Compared to modern-day F1, this period was a world apart. Both in terms of relative safety of the cars but above all the monstrous 1000-horsepower turbocharged engines, which carried the considerable risk of catching fire during races.
It was also a period of dominance. In the previous two years, the (Porsche-powered) McLaren TAG cars claimed two world championships in quick succession, courtesy of Niki Lauda and Alain Prost. They weren’t always the quickest in qualifying, but on race day there was no stopping them. In truth, the races were frequently a bit of a procession.
So on to Mexico. In 1986, the circuit named after the country’s celebrated Rodriguez brothers (Pedro and Riccardo), on the outskirts of Mexico City, reappeared after a makeover: ready to host its first Grand Prix since 1970. It was to be the penultimate race of the 16-round season.
After two years of McLaren supremacy, 1986 witnessed a different dynamic, as the Williams-Honda was unquestionably the strongest car on track.
Off the track, it was a different story. The team had been rocked by the dreadful road accident which left team founder and principal Frank Williams paralysed and away from the pit wall. A bitter internal conflict between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet (then a double world champion, who had been poached from Brabham) threatened to derail the team’s title aspirations. Piquet had joined Williams as a contractual number one driver, a constant source of tension.
The manufacturers’ title was guaranteed, but the intense fight for the driver’s title was much more unpredictable. Mansell and Piquet were soon joined in the title race by the McLaren of defending champion Prost and the Lotus of Ayrton Senna; both hungry for more success. But on that bright Sunday afternoon in Mexico, nobody really paid any attention to Gerhard Berger, who had qualified fourth in the multicoloured Benetton. Which was a big mistake.