In a year when the Williams team would claim a dominant constructers’ crown- and finish one-two in the drivers standings- it was no surprise to see an all-Williams front-row at the 1987 Belgian Grand Prix, with the turbo Honda-powered car of Nigel Mansell a whopping 1.5 seconds clear of teammate (and best chum) Nelson Piquet. Ayrton Senna was third in his Lotus (which also had a Honda in the back), followed by the Ferraris of Michele Albereto and Gerhard Berger, with Alain Prost sixth in the McLaren-TAG.
At the start Mansell led away, whilst Senna was able to pass Piquet for second at La Source. But the race would be stopped on the second lap, with several accidents forcing the stewards in to action.
The worst involved both of the Tyrrell cars. Phillipe Streiff had a heavy impact with the barriers at Radillon and was then collected by teammate Johnathan Palmer. The rear of Streiff’s car was an utter wreck, but fortunately he was able to climb from his machine unaided. But, with bits of Tyrrell strewn across the track, a red flag was a must.
So the cars lined up again in qualifying order, with Senna back to third and Piquet on the front row alongside Mansell. Could Ayrton leapfrog Nelson again?
Forget that, Senna was feeling even more ambitious. He got an absolute flier in the Lotus, leaving Piquet for dead and then wriggling past Mansell before the cars had hit La Source. Senna led through Eau Rouge, followed by the two Williams drivers.
But Mansell knew he had a quicker car than Senna’s- qualifying had proved that- and didn’t want to waste any time behind the Lotus. So he went for it, and tried to pass Senna around the outside of Fagnes in a somewhat ambitious move. It didn’t pay off, the two making contact and spinning in to the gravel.
Senna retired on the spot, whilst Mansell rejoined at the tail of the field. He’d eventually call it a day on lap 17, his car too damaged to continue, and proceeded to march down to the Lotus pits, grab Senna by the scruff of the neck and inform the Brazilian of his displeasure at the coming together. Cross words were exchanged and, allegedly, punches thrown, making Michael Schumacher’s attempts to remonstrate with David Coulthard at the same circuit in 1998 seem positively gentlemanly.
It was one of the most contentious moments of the year, and Senna’s subsequent comment- “When a man holds you round the throat, I don’t think he has come to apologise”- was one of the quotes of 1987.
Back to the race, which was led by Piquet as the second lap began, followed by Albereto, Prost and Boutsen. The race appeared to be falling in to Nelson’s hands, but on lap 11 he pulled out of the running suffering from problems with his turbo engine. With Albereto having retired two laps earlier Prost now led- and had barely had to break sweat to do so.
In fact Prost would lead the rest of the race, not dropping from the lead once in the remaining 30 laps. With both of the Williams cars, Senna’s Lotus and the Ferrari pair gone there was no one left to rival Prost.
Things weren’t quite so simple behind the Frenchman. Teo Fabi (Benetton) ran strongly in second before dropping to third behind Prost’s teammate, Stefan Johansson. Still, Fabi was on for a solid third place, but things began going wrong as the race reached its final third. First he was passed by Andrea de Cesaris (Brabbham), and his race ended less than ten laps from home with engine failure.
But there was no such drama out front. Prost cruised home for his 27th career victory, sending him level with Jackie Stewart in the all-time winners’ list. It was his second win at Spa but, despite claiming two more titles before he retired, Prost never won there again: Ayrton Senna would dominate the race for the next four years.
For runner-up Stefan Johansson it was a career-best equalling result, with Belgium ’87 being one of the four second-place finishes he’d take in F1. Andrea de Cesaris was third, though he ran out of fuel on the final lap and had to physically push his car across the line. He deserved some champagne for that alone. Eddie Cheever was fourth for Arrows, fifth went to Satora Nakajima, the 34 year-old F1 rookie driving the second Lotus, and veteran Frenchman Rene Arnoux brought his Ligier home for the final point.
So Prost claimed one of his luckier F1 wins at a stroll on a day when two of his great rivals ended up in fisty-cuffs. There’s something symbolic in that, isn’t there?
Thanks to Badger’s Riccardo Monza for additional research and info on Spa 1987.