5 June 1983
From the rolling hills of the Ardennes to the concrete canyons of the Motor City as the Formula One circus returned to Detroit. The inaugural Detroit Grand Prix the previous year had been a qualified success – an exciting race and a great “burn from the stern” win for John Watson, but with a slew of organisational problems and a track layout unpopular with many of the drivers. Rumours were rife in the paddock that the two planned US races later in the year were off: the New York Grand Prix wasn’t even close to ready and would be put off until 1984, while it was an open secret that the Caesar’s Palace organisers were trying to negotiate their way out of a loss-making third race. With Long Beach already switching to IndyCar for 1984, Detroit was starting to look like the future of Formula One in the US after just one year. Meanwhile the Swiss Grand Prix in Dijon had also been cancelled, and replaced by a race at Brands Hatch dubbed the European Grand Prix.
After Eliseo Salazar’s fourth failure to qualify in six races at Spa, his personal sponsors Copec had finally given up on him and pulled the plug, leaving the hapless RAM team driverless, so they would not be racing in Detroit – having done a deal with Jacques Villeneuve to race in Canada, they opted instead to head up to Mosport Park and let him test the car.
Friday’s qualifying session was wet, so again it would be one session that determined grid spaces. René Arnoux took pole ahead of Piquet and team-mate Tambay, with Elio de Angelis an unaccustomed fourth in the Lotus-Renault and Marc Surer having another great practice in fifth. Next up were Alboreto, Cheever, de Cesaris, Warwick and Boutsen – an excellent tenth place on the grid in the Belgian’s second race. Of the other major names, Rosberg could only manage 12th, Prost (who hated the track) 13th, Patrese 15th and the McLarens of Lauda 18th and Watson 21st. Making its debut in 24th place was the Alfa Romeo-engined Osella driven by Piercarlo Ghinzani.
With an estimated 70,000 spectators (and a further 30,000 watching from unticketed vantage points), a far slicker organisation than in 1982, and a fine day in prospect, all looked good for the race. More startline shenanigans courtesy of Andrea de Cesaris ensued: this time the Italian stalled but before the lights were lit, so everything was switched off and a five-minute delay was announced and a lap scrubbed from the race. When it all went go again, it was de Angelis’ turn to mess up – he shot off the line a fraction before the lights turned green. Surprised, Tambay’s foot slipped off the clutch and he shot forward briefly and then stalled. Meanwhile, everyone else got a proper start, so the organisers decided to run with it and penalise de Angelis one minute. A furious Tambay’s race was over before it began, while Piquet got ahead of Arnoux into the first corner followed by de Angelis and de Cesaris, Alboreto, Warwick, Rosberg (another fine start from the Finn) and Cheever.
De Angelis’ penalty became moot very quickly when he pulled over on the start/finish straight at the end of lap 1 with a gearbox full of neutrals, by which time Eddie Cheever had already departed with a broken fuel feed line. This left de Cesaris third, chased by Alboreto and Rosberg with Warwick leading a little parade of his own a little way behind. Alain Prost had got past Boutsen at the expense of his front wing, while Marc Surer had made a terrible start due to having to avoid Tambay and was now behind his rookie team-mate – a situation not helped when he spun on lap 7 and lost another six places. The Swiss driver just couldn’t catch a break today: four laps after his spin, he was black-flagged and the team brought him in to see what the problem was. Not finding one, they sent him out again, the black flags waved again and back in he came. Some litter was removed from his sidepods and off he went again – no black flags this time but he was 22nd and last.
While Surer’s afternoon was being comprehensively ruined, Arnoux had got back ahead of Piquet and was starting to pull away. The Frenchman was being openly touted as not long for the Ferrari team if his results didn’t pick up and he meant to prove his doubters wrong. De Cesaris, by contrast, was dropping back: Rosberg, Alboreto and Warwick all made their way past the Alfa Romeo, and the defending champion used the nimbler Williams to chase down Piquet and, on lap 20, got past to go second. On lap 29, Arnoux came in for his fuel/tyre stop and such was his lead that he rejoined just ahead of Piquet, who had yet to stop. In fact, it soon became obvious that he wasn’t going to: Gordon Murray had calculated that with a low boost (which was fine on a low-speed circuit like this), his cars could go the distance on one tank. Piquet had driven carefully to preserve his tyres and ration his fuel, and now looked to pounce while Arnoux’s tyres bedded in.
As Piquet chased Arnoux, the drama was rather sapped when the Ferrari simply toured off with a fuel injection failure, leaving Piquet in the lead by a country mile from Alboreto (also non-stopping) and Rosberg (whose stop had been a long one courtesy of a stuck wheel). Piquet eased off, which allowed Alboreto to catch up, but he was also conserving fuel and tyres and seemed happy to settle for second, given he hadn’t scored at all yet this year. Behind Rosberg was Watson, another consistent drive as others retired around him, then Laffite, Boutsen, Mansell and Prost. Watson caught up to Rosberg and had a couple of sniffs, but the Finn responded and put his foot down, leaving the McLaren behind again.
And then, nine laps from the end, Piquet was coasting with a punctured rear tyre. He eased round to the pits for a change and a splash of fuel so he could turn his boost up, but he was too far back to regain the lead and it was Michele Alboreto who took his second race win – both on US soil – with Rosberg and Watson joining him on the podium. Nelson Piquet ended up fourth, and the only turbo car in the top six: Jacques Laffite took another brace of points for Williams and Nigel Mansell finally opened Lotus’ 1983 account in sixth – pipping Thierry Boutsen to the point after passing the tired Belgian late on.