLarens, reeling off a series of Fastest Laps. Rosberg was next to pit for tyres, rejoining fourth, which promoted Mansell to second and Piquet to third, but Prost continued racing, even after a big lock-up under braking on lap 31 which must have flat-spotted his already old tyres. With a 12-second lead over Mansell decreasing all the time, he surely couldn’t leave it much longer if he was to retain his lead. Eventually he did, rejoining second, some 16 seconds behind Mansell with Piquet rapidly gaining and Rosberg behind the Williams.
As Prost made his way through traffic, he was balked by Alboreto, himself trying to better his position as he diced with Tambay. Prost made his way through but as Piquet did so, Rosberg pulled off a daring move around the outside and took third place. The Brazilian’s car began dropping back almost immediately with electrical gremlins while Rosberg nearly wiped off a front wheel trying a similarly ambitious move to lap Patrese’s Brabham. Phillippe Streiff’s Tyrrell pulled off in flames on lap 43 – the French driver hopped out with no apparent ill effects, but the fire resisted all attempts by the marshals to snuff it out with hand extinguishers and a fire engine had to come and hose it down.
Mansell continued serenely on in the lead, until he came in for his second tyre stop on lap 50 which dropped him to second, emerging just in front of Rosberg’s McLaren. On fresh rubber, he quickly pulled away from his 1985 team-mate but the question was whether the new tyres would make him fast enough to catch and pass the one-stopping Prost before the end of the race. He started well, tearing chunks out of Prost’s lead over the next laps, and putting up a new fastest lap some two seconds faster than the previous one. By lap 57 he was right behind Prost and as they came round to begin lap 58, Mansell breezed past on at the first corner. Prost managed to stick with Mansell as the pair carved through traffic, but once out on clear track, the Williams quickly pulled away.
And that was more or less how it finished; during the closing stages of the race, Piquet had an improvement in pace and reeled in Rosberg, making his way past the Finn just a few laps from the chequered flag. So Mansell took the win, with Prost second, Piquet third and Rosberg fourth, and the Ligiers of Arnoux and Laffite coming in fifth and sixth to round out the points.
Mansell’s win put him second in the title race, just a point behind Prost; both overtaking the unfortunate Senna. In the constructors’ stakes, Williams extended their lead over McLaren thanks to Piquet’s heroics in the closing stages.