Official practice started on the Friday, with the usual untimed morning test-session and the one hour of qualifying after lunch, with the same programme for Saturday.

Ayrton-Senna-Podium-Jerez-1986As the circuit was brand new, and all that had happened on it before the “circus” arrived was a motorcycle race and a small saloon car race.

Thursday was given to a pre-race test session for the F1 teams and all doubts about the readiness of the circuit, the quality of the tarmac, the construction of the foundations and the arrangement of the paddock and pits, were soon dispelled for everything worked perfectly and by the time of the first qualifying session it was hard to believe that the circuit was brand new. The Spanish may appear to be laid back and dozy but they certainly got on with the job of building their new circuit and the only complaint that the drivers had was about the ridged curbing on the corners.

The ridges increased in severity on each concrete block forming the curb and they were clearly meant to be markers and were not meant to be used. With the more popular bevelled curbing there is an instant invitation for drivers to use them as part of the track and very soon they lose their point as markers. The warning at Jerez de la Frontera was “keep off the curbs, they are not part of the track”. If a driver made a mistake he could survive by going over the curb, but his car would be damaged: not as badly as hitting a concrete wall or an iron guard-rail, but the underside would suffer. Piquet put it to the test on the first day of official practice, and his Williams FW11 suffered a badly damaged monocoque and it meant that he had to take the spare car for the rest of the meeting.

Unlike American track-racing drivers, Formula 1 drivers do not like going very fast on long straights, and prefer corners, so they all liked the new Autodrome and there were no complaints about too many corners, for there was plenty of room to overtake, and some reasonable bits of straight in places. When you watched from the centre of the circuit, in the paddock area, it was a bit like a three ring circus in that cars seemed to be going in all directions, but you soon got used to it. As it runs up hills, down hills and round behind hills, the overall effect was not at all bad.

Pre-race information suggested that lap times would be about 1 min 52 sec and the average speed would be between 85 and 90 mph, which did not sound very exciting. In fact, the estimates were hopelessly wrong and lap times were nearly down to 1 min 20 sec and the average speed was over 115 mph. So it was all much better than expected which always helps to smooth a troubled path, except that the Spanish GP did not seem troubled. A look at the qualifying times will show that Ayrton Senna was way out on his own on both days, the first day in spite of everything that Team Lotus and Renault could do to prevent him taking pole position, and on the second day when the whole team got it all together in an impressive display of confidence. For those anti-Senna readers who don’t believe that he is troubled by his Team’s inability to do a proper job, I can only quote the official John Player Team Lotus press handout after the first qualifying session.

“Ayrton Senna was the quickest driver round the new Jerez Circuit in his JPS 98T setting a time of 1 min 21.605 sec — second fastest driver, Nigel Mansell, set a time of 1 min 23.024 sec in his Williams. In the morning session Ayrton had an oil filter seal fail and the mechanics had changed the Renault engine in the spare car between sessions, getting the car ready for the second half of the timed session. Ayrton was full of praise for the speed with which the mechanics had worked. ‘It was very difficult because the car was wrongly set-up, and it was far, far too low and the car was bottoming almost everywhere, then the car was bumping on the high speed corners, therefore, it was a hard job. But it was worth it, I think for today it was the best I could do. I hope that tomorrow we can improve the chassis, which was quite wrong today, and still have a good clear run,’ were his comments.”

For Johnny Dumfries the morning went badly when a transmission problem left his JPS 98T stranded out on the track. In the timed session he was also unhappy with his time of 1 min 29.093 sec being 23rd fastest. Explaining his afternoon problems, Johnny said: “The undertray came loose and it started oversteering really badly, because if that is not fixed then you lose downforce at the back and I knew I had a problem straight away. I was going to come in then I thought maybe it was tyres, so I slowed down for a lap, then attempted another quick lap and I knew then I really did have a problem, but by that time it was the end of the session.”

That was just the bare bones of the story, for Senna’s engine spewed out most of its oil in the middle of the hairpin before the pits and he was lucky to coast into the pit lane leaving a stream of good ELF lubricating oil behind him. Dumfries’ trouble was a broken shaft in the Lotus six-speed gearbox, and with Senna using the only available car, that was his lot. In the afternoon the qualifying hour was nearly half over before Senna got out on the track, having to stand and watch the likes of Piquet, Mansell, Prost and Rosberg out there setting the pace. Dumfries had barely a quarter of an hour in which to qualify. In doing the best he could under the circumstances, Senna was nearly 1 1/2 sec faster than the second man!

On Saturday afternoon the scene at the Team Lotus pit was completely the reverse, they were confident, ready, prepared and completely in control. Senna watched his rivals straining to approach his pole-position time and it was not until Mansell looked as if he might break 1 min 22 sec that the Brazilian went out. He put in a lap at just over 1 min 22 sec, but was not convinced about the selection of tyres so came in and tried another combination and promptly recorded 1 min 21.924 sec, not as fast as the day before when the car sounded to be a shambles, but still the only driver to get under 1 min 22 sec on this new track. While this had been going on Dumfries had done an excellent job and got down to 1 min 25.107 sec which gave him 10th overall for the two days of qualifying, and seventh for the Saturday session. His race performance was to be curtailed as the team had suffered a number of breakages in their six-speed gearboxes and there were only enough for Senna’s two cars, so Dumfries had to use an old-type five-speed box, which was a distinct handicap on this twisty circuit, and during the race the crown-wheel and pinion broke.

Having been shown the internal construction and workings of the new seven-speed gearbox on the Brabham BT55, by designer and builder Pete Weismann, it was not difficult to appreciate that it was designed for a driver with a velvet touch like Lauda, Piquet or Prost. The gear shafts are mounted across the centre-line of the car, the input coming through bevel gears on the right. From the seven speed gear cluster of straight-cut spur gears, further straight-cut gears take the drive rearwards and slightly upwards to the differential. The whole transmission layout is all part of the overall concept of the BT55, which started with the idea of lowering the overall height of the BMW four-cylinder engine and at the same time lowering its centre of gravity. The centreline of the engine is at a mere 18degrees from the horizontal, and the offset weight of the crankshaft, flywheel and clutch is balanced by the camshafts and turbocharger unit on the nearside. Looking at the engine from the rear, the centre of gravity must surely be in line with the crankshaft centre line, and with the centre of gravity on the centre-line of the car, the offset of the crankshaft is in the order of eight inches.

The input bevels of the transmission turn the drive line from fore-and-aft to transverse and then Weismann has built what is in effect a big strong motorcycle type gearbox, with sliding selector arms moving double sided dogrings in either direction, the actual selector movement being less than a quarter of an inch between gears. The gate pattern is conventional, with reverse and first on the left, then second and third, then fourth and fifth as the lever is moved across to the right, and finally sixth and seventh. There is no visible gear-lever gate, but there are spring loaded detents at second third and again at fourth fifth, so that the driver can “feel” where he is in the gear pattern. The Spanish circuit did not need all seven gears, so seventh position was blanked off. The object behind all these gears is like a small racing two-stroke motorcycle with a limited rev band, and the BMW engine in the Brabham needs to be driven on the rev-counter, which actual gear is engaged being immaterial. I am not sure that Patrese and de Angelis are mentally attuned to such thinking. A Piquet or a Senna would probably drive the BMW engine on the boost-gauge rather than the rev-counter. The long-term thinking behind the BT55 is probably leading towards a constant-speed power unit with clutchless automatic transmission that simply keeps the engine at its most efficient point, this point being fed into the engine management system.

As always, testing and qualifying was the most interesting time, the race itself being a different matter altogether and the 72 laps round the new Jerez circuit was no exception. With fuel limited to 195 litres and tyre wear being critical it was a race of tactics rather than gutsy racing. For the first half the leading bunch, of Senna, Piquet, Rosberg, Mansell and Prost, circulated in Indian File letting Senna set the pace, which he did on his fuel consumption gauge rather than his rev-counter. This allowed the two Ligiers to keep up with them, Rene Arnoux in particular showing good form on his return to the scene.

Not quite staying with the front runners were the two Ferraro, but neither Alboreto nor Johansson had been a major threat throughout practice, the V6 engines from Maranello giving continual niggling troubles, and not being quick enough when they did run right. It was beyond half distance before anyone made a move, and then it was Mansell who began to force the issue, and he took the lead. Senna was content to keep the same pace, intent on conserving fuel and tyres, as was Prost, but Rosberg’s tyre wear was too much and he eventually dropped back and finally made a stop for new tyres.

Mansell’s tyres began to deteriorate and his situation was not made any easier by one of his tyres losing air pressure through a slit caused by a piece of metal picked up off the track. He stayed out as long as he could remain ahead of Senna, but once the Brazilian began to lean on him, Mansell shot into the pits and the Williams team made what must have been the fastest pit stop ever recorded in Formula 1, with all four wheels changed in under nine seconds. The tyres were all ready and pre-heated so that Mansell was back into the race at maximum potential. Senna drove as hard as conditions of fuel consumption and worn tyres allowed, but it was not enough to prevent Mansell from gaining on him dramatically.

As they rounded the last hairpin the Lotus was only just ahead, and Mansell caught it as they crossed the line, but did not get ahead until a few feet after the finishing line. The time difference was 0.014 seconds, in barely the diameter of a wheel between the two cars. It was one of the closest finishes seen for a long time, and while Ayrton Senna was the winner, Nigel Mansell was the hero, making up for all his previous misdemeanours with a race that will go down in history.

The whole affair had been a gamble from start to finish, for the Lotus finished with very little fuel left in the tank, while the Honda engine’s consumption in the Williams was much better, but Piquet’s engine had blown up. Senna was once more using the latest Renault engine with the compressed-air system of valve springs replacing the conventional wire valve springs.

As the first Spanish Grand Prix since 1981 it can be considered an excellent racing success, but it is difficult to see how it was a commercial success, though we are never told about the finances behind the scenes that prop up seeming financial disasters.

An unforgettable way to secure his third victory, by the slimmest margin in Senna’s entire career – and also one of the most exciting finishes ever. The victory made the Brazilian the championship leader, with 15 points, against Piquet’s 9, Mansell’s 6 and Prost’s 4.

As a final thought. A brand new circuit on which no-one had tested prior to the event was said by the media to be the recipe for evening out the overall scene. It wasn’t noticeable, the fast were still fastest and the slow were still slowest. Noticeable omission from the pit lane was the Regie Renault team, but the lack of Alfa Romeo and RAM teams was not so noticeable, and the Toleman team seemed just the same, merely having a different patron in the shape of Mr Benetton. Also noticeable that people no longer talk of petrol being used by Formula 1 engines; it’s “fuel” these days, strictly to the regulation figures of course.



Driver/Possition Constructor Time
1. Ayrton Senna Lotus 98T-Renault 1h 48m 47.735
2. Nigel Mansell Williams FW11-Honda + 0.014
3. Alain Prost McLaren MP4/2C-TAG Porsche + 21.552
4. Keke Rosberg McLaren MP4/2C-TAG Porsche  + 1 Lap
5. Teo Fabi Benetton B186-BMW  + 1 Lap
6. Gerhard Berger Benetton B186-BMW  + 1 Lap