With just a week between the Hungarian and Austrian races, the teams simply headed straight to the Styrian hills for the fastest circuit on the calendar – and probably the one in the prettiest surroundings. More silly-season rumours; that it would be McLaren-Renault for 1987, and that Alain Prost and designer John Barnard would both defect to Ferrari – the latter despite repeated denials from both parties. Another interesting rumour saw Minardi’s Alessandro Nannini joining the Benetton team. What was official, however, was that Pirelli would withdraw from Grand Prix racing at the end of the year.
The simple straights and wide curves of the Zeltweg track rewarded pure power, so many expected the Benetton-BMWs to go well here. Fewer expected them to lock out the front row of the grid, but that’s just what they did, with Teo Fabi taking his second career pole position, just pipping Berger to what would have been a popular pole at his home race. Brabham did similarly well, though it didn’t start promisingly for them when Patrese had a big off and destroyed his race car. However, he got in the spare and qualifed an excellent fourth, lining up alongside Rosberg’s McLaren. Then came the championship contenders; Prost 5th, Mansell 6th, Piquet 7th and Senna 8th. Alboreto was 9th and Derek Warwick’s Brabham rounded off the top ten.
It all fell apart for Brabham in the Sunday morning warm-up, however. First, Warwick’s gearbox broke, which led to him over-revving the BMW engine. The car was repaired ready for the race, only for Patrese to have exactly the same gearbox failure in his car – only now it was too late to repair in time, and he was already using the spare car. So the team took the decision to withdraw Warwick from the race and hand his car to Patrese who was team leader and had moreover qualified better. Warwick was not happy – Bernie Ecclestone had to physically drag him out of the car – but it was done, and there would be an empty slot in 10th place and a field of 25 runners.
When the lights went green, it was Berger’s Benetton that surged ahead into the lead, while Patrese staggered forwards and dropped straight back into the midfield. Rosberg also had a slow getaway and lost his third place to a charging Prost and both Williamses. At the end of the first lap, the Benetton pair had already pulled out a good lead over Prost, at the head of
the rest of the field and trying to hold off a determined Mansell. Another lap on, and the Benettons were off on their own, with Fabi constantly harrying new local hero Berger for the lead, while Patrese toured in with a broken BMW engine to complete Brabham’s dreadful weekend.
On lap 9, Ayrton Senna peeled into the pits for an early tyre change, his initial compound choice not having been working for him; on the same lap, his unfortunate team-mate Johnny Dumfries (who was being lapped already, having come in for repairs) came in to retire with a spark plug failure. A lap later, Senna was back in with a misfire – while he was in having his engine cover removed, Philippe Streiff went out with an engine failure, and his team-mate Martin Brundle followed with a turbo failure shortly afterwards, before the Lotus mechanics finally pronounced Senna’s engine dead on lap 13. The early attrition continued as both Minardis dropped out the same lap: de Cesaris with a clutch failure and Nannini with a spectacular spin caused by a rear suspension failure that caused his left-rear wheel to fall off.
On lap 17, Fabi smoothly passed Berger for the lead, only to instantly slow down and pull off with a broken engine; at the same time, Mansell tried to slingshot past Prost on the start/finish straight but couldn’t make the move stick – however, he continued trying all the way, while behind him, team-mate and championship rival Piquet came in for an early tyre stop on
lap 19 and rejoined in 6th. On lap 22, Mansell was shaping to have another go at Prost, but the McLaren peeled off into the pits for tyres and Mansell took second place. Prost rejoined third ahead of his old Renault sparring-partner Arnoux, with Alan Jones running well in fifth. At the end of lap 25, leader Berger peeled into the pits for a tyre stop of his own – only for the car to remain stationary after the change was made. The seconds ticked away as the Benetton mechanics frantically fiddled with the car and took the engine cover off, while Mansell swept past into the lead at the half-distance point. Prost came through second, 28 seconds behind Mansell and ahead of Arnoux, Piquet, Rosberg and Alboreto. As the Benetton mechanics worked, Boutsen’s race was over with a smoking BMW and Johansson came in for his regular tyre stop.
On lap 28, Mansell came in for his tyre stop; a stucking right-rear wheel nut cost him a few seconds but it was still a reasonable stop at 11 seconds – not quite quick enough to prevent Prost going by into the lead, setting fastest lap in the process. Mansell now had to overcome an 11.8s gap with fresh tyres and just under half the race to go. The following lap, Mansell’s championship prospects improved immensely as Nelson Piquet pulled into the Williams pit to retire with an overheating engine. Berger. meanwhile, had finally rejoined in fourteenth and last place, four laps adrift – but with the high retirement rate it was still worth continuing, and he put up the fastest lap in the process. Suddenly, Mansell was off too – his Williams pulling off the circuit with a broken CV joint and promoting Rosberg to second, with the Ferraris of Alboreto and Johansson following.
The closing stages of the race settled down, with the remaining cars clearly robust enough to stand the heat and their drivers now conserving fuel at this high-octane circuit. On lap 49, just three before the end, Rosberg’s McLaren rolled to a stop and the frustrated Finn hopped out, leaving Prost to take the win ahead of Alboreto and Johansson, a much-needed fillip for the Ferrari team. Also happy with their afternoon’s work were the Haas Lola team, with Jones fourth and Tambay fifth, and Christian Danner picked up the final point for Arrows – his career first point and Arrows’ first of a trying season. Berger finished just out of the points, in seventh place and 3 laps down after unlapping himself from Prost on lap 49 and setting the overall fastest lap of the race.
Prost moved up to just two points behind Nigel Mansell in the championship race, but with four races to go there were four men in the title race: Mansell, Prost, Senna and Piquet. Next up was the historic Italian Grand Prix at Monza – another fast circuit that would take its toll on car and driver.