Brands Hatch was packed to the gills with enthusiastic race fans, keen to support new British hero Nigel Mansell and welcome Frank Williams back to the paddock. The historic circuit looked, though, like it would be hosting its last British Grand Prix for a while, with a new FISA policy of making long-term contracts with circuits seeing the race awarded to Silverstone for a five-year period. Brands was a fine circuit, but there was a feeling that with limited space for expansion and only narrow run-off areas it was an inferior facility overall. Elsewhere in the paddock, with Renault withdrawing from F1 from next year, Ligier had announced a three-year deal for Alfa Romeo engines, and Lotus were rumoured to be negotiating with Honda.
Local hero Mansell could only manage second to team-mate Piquet in qualifying, with Senna third and Berger a fine fourth in the Benetton-BMW. The McLarens filled row three, with Rosberg ahead of Prost. Berger’s team-mate Fabi was seventh, with Arnoux 8th, Warwick’s Brabham 9th and Dumfries 10th. Ferrari’s doldrums continued with Alboreto 12th and Johansson 18th, with Allen Berg bringing up the rear as usual. Jacques Laffite, down in 20th after a frustrating day in the Ligier, had equalled Graham Hill’s record of 176 career starts, and would beat the record to become the most experienced Grand Prix driver ever when the race began on Sunday.
As the lights went green, Mansell got away slowly, with Senna, Berger and both McLarens surging past him and it was soon evident that something wasn’t right with his car as he toured slowly round – but soon all eyes were elsewhere as Thierry Boutsen lost his Arrows at Paddock, causing a chain reaction that caused Laffite’s Ligier to go head-on into the barriers and also took out Danner’s other Arrows, both Minardis, both Osellas and Rothengatter’s Zakspeed. Jonathan Palmer also pulled his Zakspeed over to help, as the driver was also a qualified doctor. Most drivers jogged back to the pits, but Jacques Laffite was trapped in his cockpit and as the trackside crews began to cut him out of the car the first start was declared void and a second attempt would be made.
The Williams team frantically adapted the spare car (set up for Nelson Piquet) for Nigel and in the end had plenty of time as the race start was delayed nearly an hour while Laffite – both legs broken – was helicoptered out to Sidcup hospital and the medical helicopter returned to the circuit. Sadly for Jacques, with the original start declared void, Graham Hill’s record remained unbroken.
When the field lined up again, there were only 22 runners – In addition to Laffite’s absence, Osella had no spare car and both their race cars were too damaged to continue, while Boutsen had claimed the spare Arrows, leaving Danner with no drive. This time, Mansell got away well in second, slotting in behind Piquet, but Berger got a flying start to take Senna and glue his Benetton to Nigel’s rear wing. Within half a lap the Austrian was past, but at the start of lap 3 Mansell, having now got the measure of his new car, came back past the Benetton. As Mansell set about chipping away at Piquet’s lead, Senna had Rosberg’s McLaren clambering all over the back of him. A reprieve was granted to the Lotus driver as Rosberg’s miserable season continued with a gearbox failure on lap 8, while Piquet had now begun to pull away from Mansell.
As 1/3 distance approached the first runners began coming in for tyres – Alain Prost was first on lap 18, from fifth place, disposing of an original set of tyres that weren’t balanced right. The stop dropped him to ninth, and Alboreto found himself fifth after his dreadful qualifying. The Ferrari team weren’t out of the woods yet though, as Johansson’s engine started emitting smoke just as he was lapped by Piquet and Mansell, now running nose-to-tail. As the Swede parked up, Nigel Mansell got a slingshot past Piquet as the Brazilian missed a gear and went into the lead.
Berger’s race was run on lap 23, and de Cesaris’ shortly afterwards, both men with electrical troubles, while Alan Jones’ new Ford engine gave up the ghost at the same time. As Mansell and Piquet jockeyed for position, Prost was down in 8th with both Brabhams ahead of him – Warwick 6th in the new BT55 and Patrese 7th in the older BT54. As Prost put Patrese under pressure, Senna peeled into the pits for what seemed to be a tyre stop but proved to be his retirement with an attack of the old Lotus Gearbox. Alboreto thus moved up to third, followed by Arnoux, both Brabhams and Prost, the championship leader now 7th and just out of the points. Stuck in traffic, the McLaren driver was starting to be in danger of being lapped.
Piquet came in on lap 30 for a tyre-stop and Mansell did so two laps later – a 9.57 stop just enough to get him back out ahead on the road, but Piquet on warmer tyres was right with him and took a look once, twice and three times but Mansell made his Williams as wide as possible and Piquet was foiled by traffic. After that, the pair stabilised but continued to run close together. Arnoux was ploughing a lonely furrow in third, but had to make a second tyre stop after a poor choice of compound on his first stop. Prost moved up into third, still far behind the Williams boys but ready to capitalise if either broke down or – even better – they took each other out while scrapping.
Mansell continued serenely in the lead, clocking off several fastest laps while the rest of the field fell by the wayside – Patrese, lap 39 (engine), Fabi, lap 45 (fuel system), Nannini, lap 50 (steering) and Alboreto on lap 51 with another blown Ferrari turbo. A heart-stopping moment for the Englishman came on lap 48 when he came to lap Brundle’s Tyrrell at an inopportune moment and Piquet nearly capitalised, but was kept behind by some frantic defensive driving. Prost pitted for tyres again, unexpectedly, but returned without losing a position.
By lap 60 of 72, the Williams pairing had lapped every remaining car and were now lapping 4th-placed Arnoux for the second time, and nothing could stop Mansell from taking his first British Grand Prix win and moving into the championship lead – not even a late challenge from Piquet. Mansell staggered from his car to the tailgate of a Range Rover for the short trip to the podium, while 100,000 fans roared their approval.
Almost unnoticed, Prost took third and Arnoux fourth. Derek Warwick had been running 5th in the closing stages but found himself running out of fuel and as he dialled back to economise first Brundle and then – on the last lap – Streiff found their way past to break Brabham’s heart but secure a double points finish for Tyrrell. Warwick finished 8th, behind Johnny Dumfries, himself agonisingly close to chalking up his first point. Jonathan Palmer brough the Zakspeed home 9th, 6 laps adrift, and Boutsen trailed in tenth but unclassified, a whopping 13 laps off Mansell.