Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez
12 October 1986
1986 was a big year for Mexican sport – the country hosted football’s World Cup in the summer, despite a devastating earthquake that hit Mexico City the previous September. Mexico had last hosted the World Cup in 1970, which was coincidentally also the last time that the country hosted a Formula One race. That race ended in a Ferrari 1-2 for Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni, but the red cars were looking distinctly unlikely to repeat the feat 16 years on. The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez had been rebuilt to a shorter configuration but the fast last turn, Parabolica, was left intact.
Familiarisation sessions revealed that despite being resurfaced the track was very bumpy, possibly due to the effects of the earthquake, and it seemed like a robust car and the right tyre strategy would be key, with bags of grunt for the long straight sections coming a close second. At the head of the grid after qualifying was Ayrton Senna, with countryman Piquet alongside. Nigel Mansell would have to bid to win his world title from third, with a delighted Gerhard Berger alongside in his Benetton. BMW power was clearly good here, as the two Brabhams were 5th (Patrese) and 7th (Warwick), split by Prost. Fabi in the second Benetton could only manage 9th, behind Tambay’s Lola and ahead of Alliot’s Ligier. The Ferraris were 12th (Alboreto) and 14th (Johansson). As usual, the Osellas of Rothengatter and Berg took the last row of the grid – though Rothengatter wouldn’t take the start after an accident in practice.
Berger had been fastest in practice, while Mansell was suffering from a dose of Montezuma’s Revenge and wasn’t feeling too good. Perhaps that was why when the lights went green and Piquet and Senna went charging for the first corner, the red 5 Williams stayed put. For a moment it looked like he’d stalled, but was just very slow getting away, and got moving right at the back of the grid. But all eyes were on the front; Senna and Piquet running just inches apart, sparks flying as they made for the first corner. It was Senna that got through first, followed by Piquet, with Berger third and a fast-starting Prost fourth. As they snaked through the esses, Piquet squeezed ahead of Senna, and at the end of lap one, Piquet led Senna, Berger and Prost, with a fast-starting Alboreto fifth, Alliot sixth and Martin Brundle a great seventh, having started 14th. Patrick Tambay had a spin and a stall in the traffic and was out already.
Senna wasn’t giving up on the lead, though, and continued to harry Piquet, outbraking himself slightly into the first corner and dropping back slightly and had Berger snapping at his heels instead. The top four continued to race closely together with Senna sometimes challenging Piquet and sometimes fighting off Berger, while Mansell slowly made his way through the field from the back. The hapless Fabi, by contrast, peeled in to retire with a sick engine on lap 5. Shortly afterwards, Prost bundled his way past Berger into third, and the top four continued to stay close together. On lap 9, both Streiff and Ghinzani pulled off with turbo failures, and two laps later Michele Alboreto’s Ferrari met the same fate, promoting Alliot’s Ligier to sixth.
By now, Senna was approaching Mansell to lap the Englishman’s Williams, but Mansell instead peeled into the pits for a tyre change, slithering back out on the dusty surface just behind a tasty scrap between Christian Danner’s Arrows and de Cesaris’ Minardi for 10th place. Mansell’s team-mate Piquet continued serenely in the lead and by lap 15 had drawn out a comfortable 2.6 gap over his chasing compatriot on the Lotus. Behind Senna was Prost, anoher 1.2s behind and Berger hanging in there 2.2 seconds behind the McLaren. After Berger there was a 15-second gap to the fight for 5th place between Johansson and Alliot. The four leaders tended to concertina during the twisty infield section – especially in traffic – but the long straights just stretched the group out again. Off-camera, Keke Rosberg was on a charge, putting up the fastest lap so far and taking sixth place.
By then, the first runners had begun making their mid-race stops. Alain Prost was first in on lap 31, and a stuck wheel-nut undid the usual good work of the McLaren boys to make his stop 11 seconds and put him back on the track sixth. Senna put his foot down, putting in the fastest lap and closing right up behind Piquet, then taking the lead when Piquet peeled off into the pits himself. Piquet’s stop was a quick 8.3s, followed by Rosberg whose earlier charge was for nothing as a 25-second stop dropped him to the back and he was back in the following lap to retire with a puncture.
Senna now led Berger and was charging, trying to pull out as much as possible before his own stop. But he couldn’t shake the Benetton with its powerful BMW engine and when the Lotus peeled in, the Austrian took the lead. The Lotus team did their usual slick job to send Senna back out n 7.7s – second on the road and looking good to take the lead when Berger pitted.
But the lanky Austrian continued in the lead, not pitting and not speeding up as if he was going to pit – but just forging ahead, carving his way through traffic with a 22-second lead over Senna. Behind the Lotus, Prost calmly took third from Piquet on lap 40 and a couple of laps later the WIlliams was back in for a second stop, a rapid 6.57s but still a setback for the double champion who found himself sixth, with Berger now leading Prost by 33 seconds on lap 55, who was in turn about 30 seconds ahead of Senna, scrapping with Johansson’s Ferrari over third place. Fifth was Patrese in the skateboard Brabham and seventh behind Piquet was his team-mate Mansell.
Most observers expected Prost to reel in Berger who still hadn’t stopped for tyres and must be on wearing rubber – or driving extremely cautiously to conserve it. Prost certainly was moving, too, lapping Mansell and shaping up to do the same to Piquet – but the Brazilian didn’t make it easy and Mansell then un-lapped himself into the bargain. Senna, meanwhile, wasn’t able to make any inroad into Prost’s lead over him, as he had a Swede in a Ferrari crawling all over his gearbox and had to drive defensively. With just eight laps to go, Prost had only taken 3 seconds out of Berger’s lead and unless the Benetton broke it looked like the team would record a maiden victory for themselves and their driver.
The drama wasn’t quite over yet, though, as Mansell set about trying to take the last points-paying position off Piquet, setting fastest lap in the process on lap 62 of 68, then again on lap 63. Then, as Johansson continued to harry Senna for third place, a plume of white smoke erupted from the back of his engine, followed by a lively fire, and he was out. Again. This promoted Patrese to fourth and Mansell into the points, but no sooner had he taken the position than the Brabham was skidding off. Patrese sat in the cockpit for a moment, scarcely able to believe his bad luck before resignedly climbing out, dejection written all over his shoulders. Piquet was now fourth, Mansell fifth and Philippe Alliot’s Ligier was promoted to sixth, and that was where they stayed. Alliot stopped on his in-lap to give a lift to his stranded team-mate Arnoux and Stefan Johansson, but stalled his Ligier in the process, so all three ended up riding back to the Parc Ferme on the back of Piquet’s Williams.
Gerhard Berger took a fine maiden win for himself and his team – depending on how you looked at it, either a debut season win for the new Benetton team, or a much-deserved win for the Toleman team who had come a long way since their 1981 debut. Either way, it was a popular win and set up a cracking finale for Adelaide two weeks hence.
Mansell had failed to secure the title as he could have but still held a 7-point lead over Alain Prost, whose second-successive silver medal put him in second for the championship too, with Piquet just two points behind the Frenchman. Nigel still looked odds-on to win his first world title, but with two champions chasing him, it was going to come down to the wire yet again.