With a resurgent Alain Prost now threatening Mansell’s previously handy championship lead, the teams made the short jump from southern Austria to northern Italy as September arrived. McLaren designer John Barnard had announced his departure to the Ferrari team who must have hoped the news would cheer fans disappointed at the team’s season so far, and further depressed to hear that Michele Alboreto had hurt his arm in a motorcycle crash and, although he would be racing, he might well be off the pace.
Italian fans could be cheered, though, by two new faces on the grid: the Osella team gave a one-off debut to local driver Alex Caffi, while Ivan Capelli, who had driven two races for Tyrrell in 1985, was fronting the brand new AGS team, a French privateer outfit who would enter here and in Portugal pending a full-season entry for 1987.
Young Alex Caffi caught the racing bug from his father, a small-time club racer, and raced Motocross before entering the junior single-seater formulae and going through them like a dose of salts while at the same time continuing to study as an accountant just in case. Runner-up in the Italian F3 series in 1984 and 1985, he could only manage third in a very strong field in 1986, a season also hampered by Caffi completing his military service. Nonetheless, sponsors got up the money to buy him a one-off race at home in Monza and he hoped he would be able to parlay this into a full-time drive for 1987.
Since making his Formula One debut for Tyrrell in the closing stages of the 1985 season, Ivan Capelli had returned to Formula 3000 and underlined his credentials as a potential star of the future by winning the European F3000 title with relative ease. With AGS looking for a driver for a short-term contract for the Italian and Portuguese races, Capelli was identified as a man who could get the most out of the car and lined up for the small French garage team.
As in Austria, the Benetton-BMWs proved thunderously fast in a straight line – of which there were
plenty on the fast Monza circuit – and Teo Fabi took his career third pole position with Berger fourth despite being speed-trapped at 219mph (352kph), the fastest Formula One car ever. Between the two Benettons were the championship top two, with Prost second and Mansell third, with Brazilian rivals Senna and Piquet lining up on row three. Warwick, Rosberg, Alboreto and Patrese made up the top ten, with the two Brabhams having been second only to the Benettons through the speed traps. With one new car taking the entry to 27 for this race and the next only, FISA allowed all cars to start, and the beneficiary was Alex Caffi, starting 27th – Capelli in the new AGS was 25th, ahead of both Osellas.
The grid lined up for the parade lap, but the front row didn’t go anywhere: Prost’s car still had McLaren mechanics clustered around, while Fabi lurched forward briefly only to roll to a halt almost immediately. As the rest of the grid squeezed through, Fabi got his car going again and rejoined at the rear, while Prost abandoned his race car and nipped round to the pitlane, from where he would start in the spare.
All of this left Mansell and Berger at the effective front of the grid and it was the Austrian who got the better start as the field roared down to the first corner – or rather, most of them did: Senna’s Lotus suffered an immediate transmission failure and coasted to a halt before the first chicane. Berger led the two Williams cars, followed by a fast-starting Arnoux, Rosberg, a charging Alboreto and Alliot in the second Ligier. By the end of the lap, Berger was already pulling out a decent lead over Mansell, while Alboreto was up to fourth after disposing of Rosberg and Arnoux. At the back, Fabi and Prost were both charging and had already overtaken 8 cars, one of which – Rothengatter’s Zakspeed – soon dropped out with engine troubles. On the following lap, Tambay and Patrese had a coming-together which put both out.
Lap 7 saw the two Williams cars catch up to Berger and Mansell got past on the start-finish straight, with Piquet following through in a slightly hairy move a lap later. Alboreto went through in Piquet’s wake and Berger, having turned his boost down to conserve fuel, had gone from first to fourth within two laps. The Tifosi were enjoying Alboreto’s new-found speed for Ferrari, and now he was attacking Piquet’s Williams as the pair closed back up on Mansell, and set a new fastest lap in the process. His team-mate Johansson was also going well behind Berger in 5th place, while by lap 12 Fabi and Prost were up to 8th and 9th respectively as they charged back through the field.
Entertainment for the cameras was provided later that lap as Ghinzani’s rear suspension broke, spinning his Osella to a stop well off the racing line but giving the enthusiastic marshals no end of trouble in removing it. He seemed to set off a small wave of incidents, with Nannini’s Minardi out with a failed alternator, Warwick’s Brabham kicked into a spin by a brake fault and finally Alboreto had a sudden spin on lap 18, nudging a barrier and needing to stop for repairs. This promoted Berger back to third, with Johansson now fourth, Rosberg fifth and Prost back up into the points in sixth.
FIrst in for the pit stops was Piquet on lap 21, a slow stop of 17.68 seconds with a problem on the front-right. Prost took even longer, coming in on the same lap but taking 30 seconds while McLaren mechanics fussed around the front of the car. Rosberg’s stop, a lap later, went better at just 13 seconds but still wasn’t entirely trouble-free. Next of the front-runners in was Johansson, in and out in a good 9.68 seconds. On lap 24, Mansell, led Berger, Arnoux, Piquet, Johansson, Rosberg, Alboreto, Fabi and Prost, and it was time for his own stop. The Williams crew turned the number 5 car around in just 8.34 seconds and returning him in second place, while Alboreto had got past Rosberg so the Ferraris were running 5th and 6th. Berger was now back in the lead, 12 seconds ahead of Mansell, who was in turn 8 seconds ahead of Arnoux and Piquet. with the Ferraris another 15 seconds back.
On lap 26, the clerks of the course held out a black flag and a placard bearing the number 1 – Alain Prost had been, rather belatedly, disqualified for a breach of starting procedure in starting from the spare car. The Frenchman didn’t come in immediately while McLaren frantically protested, but it was all rendered moot when his TAG engine went phut half a lap later and he pulled over. Nelson Piquet, meanwhile, had passed Arnoux and was chasing Mansell, who was in turn closing on Berger and got past the Austrian on lap 28, just before he peeled into the pits anyway.
Once the pit stops had shaken out, therefore, Mansell led Piquet, with Arnoux third, Berger fourth, Johansson and Alboreto fifth and sixth. Arnoux was shortly to retire with a gearbox problem, though, and Capelli’s solid debut for AGS ended shortly afterwards when his left-rear tyre exploded. Two laps later, de Cesaris’ race was run with a blown Motori Moderni engine and on the same lap, the Tifosi were distraught to watch Alboreto pulling off with an engine failure of his own. Meanwhile at the front Piquet was putting in a series of Fastest Laps to catch Mansell, He caught up to his team-mate as the Englishman was lapping Philippe Streiff’s Tyrrell on lap 35. For two laps the Williamses duelled until Piquet elbowed his way through, banging wheels on the way, at the second chicane. Mansell immediately fought back, but the Brazilian wasn’t to be denied and soon began to pull away.
From there, the race settled down into its final third. Piquet pulled away from Mansell, while Fabi put on a late charge after having pitted for engine repairs, putting up a sequence of Fastest Laps before succumbing to a puncture on lap 44. Johansson got past Berger into third place but was unable to make much impression on the Williams cars, and that was how they finished. Nelson Piquet took a fine win on Brazilian national day to go second in the title race, with Mansell maintaining his lead in second place. Rosberg took fourth from Berger in the closing stages and Alan Jones pipped Thierry Boutsen to the final point. In the constructors’ race, Williams increased their lead and looked odds-on to take the title with just three races to go, while Ferrari finally overhauled Ligier to move up into fourth place.