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Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet - the classic title showdown 02 Oct 2007

The 1986 World Championship contenders: (L to R) Ayrton Senna (BRA), Lotus; Alain Prost (FRA) McLaren; Nigel Mansell (GBR) Williams; Nelson Piquet (BRA) Williams. Formula One World Championship, Portuguese Grand Prix, Estoril, 21 September 1986. Ayrton Senna (BRA) Lotus 98T finished the race in fourth position. Portuguese Grand Prix, Rd 14, Estoril, Portugal, 21 September 1986. World © Sutton Nelson Piquet (BRA) Williams FW11, leads team mate Nigel Mansell. Australian Grand Prix, Adelaide, 26 October 1986. World © Sutton Nigel Mansell (GBR) Williams FW11, DNF Australian Grand Prix, Adelaide, 26 October 1986. World ©  SUTTON (L to R) 2nd placed Nelson Piquet (BRA) Williams FW11, Winner Alain Prost (FRA) McLaren MP4/2C, and 3rd placed Stefan Johansson (SWE) Ferrari F186. Australian Grand Prix, Adelaide, 26 October 1986. World © SUTTON

Fernando Alonso. Kimi Raikkonen. If either one of them can stop Lewis Hamilton claiming the crown this season, he is likely to do so by the slimmest of margins. Seventeen points cover the three contenders, and regardless of what happens in China and Brazil, this year’s drivers’ championship has been one of the closest - and most exciting - in years.

Throughout the Michael Schumacher era there were plenty of tense title battles, but there were also plenty of times the German won by a country mile. Reams have been written about how his absence has levelled the playing field, hence it comes as no surprise that to find a multi-driver championship clash akin to this season’s battle of wills you need to blow a little dust off the history books.

Go back just over twenty years to 1986 and you will uncover one such epic battle. Reading like a who’s who of Formula One racing, those slugging it out that season included Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet for Williams, Alain Prost for McLaren and Lotus driver Ayrton Senna. With pedigree like that on the grid it was no wonder the championship fight was tight.

With three rounds to go, all four were in with a shot at the crown as they headed to Portugal for the season’s final push. Mansell, driving the dominant Honda-powered Williams FW11, was leading the charge on 61 points. He had already won four rounds, but still faced some pretty stiff competition, not least from team mate Piquet. Together they had already clinched the constructors’ title for Williams. Relations between the two men had, however, grown decidedly frosty of late as their fight for the drivers’ crown intensified. Just five points separated them.

Just three points shy of Piquet was his old sparring partner Prost. The Frenchman, who had won his first drivers’ crown the year before, was keen to defend his title. Having already claimed three victories and finished in the points a further seven times, he was in with a genuine shot. The outsider, and the man playing catch-up, was Senna on 48 points. Although he had won just one race, the Brazilian had clinched six pole positions from 13 rounds, and in Portugal he scored a seventh. It was Mansell, however, who was dominant on the Sunday, leading from the start to take victory ahead of Prost and Piquet. Senna, who had been running second, dropped to fourth after running out of fuel on the final lap.

The result left the Lotus driver pretty much out of contention with a 19 point shortfall to leader Mansell. Piquet and Prost, however, remained very much in the running and at the penultimate round in Mexico the pair shaved even more off the British driver’s advantage. After a terrible start, the best Mansell could muster was fifth place and although Benetton’s Gerhard Berger won, Prost’s and Piquet’s second and fourth places added a respective six and three points to their tallies.

Thus the title fight would be decided at the final round in Australia. Having led the standings since midway through the season, Mansell was clear favourite with a six-point advantage over Prost (64) and seven over team mate Piquet (63). In qualifying too, Mansell had the edge, clinching pole with a significant margin of 0.311 seconds. On race day, however, fate was not on the Briton’s side.

Despite another poor start, Mansell eventually managed to surge through the field up to second. But a dramatic tyre failure on Adelaide’s main straight on lap 64 put him out of the race altogether. Fearing a similar problem on Piquet’s car, Williams had little choice but to call the Brazilian in for a precautionary stop, handing victory, nine points and a second consecutive drivers’ title to Prost.

It would be difficult not to draw comparisons to this season’s equally close title fight. Making predictions, however, is a much tougher test. With a double world champion, an established race winner and a ‘boy wonder’ rookie in the mix, anything could happen over the final two rounds of 2007, but if history’s anything to go by, we’re in for an exciting ride…