1987: Prost beats Stewart's record

Alain Prost said he would have had it not other way. The World Championship was gone, he knew that. What he wanted most from the remnants of his 1987 season was that elusive record win, the 28th. He wanted it, he said, before the end of the Porsche era at McLaren. And he wanted it to be a good one, earned rather than inherited. At Estoril on Sunday he got it all

1987: Prost beats Stewart's record

For most of the weekend Portugal belonged to the Ferrari of Gerhard Berger, who took the pole, and led all but half a dozen of the 70 laps. But sustained pressure from the Prost put him on the edge, with but three laps to the flag. The Ferrari, its tyres shot, got away from him, spun.

"I wasn't surprised to see it," Alain said, "because I nearly did the same two or three times. It was the hardest drive of my life and I think maybe the best."

Nelson Piquet finished third in the active Williams, and his grip on the World Championship is tighter than ever: Senna and Mansell left Estoril empty-handed.

So to Estoril, for round 12. The scruffy little autodrome is low on charm, but the track itself is not without challenge. Physically, it is demanding, a blend of long straights and mainly slow corners - five of which call for second gear. It is hard on brakes, hard on fuel consumption. Primary requisites are sharp turn-in, good throttle response for dancing through the slow turns, and towering acceleration out of them. Ideally, you also need to be strong on straightline speed. So Estoril, like so many circuits, calls for compromise.

After Nelson Piquet's Monza victory -and following two days of testing at Brands Hatch - Nigel Mansell was in no real doubt that the 'active' Williams-Honda was what he needed from now on. The testing of early active systems at Lotus has left Nigel with an abiding mistrust of the things, and throughout the season he has shown little inclination to become involved with the 'active' test programme. But the Brands test convinc-ed him of the system's superiority - especially through slow corners - and the same was true at Estoril.

Williams, therefore, arrived with four cars for the first time this season, each driver having one active, one conventional, FW11B at his disposal. And on Friday Mansell set fastest time - in the standard car...

He had begun the day in the new one, but abandoned it during the morning session when a leak developed in the hydraulic system. Having put in more track time with the 'passive' car, he decided to stay with it for the afternoon's timed session.

There were sound reasons for so doing. Thursday had been dauntingly hot and muggy, the sky as good as cloudless. Friday, though, was merely grey and sweaty. There was a possible storm in the air, and the weekend forecast was not optimistic.

Time, then for the 'banker' lap, and Nigel took the standard Williams round in 1:17.9, the only man to beat 1:18. Last year's pole time was 1:16.6, set by Senna in the Lotus-Renault, and, despite the absence of qualifying tyres and imposition of boost restriction this year, it has become the norm for 1986 lap times to be beaten, if not annihilated.

Not so at Estoril. For one thing, the track surface was filthy: if you got off line, it was like hitting a wet patch, and Piquet was not alone in comparing it with the somewhat freaky surface at the Hungaroring. It was, in oval racing parlance, a 'one groove racetrack'.

Plus, it was extremely difficult to find a clear lap. Both qualifying sessions I watched at the tight left-hander behind the paddock, and times without number winced at the sight of Streiff or Fabre or de Cesaris weaving a wayward path down the preceding straight, as if oblivious of Piquet or Prost on a hot lap. With five second gear corners there was plenty of scope for being held up.

"I thought I could go quicker," Mansell said, "so we opted to keep with the regular car for the second set of tyres. But that was it: I'd had a clear lap on the first run, and never got another..."

At the end of the session he went back out in the active car, and decided to stick with it for Saturday. "It has a lot more grip in the slow corners, and if it goes well tomorrow I feel I have to race it. The main problem is that I'm not really familiar with it, and it feels totally different from the normal car. I don't have quite as much confidence in it yet, but it's definitely better.

On Friday, another factor, too, worked against Nigel's active FW11B: it had a lousy engine, he said, whereas the one in the standard car felt great. If you were at all cynical, indeed, you might even have formed the impression that Honda were trying to steer the Englishman away from the superior active car... Perish the unworthy thought.

On Saturday, as expected, he concentrated on the active car, but was livid to find that the Japanese had not changed the engine overnight. The speed trap figures confirmed his complaint: on the second day speeds were up for all the leading runners - except Mansell. In the standard car he registered 204.3 on Friday, decimal points short of Berger's Ferrari, which was quickest of all. The following day - in the active car - he was eighth fastest, slower than Boutsen's Benetton. Who can remember when a Ford outpaced a Honda on top end power?

For all that, he set the third best time of the session, which said a lot for the grip of the active car. But which would he race? It rather depended on the engine situation on Sunday morning.

Estoril was crunch time for Nigel, and he knew it. To keep a realistic hope of beating Piquet to the championship, this was one he had to win - one he had to keep Nelson from winning. Last year's Portuguese race was perhaps his finest drive of the season: in front from beginning to end. Could he do it again? As in 1986, he was starting second.

Starting first was Berger. A Ferrari on the pole! Even a Honda man, covering the badges on his shirt and glancing over his shoulder as he spoke, said he was happy with that. He liked the red cars, liked to see them doing well, thought it good for Formula 1 that, for the first time this season, something other than a Honda-powered car had qualified fastest. Fear not, Mr X, I don't think your boss heard you...

The first half of the final session was dry - but the odd spit of rain was always there, and with 25 minutes left there was a shower. Gerhard, fifth on the opening day, had a lucky break in that he got out on his second set of tyres before the rain came, but that is not to diminish his achievement. He always looked like a contender, and his was the only lap to beat Mansell s Friday time.

"One corner was getting wet when I set my best time," he commented. "Actually, my fastest lap should have been the one before, when it was completely dry. But I made a mistake, got sideways and lost time. The first lap on new tyres is always the best for grip, so they weren't so good after that. Also, fourth gear was jumping out, and I had to drive the first corner with one hand, holding the lever with the other. Wasn't too much of a problem, but not perfect, you know?"

Berger on the pole, then, and Alboreto - who didn't get to use his second set before the rains came down - was sixth. Ferrari were looking strong. "It's been a continuous development programme, this season," Michele smiled. "If you think about it, at Rio we were four seconds slower than the Hondas in qualifying, so there's been good progress, both with the engine and the chassis. What we need now is some reliability..."

Alain Prost would also settle for that. His two-year reign as World Champion is coming to an end - at least temporarily - and he knows it, but the Frenchman is not, and has never been, obsessive about titles. "What I would really like from 1987 now," he said on Friday, "is to get my 28th win - to do it before the end of the Porsche era. I think that would be nice."

In practice he told a familiar story: chassis good, balance fine, power so-so, electronics occasionally maddening. Which is how the season has been for McLaren. But Prost's own personal commitment was as strong as ever: on Saturday morning, let it be recorded, he even had a spin, while experimenting with different bump-rubbers.

But in the afternoon he was beaten only by Berger, and that was good for third overall. Team mate Johansson looked like joining him at the good looking end of the grid, but missed nearly all the dry part of the last sessions: "Bloody coil lead..." he said, through clenched teeth. A good break will surely come Stefan's way some day.

Still, he did at least get out on Saturday afternoon, which is more than could be said of the World Championship leader. Unlike Mansell, Piquet never bothered with his standard Williams at Estoril. It was the active car throughout, and on Friday he was second fastest to his team mate's standard machine. The car was fine, he said, traffic the only problem.

During Saturday morning, though, a vibration developed, and at first the gearbox was suspected. Later, though, the problem was traced to the clutch, the replacing of which takes almost as long as an engine change. The mechanics were not done by the start of the last session, but Nelson declined to take out his standard car. By the time the work was finished, so, too, was the dry weather. The Brazilian ran a single slow lap, and came in. Friday's time now put him fourth on the grid, one place up on his Monza protagonist and beloved fellow-countryman.

Ayrton did not have the happiest of qualifying days in Portugal, spinning twice - once to avoid a rotating Alliot - on Friday afternoon, and suffering an engine bay fire of some magnitude (caused by hydraulic fluid leaking onto the exhaust) in the final session. That meant going to the spare, but the rain took care of any more quick times.

Senna wasn't too concerned. "It will mean harder work in the race, starting from the third row, because passing is difficult here," he said, "but I think we've got the race set-up quite good." What he didn't want was a repeat of last year, when the Renault-engined car coughed through the last of its fuel with the finish line in sight.

There, really, you had the contenders. Patrese did a typically fine job to qualify seventh in the Brabham-BMW - but how long would it last? And the Benettons, very much starring players since being allowed sensible boost through their Ford motors, slipped back at Estoril, with Boutsen ninth, Fabi 10th. Both complained of too much oversteer, and in the last session Thierry had pop-off valve problems, and Teo spun, let the engine die.

What would Sunday bring? Saturday night brought a hell of a storm, perhaps clearing the air. Senna, mindful of his greatest day here in 1985, said he didn't mind.

There was a time when you expected Prost and McLaren to come right on race day. No matter what the events of qualifying, the Frenchman and his team concentrated on Sunday, the day that paid. But 1987 has been different: the MP4/3 has proved incredibly sensitive to tiny adjustments, making it an unusually difficult car to set up. But Alain and his engineers can deal with that most days: the major change this summer has been loss of the reliability we once took for granted in a McLaren-Porsche.

In Portugal, though, the practice days had been relatively trouble-free, and on race morning Prost was fastest in the warm-up, followed by Berger, Mansell, Alboreto, Johansson and Boutsen. It was a reasonable image of qualifying - save that Piquet and Senna were down in seventh and eighth. That was strange, for Ayrton was fastest through the traps...

Mansell remained dissatisfied with his horsepower. Honda had changed the engine in his active car overnight, but Nigel said it felt no better, and the trap speeds bore him out. Nevertheless, he said wearily, he was going to stick with the car. But he could see himself getting picked off on the long Estoril straights.

He got away well from the grid, seizing the lead as Berger's wheels spun on the dirty right-hand side of the road. But it benefited him nothing, for the "race" was to last less than a couple of minutes.

While Nigel and Gerhard got through the first turn in good shape, behind there was carnage. Piquet and Alboreto laid claim to the same piece of road at the same time, leaving the Ferrari off the road, the Williams-Honda limping with a punctured front tyre. Needless to say, each blamed the other.

Warwick spun in the melee, and Nakajima, perhaps overreacting to the rotating Arrows, squeezed Brundle off the road and into the guardrail. All of this was faithfully recorded by a new rear-mounted camera on de Cesaris's Brabham, which had been in itself the cause of some hilarity in the paddock: if you wanted a camera to face backwards, some cynic murmured, and you chose Andrea as its courier, surely the place to mount it was on the front...

Anyway, there was little hilarity at the first turn. When the dust had settled, the cars of Alliot, Arnoux, Danner and Campos were also seen to be involved, and the track was virtually blocked. We awaited the red flag to halt the race. Scandalously, it was not shown until the field had blasted up to the accident, threaded its way through - somehow without further incident. Only after two laps was the race stopped: someone somewhere dithered too long.

So it was a new race, full distance, with refuelling allowed. And Piquet, whose day had looked shot, was in with another chance. "That's the kind of luck," commented a watching Patrick Tambay, "that comes to people who win World Championships..."

The undertray of Nelson's car was damaged during his punctured lap to the pits, but that was repaired in time for the restart. The Williams was also given a new nose, and this, the Brazilian would say later, gave him more oversteer than he would have liked.

T-cars were pressed into service for Brundle. Alliot, Arnoux and, most significantly, Alboreto. And the luckless Danner was left to spectate. Forty minutes after the shunt, the green light flashed for the second time - and again it was Mansell who made the most of it.

His lead, though, was short-lived. As they crossed the line at the end of the opening lap, Berger jinked out from the Williams' tow, and calmly drove by - just as Nigel had anticipated. It was unusual, to say the least, to see a Williams-Honda thus humbled.

Mansell's Portuguese Grand Prix lasted less than 20mins. Senna's third-placed Lotus had quite a queue behind it, led by a frustrated Piquet, and this allowed the leading duo to break away. In point of fact, Nigel was beginning to close on the Ferrari again when, on lap 14, his engine simply died.

This time there were no angry words: "I'm just very disappointed," he said. "Let's leave it at that, shall we? I was driving well within myself, feeling very comfortable, starting to catch Gerhard a bit, then..."

When the Williams-Honda was brought back to the pits after the race, its engine fired up and revved lustily. But by then its driver was long gone, well aware that so, probably, were his championship chances.

Piquet's, though, were in excellent shape. For 10 laps Nelson swarmed over Senna's Lotus wherever the road turned, but it was evident on the straights that the Honda in Ayrton's car had comfortably the legs of his fellow-countryman's. On lap 11, however. Piquet found a way by, and almost immediately Senna began to fall back, being quickly swallowed up by Alboreto, Prost, Boutsen and Fabi. After 14 laps the yellow car was into the pits.

The engine had died, caught, died again, and the problem was traced to a faulty throttle sensor. By the time he returned to the race, Ayrton had lost two laps, and was down in 22nd spot. He then produced a mesmeric drive, which by the end would bring him up to seventh, just 4secs away from a championship point.

Fifteen laps into the race, then, and two of the leading lights - Mansell and Senna - were out of contention. Ferrari, with Berger still in front and Alboreto third, were looking very fine, and there seemed even a chance - whisper it - that Honda might be about to lose a race. Piquet, although now established in a comfortable second place, was 10secs adrift of the leader, and not pushing too hard.

"Because of the new nose, I had too much oversteer," he said later, "but I managed to run quite well. The biggest problem I had during the race, though, was that the suspension just got too hard - I don't know what happened to testing miles, you know, and this had never happened before. It was very uncomfortable to be bounced around like that. Reminded me of the ground effect days..."

Traffic, too, was a problem, as always at Estoril. On lap 27, indeed, Alboreto was able to catch and nip by the Williams, but soon afterwards Michele was trapped behind Nakajima's Lotus, and Nelson took back his second place.

He came in for tyres on lap 30, the first of the front runners to do so. Next time around it was Prost's turn, and now the Frenchman's race took on new impetus.

"I had a very quick stop, which put me in front of Nelson," Alain said, "but more important was that the car felt much better than before. On my first set of tyres I had a lot of vibration for some reason, but after my stop it was OK.

"Apart from the electronics unreliability," he went on, "the big problem with my car this year has been that it loses too much downforce when I am behind other cars. That makes it difficult to keep right behind, and maybe I have had to use the tyres a bit more than I should. Also, I was not very quick on the straight, so it was difficult to overtake Michele or Nelson. But in the second part of the race I really wanted to push hard. I was good on fuel during the first half, and on the new tyres the car was perfect - especially when I was running alone.

"After all this time, I really wanted to win, you know! I put the boost up a bit, and after that I was marginal on fuel. Also marginal on tyres, brakes and driver... but I didn't want to settle for second or third."

Berger made his tyre stop on lap 33, which let team mate Alboreto briefly into the lead, until he came in three laps later. The reshuffled order was: Berger, 16secs up on Fabi (who was to run the whole race without changing Goodyears), then Prost, Piquet and Alboreto. But soon afterwards Michele was out with a broken gearbox, and now Maranello hopes and prayers rested with Gerhard.

Still, the Austrian looked strong. Prost and Piquet dealt swiftly with Fabi, but were more than a quarter of a minute adrift of the Ferrari. Thirty laps remained. And anyone who witnessed them will never forget.

For a time Nelson more or less hung on to Alain, but the McLaren's new lease of life on fresh tyres, as well as Nelson's increasingly bumpy ride, soon persuaded the Williams man that discretion was his best plan. And as Prost began to charge. Piquet fell away.

Until lap 50 Berger looked under no genuine threat. Prost would take half a second there, a tenth here, but Gerhard seemed able to respond, appeared to be controlling the race. But as we went into the final 20 laps, the gap began to reduce significantly: 11.4. 10.8, 8.1, 6.34, 5.1 is how it came down, and now Alain was setting new fastest laps virtually every time around.

"I'd been close to the limit right from the start," recounted Berger afterwards, "but still the car was going perfectly, and I felt I still had something left. I was OK on fuel, and my big worry was tyres - would they last to the end?"

So he kicked again, and it seemed to be working. By lap 61 Prost was within 3secs of the Ferrari, but thereafter Berger pulled out a little more, and all looked lost for McLaren. The two men were now trading new fastest laps, and really there was little to choose. The remorseless World Champion was turning the screw, but Gerhard appeared able to resist.

Until lap 68. Suddenly there was a cloud of tyre smoke at a downhill right-hander, and when it cleared there was the red car, facing the wrong way. Berger had spun, and Prost was already through, past number 28 on the way to number 28.

"I felt that if I could go into the last two laps with a 3secs advantage, I would be ok," Gerhard shrugged afterwards. "I was driving every lap as hard as possible, and I tried to do a real quick one to make my position safe. But my tyres were completely finished, and I just took too much risk - I could not control it. That's life."

Sympathy for Berger, then. But much joy for Prost, artificially absent from the rostrum these months past. "People might not believe me," smiled Jackie Stewart, "but I'm glad to see Alain take my record - I'm glad it's he who has done it, because he's the one who deserves it. There's no doubt in my mind that he's the best race driver of the generation."

Estoril last Sunday meant Prost and Berger. You barely noticed the rest during the last hour or so, focussed simply on this great battle of wills, on the Ferrari comeback, the return of the World Champion. Piquet's jarring afternoon brought him four more points, and there was also reward for Fabi and Johansson and Cheever. Palmer just failed to pip Capelli for the normally-aspirated class, after stalling from pit lane, gaining nearly 20secs on the talented Italian.

Really, though, what mattered in Portugal was that the cards fell differently for once - that something other than a Honda triumphed. Don't bet on its happening too often next year. Not when Prost is playing for their side.

For now, though, he - and Ferrari, too - are opposition for Japan. "Maybe the championship is possible, after all, huh?" Alain grinned on Sunday afternoon. "No, it's not very realistic, is it? I just know this: there are four races left this year. And I'm going to try to win them all..."

1986: Blow out ruins Mansell's title hopes
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