Throughout 2014, here on Racer.com, we are outlining some of motorsport’s greatest rivalries, mainly between drivers but also between teams, brands and even engine manufacturers.
In the first installment of this series, RACER editor David Malsher looks at two bitter seasons that turned Nelson Piquet from a popular and uncomplicated racer into a polarizing figure among fans, and established Nigel Mansell as a potential great.
Mansell (foreground) and Piquet, Mexico ’86. (All pics LAT)
It took just two races as teammates for the edginess to start. If Nigel Mansell’s charge to second at Jerez in 1986, to finish just 0.014sec behind Ayrton Senna’s Lotus-Renault, thrilled Formula 1 fans around the world, it also left an impression on Nigel’s Williams-Honda teammate Nelson Piquet. This serious guy from Birmingham, UK, was a seriously fast driver, a seriously hard racer, and could be a serious title contender.
In other words, he was also a serious threat to Piquet’s status within Williams and within Formula 1 as a whole. And so Nelson exercised his No. 1 status, and thereafter had first call on the spare car. This wasn’t a huge issue, but if Nelson thought it would blunt Nigel’s potential, he was severely mistaken.
No one questioned Piquet’s right to be regarded as top dog when he joined Williams, for he left the Brabham “family” at the end of 1985 with two World Championships to his name (’81 and ’83) and was still on top of his game. In 1984, his all-too powerful, all-too fragile BMW-powered Brabham was the toughest challenger to the all-conquering, all-reliable McLaren TAG-Porsches of Niki Lauda and Alain Prost, and while ’85 was a bust (just one win) this was largely because of the Brabham team’s surprising switch to Pirelli tires, not because the man in the cockpit had lost his touch.
As he switched to Williams, then, many expected the previous two years of bottled up frustration to cause Piquet to pop like a champagne cork. He was regarded by many as the fastest F1 driver, by some as the outright best or at the very least, on a par with Prost. Nelson’s perceived value had never been higher.
But nor had Mansell’s self-confidence. His first four years in Formula 1 had been spent at Lotus, the first two under Colin Chapman’s direction, the latter two under Peter Warr following the team founder’s death. And while Mansell was championed by Chapman, he was a casualty of Warr, a man who neither liked nor rated him, and who made no attempt to hide his feelings.
At Williams, though, Nigel felt valued always key to getting the best from him and in the second half of the ’85 season, he proved a genuine match for brilliant teammate Keke Rosberg. Mansell scored his first two wins back-to-back, at Brands Hatch and Kyalami, and when Rosberg made it three wins in a row for the Williams-Honda FW10 by winning the finale in Adelaide, it was clear that Piquet had made the right move for ’86, joining the team that went into the off-season with the most momentum. The superb Patrick Head/Frank Dernie-designed FW11 would be the perfect tool for the task of winning races and, given Nelson’s six years of experience as a front-runner, he’d surely have a clear edge over Mansell whose overambition still tended to lead him into unnecessary danger zones.
That’s exactly how it appeared in the ’86 season opener in Rio. Mansell crashed out on Lap 1, while Piquet went on to win, thus helping raise the morale of a team whose owner and leader, Frank Williams, had suffered a huge road car wreck pre-season which left him quadriplegic. Mansell’s stunning charge in Spain notwithstanding, Piquet appeared to have an edge in pace in the early races, but at Monaco, a track he hated, Nelson couldn’t get near his teammate in practice, qualifying or race. In Belgium, Piquet struck back but his car broke while leading, handing a somewhat fortunate win to Mansell, yet the Briton then flat outperformed the Brazilian in Canada, Detroit, France and Britain, winning three of those four races.
Montreal ’86: Mansell defeats Piquet in the middle of a four-wins-from-five-races sequence. (Photo: LAT)
Piquet led Mansell to a Williams 1-2 at Monza in ’86. It was Nelson’s fourth win of the season (Photo: LAT)
The latter event fanned the flames of rivalry, in Piquet’s mind. With Williams-Honda the class of the field at Brands Hatch, the pair were way out front when Mansell pressured his teammate into missing a gear, and dived past to assume the lead. Following their pit stops, Piquet who’d stopped first and thus had his tires up to operating temperature challenged Mansell on his cold-tired out lap, only to find the door firmly closed on him. Mansell then edged away to complete a four-out-of-five race-winning sequence, and as they walked to the podium afterward, Nelson declined to shake Nigel’s hand.
Piquet conquered at Hockenheim, but third place gave Mansell a seven-point lead in the championship. Then in Hungary, it was Mansell’s turn to feel aggrieved, convinced that Piquet had hidden from him the benefits of a trick differential that improved the handling of the Williams FW11 at the brand-new and sinewy Hungaroring. To this day, Piquet’s engineer of the time Frank Dernie denies that “his” man did anything secretive that weekend, but whatever the truth, the result was the same as the previous race Piquet first, Mansell third. The uncivil war began.
Some wondered at the time whether the Williams team owner’s absence from the pits (Brands Hatch [LEFT] had been his first race back since the accident) is what allowed the driver rivalry to fester, but it’s hard to imagine that Frank Sir Frank since 1999 would have done much to pull his drivers into line. He had lost his taste for team orders back in the Alan Jones/Carlos Reutemann era and, being a racer at heart, rather enjoyed seeing his cars out front, battling each other while blowing the rest of the field into the weeds. That’s what went down at Monza (Piquet first, Mansell second), and at Estoril (Mansell first, Piquet third).
The fans and media loved the Williams “have at it” attitude, too but it undoubtedly cost a Williams-Honda driver the World Championship. Despite winning a total of nine races and beating McLaren 141-96 in the Constructors’ title race with a plainly superior car, Mansell and Piquet stole enough points from each other over the course of the season to allow Prost to slip past for the Drivers’ crown. Yes, you can point to Mansell’s infamous tire blowout in Adelaide as costing him the title. But that was one race of 16; there were plenty other points lost as a result of error or being beaten by Piquet. Anyway, you can be sure that Nigel and Nelson each regarded Alain winning the championship as preferable to the other Williams driver taking it. Team spirit was in very short supply by now
Despite being roughly even in performance, the 1986 season had enhanced Mansell’s reputation and dented Piquet’s. In qualifying, honors were even at 8-8, but Nigel had a 5-4 edge in victories and had beaten Nelson to second in the title race. Both were established in the top echelon of F1 drivers then, but while this was a major improvement in perception for the Briton, the Brazilian could no longer be considered the absolute best of the best. For one thing, he’d found a teammate who could beat him as often as not; secondly, the pair of them had been defeated by a genius in a slower car. And then there was Piquet’s compatriot, Ayrton Senna, who appeared to be the fastest of them all in qualifying in the Lotus-Renault, and who, like Prost, was clearly carrying his car on race days.
Polesitter Mansell leads Senna, Piquet, Prost, Rosberg, Berger and Arnoux at the start of the 1986 season finale in Adelaide. Famously, Mansell and Rosberg suffered tire failures, Williams called Piquet in for a precautionary pit stop and Prost won the race and took his second World Championship. (Photo: LAT)
Mansell tells Williams’ legendary chief engineer Patrick Head what’s up. (Photo: LAT)
Lotus’ switch to Honda and active-ride suspension for 1987 failed to bridge that performance deficit to Williams, while TAG Porsche was leaving McLaren at season’s end, and so engine development slowed to a crawl. Thus with Lotus/Senna and McLaren/Prost effectively cast in supporting roles, the Williams duo’s battle became a straight head-to-head for the World Championship, the Head/Dernie-modified FW11B proving even more capable than its predecessor.
While Mansell stepped up his game, attacking each grand prix with even more bullish confidence, even more technical knowledge and even more speed than the year before, Piquet expended less effort trying to outpace him and instead tried to win the championship by racing smarter, not harder, much as Lauda had against Prost three years earlier. And in 1987, as in 1984, that canny approach worked, in that the slower driver won his third World Championship. But while Niki had tended to slice through the field from mediocre grid positions and occasionally benefited from Alain’s misfortunes, Piquet’s 1987 title owed far more to luck.
To be fair to Nelson, during practice for the second race at San Marino, he had a huge shunt at Tamburello when a tire deflated and not only was he forced to miss the race, he also had trouble sleeping for a couple months thereafter and so it’s not surprising that he briefly lost some of his edgebut that can’t be a valid excuse for all the times that Mansell waxed him. Nelson did, after all, put together a run of four poles over a period of seven races mid-season, which would suggest his skills remained unimpaired.
Mansell’s Imola win, where he had no teammate to trouble him, might constitute his one lucky victory among the six he scored that year, but even if Piquet had been there that Sunday, who’s to say he would have prevailed? Of the 13 races in which both drivers started, “Red 5” had “White 6” handled in 12 of them. The exception was Monza, but that was Piquet’s only convincing win of the year, the other two being gifts from Prost and Mansell at Hockenheim, and from Mansell at the Hungaroring. Had Nigel’s car been reliable mechanically and operationally, he’d have bagged three more wins at Monaco, Hungary and Portugal, and podium finishes (at the very least) in Brazil and Germany.
Counting against Mansell when assessing his season was a clash with Senna in Spa, and the accident on his “sighting” lap at Suzuka, the consequences of which caused him to miss the last two races. Ultimately, then, Nigel had no one but himself to blame for extinguishing his final chance of winning the title, which he lost by 12 points (back then points were distributed 9-6-4-3-2-1 to the top six finishers). Particularly when you remember that Piquet was a DNF in both those final races, Nigel’s DNSs look very expensive indeed
So who won their rivalry before Piquet and Honda departed Williams at season’s end? It depends on how you gauge it. Unquestionably, Nelson was the guy who got the job done, winning a World Drivers’ Championship. In terms of pace and reputation, though, Nigel came out clearly ahead, winning 11 races to Nelson’s seven, and outqualifying him 17-12.
Mansell at Silverstone in ’87, when an unscheduled pit stop forced him to claw back 29sec in 28 laps to catch leader Piquet. Job done with less than three laps to go, he then passed in epic style. (Photo: LAT)
Sheer brilliance and anger saw Mansell put the elegant but underpowered Williams-Judd on the front row at Rio in ’88. He was over 1.5sec quicker than any other normally aspirated car! (Photo: LAT)
The rivalry didn’t quite end there, either. Just before the start of the 1988 season, Piquet threw out some hurtful and tactless comments to the non-specialist media about his rivals, declaring Senna as gay and Mansell as stupid. He even denigrated Nigel’s wife, Rosanne, yet the understandably angry British driver responded in the perfect manner. For the first race of the season, despite giving away 90hp to the turbo-powered cars, Nigel put the normally-aspirated Williams-Judd FW12 on the front row of the grid at the newly named Autodromo Nelson Piquet in Rio, beating the turbocharged Lotus-Honda of his nemesis by almost 1.5sec. True, Mansell scored some amazing pole positions in his career but no one can convince this writer that Nigel ever laid down a better qualifying lap than that fueled-by-fury run to P2.
Thereafter, this duo rarely crossed paths and even more rarely crossed swords on track before Piquet’s retirement at the end of 1991, the year in which Mansell returned to Williams after a two year foray at Ferrari. But the Brazilian, in his final season, did have one last laugh at Nigel’s expense. Remember the Canadian Grand Prix that year, when an utterly dominant Mansell was too busy waving to the crowd on the final lap, forgot to change down the gears for the hairpin and thus stalled his engine? Well, guess who swept past for the last and most unlikely victory of his career. Yeah, that’s right(LEFT).
More than two decades on, Mansell and Piquet at least tolerate each other enough to have appeared together in these fantastic TV ads for Ford Brazil, but the diehard fans of either driver are less easy to reconcile. Objective observers, meanwhile, say it was never a fair comparison because they became teammates at very different points in their respective careers. And that is truly a valid point.
Although separated by only a year in age, Piquet had a two-year head start on his F1 career, and in only his second season, 1980, had a race-winning car that took him close to the World Championship, a title he duly won in ’81 a full four years before Nigel had even won a grand prix. By 1986, with two championships under his belt and having grown used to having a subservient teammate at Brabham, Nelson regarded the Williams team’s every-man-for-himself approach as illogical, his argument borne out by a McLaren driver snatching the Drivers’ title at the last gasp. In ’87, a resentful Piquet had almost completely lost his taste for a season of heads-up duels against a guy with the same car: even on the rare occasions when he outqualified Nigel or led him in a race that year, Mansell almost invariably found a way past, memorably defeating Piquet at Paul Ricard, Silverstone, Osterreichring and Jerez.
Another way to look at it is that Piquet had seriously underestimated Mansell. Driven by a desperation to prove he could lead a team against Prost, against Senna, against anyone Nigel was still getting faster, still getting better. The Williams pair was evenly matched in ’86 but that was also the crossover point; in ’87, Piquet slipped off that plateau of form, whereas Mansell continued to climb, proving demonstrably faster and making fewer mistakes than his so-called No. 1. Ironic, then, that it was Nelson who took the title, partly through good fortune, partly because Nigel’s two significant errors, at Spa and Suzuka, had huge ramifications.
If you judge it by World Championship titles and that is supposed to be an F1 driver’s raison d’tre then Piquet won this rivalry. By almost any other gauge, including ultimate ability and career peaks, Mansell is the clear winnerisn’t he?
With more than a quarter century of hindsight, it seems there’s only one definite. Had either of them been at Williams-Honda with a less talented teammate and/or one who was under strict team orders, he would have rendered both the 1986 and ’87 seasons as predictable walkovers. Instead, thrown unwillingly together at Williams, Mansell and Piquet helped turn those years into absolute classics.
Piquet scored the last pole of his career at Jerez in ’87, but by the start of the second lap, Mansell was past and heading for the fifth of his six wins that season. (Photo: LAT)
The final true duel of their rivalry came in the the 1990 season finale in Adelaide. Piquet in the Benetton-Ford did a non-stop run, just holding off the one-stopping Mansell’s charging Ferrari. This was Nelson’s penultimate win, and came in the 500th Grand Prix of the World Championship. (Photo: LAT)