When Sebastian Vettel’s tyre failed at high speed on the Kemmel straight last weekend I was reminded of a similar tyre failure that occurred in Adelaide in 1986. The circumstances were somewhat different though, as was the outcome and the driver’s reaction subsequently.
Adelaide 1986 was the final race of that year’s championship, and three drivers were in contention for the title:
Nigel Mansell was leading the championship by six points (at that stage the points were 10, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1) driving the Williams Honda;
Alain Prost was in second place in the McLaren TAG;
Nelson Piquet was a point adrift of Prost in third place, also in a Williams Honda.
Ayrton Senna (Lotus Renault) was too far behind in fourth place to challenge for the title. Mansell qualified on pole position, with his team mate sharing the front row three tenths behind. Senna was the only other driver to get within a second of the Englishman and shared the second row with Prost.
Senna passed Mansell at the second corner, and was followed by both Piquet and Keke Rosberg (Prost’s McLaren team mate) later that lap. Mansell needed to finish third or better for the title, and he was now in fourth place. However, both Prost and Piquet needed to win, with Mansell fourth or lower to secure the championship. Piquet passed Senna on the opening lap to take the lead, but as Senna fell back Rosberg passed Piquet for the lead on lap 7. Rosberg then began to build a sizeable lead in his last Grand Prix.
On lap 23 Piquet lost several places following a spin, while on lap 32 Prost came in to replace a punctured tyre, re-joining in fourth place. This promoted Mansell to second behind Rosberg and ahead of Piquet. On lap 44 Piquet passed Mansell to take second which meant Mansell was still in a championship winning third position. Prost made good use of the fresh Goodyear tyres and by lap 62 was only a couple of seconds behind the Williams of Mansell. The following lap Rosberg pulled over with what he thought was terminal engine or transmission failure. When he got out of the car he found that the noise and vibration was caused by a rear tyre beginning to delaminate. A post-race interview went something like this:
Rosberg : Engine! Engine bearing or possibly transmission!
Reporter (surprised) : But did you not notice that you had a shredded rear tyre?
Rosberg (surprised) : OHH! THAT was made all that noise
Mansell was now passed by Prost, but he was still in a championship winning third place thanks to Rosberg’s retirement. Unfortunately on Lap 64 while travelling at 180 mph his left rear tyre exploded on the high speed Brabham straight. The remains of the tyre broke the suspension, the car dipped at the rear and travelled down the straight on two wheels. Somehow Mansell kept it out of the barrier and stopped in the runoff area. The following is a quote from Peter Windsor (a Williams team member in 1986) when asked about the race back in 2008:
Q: The parallels with the 1986 title showdown in Adelaide are striking. As a senior Williams man at the time you must have some pretty vivid memories of that weekend…
A: Not happy ones, I’m afraid, because we were all so conscious of how on-the-edge the tyres could be.
Like Lewis in comparison with Fernando, Nigel Mansell was harder on rear tyre temperatures than Nelson Piquet. This wasn’t an “oversteer” thing; it was a “load” thing – born of Nigel being quicker on fast and medium-speed corners.
In those days it was “safer” to eliminate a pit stop if you possibly could – and Goodyear counselled us to go non-stop. The tyres, they said, could take it.
I think it was Thierry Boutsen who retired a few laps before Nigel’s blow-out. Whatever, a Goodyear engineer came down to our garage to say that the tyres on the Arrows were looking a little tired and that it might be better to bring Nigel in for a precautionary stop. It would be no problem; he could still win the title.
David Brown was just about to press the “speak” button on his radio when Nigel’s tyre blew…
We then brought Nelson in (thus losing him the championship) – and guess what? His tyres were perfect.
Following Piquet’s stop for fresh rubber Prost went on to win the race (and the championship) comfortably, slowing down over the last few laps to allow the Brazilian to close to 4.2 seconds at the flag.
In comparison with the failure suffered by Vettel, while both happened in a straight line at high speed, the Pirelli delaminated but the integrity of the tyre was maintained until the carcass overheated but he was able to drive the car all the way back to the pits at Spa. I can’t recall McLaren, Rosberg, Williams or Mansell complaining about the Goodyear tyres following the race in 1986 or stating that they tyres were unsafe. Goodyear hadn’t been asked to make deliberately degrading tyres, and the Goodyear technicians were encouraging the teams to try and go through the race without stopping, only changing their mind when analysis of others tyres had indicated there may be an issue. Pirelli certainly didn’t have this luxury, as no-one came close to the number of laps that Ferrari were trying on Vettel’s car.
While Nico Rosberg’s tyre failure on Friday resulted in a dramatic spin and he was fortunate not to hit any barriers, that was down to the fact that the car was going through a high speed corner at the time. Comparing the two tyre failures in a straight line, it is impressive how the integrity of the tyre has improved, and the stability of the car once the tyre had disintegrated. While I certainly wouldn’t like to be in either of the cars when they tyres failed, it certainly looks like Vettel had a slightly easier time controlling the failure, which shows that some significant improvements have been made over the last 30 years.
For those that haven’t seen the 1986 season decider, there are some short clips available online, particularly featuring Mansell’s tyre failure.
After watching both, what do you think: is Vettel too critical of Pirelli considering what his predecessors had to endure, or are such failures (on what are after all prototype cars) just unacceptable in today’s safety conscious world?