5 July 1987
Circuit Paul Ricard
With the trip over to the Americas shorter than usual, thanks to the lack of a Canadian GP this year, the teams reassembled at one of the more popular circuits on the calendar, the sunny, fast Paul Ricard circuit at Le Castellet in the South of France. Although truncated since Elio de Angelis’ fatal accident in testing there last year, the long Mistral Straight was still a favourite of drivers and fans alike. This was the 65th French Grand Prix, the eleventh at Paul Ricard and the second on the curtailed “Club” version of the circuit, and it was the first of a trio of fast circuits, followed by Silverstone and Hockenheim. It would also mark Riccardo Patrese’s 150th Grand Prix.
The McLarens hadn’t gone well by their own high standards at Monaco and Detroit but the MP4/3 was expected to suit the fast tracks better – but the same could be said of the Williams. Lotus and Ferrari meanwhile had spent the intervening weeks tweaking the cars’ aerodynamics and engines to suit the faster circuits. Rumours said that Ferrari designer John Barnard was coming under increasing management pressure to get results but publicly all was smiles, with Berger and Alboreto both signing one-year extensions for 1988.
Qualifying saw Mansell on pole once again, but Alain Prost was alongside him, a non-Honda engine on the front row for the first time since Mexico 1986. Prost and the McLaren team usually didn’t worry too much about qualifying, instead using their time to hone the car’s setup for race day but at his home race Prost had to be happy with second. On row 2 were the Brazilians, Senna and Piquet, with former Arrows team-mates Boutsen and Berger sharing row 3. Fabi, Alboreto, Johansson and Warwick made up the top ten, with the other Lotus of Nakajima back in 16th. Pascal Fabre brought up the rear in his AGS as usual, accompanied on the back row by Streiff, with Palmer 24th, Alliot 23rd and Capelli 22nd. The 3.5l cars would do very well to score here.
Ferrari’s season took a turn for the farcical at the start: Alboreto clearly jumped the start, leaping off the line like a scalded cat, while as if to balance things out, Berger stayed firmly put before slowly getting moving, dropping right back to 19th. Mansell converted Pole into the lead, but Prost couldn’t hold on to second for long and Piquet came past on the Mistral straight. At the end of the first lap, Mansell therefore led Piquet, Prost, Senna and Boutsen, while Eddie Cheever had blotted his copybook by accidentally setting his fire extinguisher off while trying to adjust the turbo boost and had to retire.In the midfield, de Cesaris and Johansson had had a coming-together, the luckless Swede having to pit his McLaren for a new nose cone and rejoin even further back.De Cesaris kept his Brabham going, only to retire with a smoking turbo the next lap.
The three leaders – Mansell, Piquet and Prost – began pulling away from Senna, but remained covered by only three seconds as a terrific scrap for the lead developed. For 19 laps the top three ran nose-to-tail until Piquet had a bit of a moment: whether through a momentary laps in concentration or an unseen track irregularity, he spun. The double world champion retained control impressively, making it only really a half-spin and only losing second to Prost; Senna in fourth being a goodly way back by this stage. Soon after that the tyre stops begun. Piquet was first of the front-runners in on lap 30. Two laps later Senna followed suit, then Mansell and Prost together three laps after that, which put Piquet in the lead but Mansell was charging, breaking the lap record as he chased down his team-mate and on lap 46 he was back with him, then took advantage of another uncharacteristic Piquet wobble to pass on the inside at Le Beausset and retake the lead.
Boutsen had by this stage disappeared with an electrical problem, so Senna in fourth led Alboreto (on the track – the Ferrari would have a one-minute penalty added at the end for jumping the start) and Fabi, while Berger was climbing rapidly back up the order. Nigel Mansell had decided along with Patrick Head to run a one-stop strategy and had been shown a “Tyres OK” pit board, but on lap 65 Piquet peeled off into the pits for a second stop, perhaps hoping that fresh rubber could give him the edge. Instead, the usual 8-second standstill became 14, 15, 16 seconds as the Honda engine cut out and had to be restarted, dropping him to third. Commentators assumed he had stalled the engine (with former champion James Hunt on the BBC saying that Piquet’s error-strewn race was evidence that he had lost motivation and should retire), but after the race Piquet was to insist it simply cut out on him. Whatever, he was fortunate that Prost’s McLaren was limping a bit with electrical problems and he was able to re-pass the Frenchman to retake second place a couple of laps after the disastrous stop.
Just before the stop, Alboreto had rendered his penalty moot by blowing his engine and Ferrari’s horror-show of a weekend was complete when Berger, having worked his way back up to 5th, then dropped to 9th during pitstops, came in again for what turned out to be an unfixable problem with his suspension and retired on lap 71. Paul Ricard is hard on the cars, between the heat and dust and the sustained high speeds, and as usual there were multiple mechanical retirements; both Ligiers had engine problems, both Minardis blew their turbos, as did Derek Warwick in the remaining Arrows, while the Larrousse-Lola of Alliot decided to ring the changes by having a gearbox failure instead. Perhaps most disappointed of all was Stefan Johansson, who had recovered magnificently from his first lap fracas to run sixth, before retiring just five laps from the end when his alternator belt went ping.
In the closing stages, Piquet got the hammer down and chased Mansell, gaining two seconds a lap on the Englishman, but Mansell was able to keep ahead to win by 7.7 seconds (remember Piquet had lost 8 seconds in his pitstop). Prost finished a distant third, nearly a minute down, with Senna fourth, Fabi fifth and in sixth – almost unbelievably – one of the 3.5l cars. Phillippe Streiff had driven a magnificent home Grand Prix almost unnoticed to come from 25th on the grid to claim his first ever World Championship point, not to mention victory in the Jim Clark Trophy. He was followed home by Palmer for a Tyrrell 1-2 in the Colin Chapman Cup, with Pascal Fabre as usual the last runner – but still running – to take third place in the category and move AGS up to second in the category.
And 150-GP man Patrese? Qualified 12th, retired with a differential problem on lap 19. He has had more memorable races in his long career.
As the teams packed up to head for Britain, the championship race was close, but everyone except Williams was worried; Lotus had looked distant today, Ferrari had had a disaster and McLaren had faded badly. And Silverstone was another power circuit, and one where home hero Nigel Mansell would be in his element.
|8||Andrea de Cesaris||4|
|Jim Clark Cup|
|Colin Chapman Trophy|