Detroit Street Circuit
22 June 1986
Although there were only 7 days between the Canadian and Detroit races, there were a few personnel changes for the race at the by now notorious street circuit. Christian Danner had completed his move to Arrows to replace the injured Marc Surer, and in his place came Canadian driver Allen Berg, while Lola needed a substitute for Patrick Tambay, still in pain from his Montreal crash. First choice was Mario Andretti, but he turned down the offer, recommending instead his son Michael. Andretti Jr, however, was unable to get an F1 Superlicence in time (thanks to an ongoing tiff between FISA and CART) and instead Eddie Cheever took time out from his sportscar duties with Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguar team to fill in. Finally, the Benetton team arrived with some fantastic-looking coloured tyres, which caught the eye of photographers.
Like Derek Warwick, Eddie Cheever had had a promising career somewhat stalled by association with an underperforming factory team and, like Warwick, he had found himself out of an F1 drive when 1986 rolled around. He was driving touring cars for Jaguar in the meantime when he was offered a one-off drive for Haas Lola to replace the injured Patrick Tambay – an American driver in an all-American team a great draw at the US Grand Prix.
Vancouver-born Berg had begun karting in 1978 at the age of 17, and moved into Formula Atlantic three years later. By 1983 he had moved to the UK to compete in British Formula Three, but his timing was unfortunate, as he was up against the dominance of Ayrton Senna and Martin Brundle. He won one race and came fifth overall, then challenged Johnny Dumfries for the title the following year. He returned to Canada to raise more funds and managed to secure a drive with Osella as a replacement for Christian Danner.
As usual, Friday’s practice sessions were slower, with the street circuit needing some running-in and rubber laying down before it would be truly fast, with Mansell the best of the bunch. Saturday came, and in glorious weather the top drivers waited for optimum conditions. Senna came out first, halfway through the period, found a clear track and set a blistering course record of 1:38.301. Mansell went next but was balked by Alain Prost getting things wrong at the chicane and was half a second behind Senna, who took the pole position with Mansell second. Piquet was third, and the Ligiers were on form too, qualifying 4th (Arnoux) and 6th (Laffite), sandwiching Johansson’s Ferrari. Prost, after his accident, could only manage 7th, alongside Patrese’s Brabham, with Rosbeg and an excellent Cheever rounding out the top ten and Alboreto 11th in the other Ferrari. The other debutant, Allen Berg, would start his race from 25th place, ahead of Huub Rothengatter’s Zakspeed.
The hapless Rothengatter, however, would not even see the start, as his electrics failed partway round the parade lap. The remaining cars lined up and when the lights went green Mansell and Senna got away together and raced side-by-side to the first corner, while Arnoux got away well and tucked in behind them. It was Senna who went through in first, with Mansell climbing all over the back of him, while Prost had also moved ahead of Laffite into 6th. Arnoux wasn’t content with 3rd either, constantly looking for an opportunity to get by Mansell into second. Coming into lap 3, Senna missed a gear at the first corner and Mansell surged past into the lead, Senna now with Arnoux climbing all over the back of him. While Senna defended, Mansell pulled away and behind the Lotus-Ligier scrap for second, Piquet was leading Johansson, Laffite and Rosberg, all sitting on the gearbox of the car in front and jockeying for position.
Mansell pulled out a lead of over 5 seconds in the next few laps, while the Piquet-Johansson-Laffite-Rosberg scrap had caught up to Arnoux and formed a single six-car train led by Senna. Mansell, however, began having some brake problems and Senna put his foot down and began reeling him back in. On lap 6, the Lotus was past coming out of the tunnel and Arnoux followed past on the start-finish straight. Mansell was able to stay in touch with the Ligier, though, while Senna pulled out a handy lead of his own. Behind him, Laffite had got past Piquet and was now approaching Mansell, forming a Ligier-Williams sandwich. A lap later, he was past and the Ligiers were running 2nd and 3rd – a welcome comeback for the French team, if they could just keep hold of it.
It was lap 12 and Senna was already among the backmarkers, with the Ligiers following him through in formation, but before long the Lotus came in for a tyre stop and so the blue cars were running 1-2 for the first time in a very long while indeed. The French cars were running close together and Laffite soon challenged for the lead, barging his way past Arnoux on lap 17, and starting to pull out slightly while Mansell kept a watching brief in third, his brakes apparently now fine. Behind Mansell were Prost, Piquet and Senna, all around three seconds apart, and behind them the two Ferraris.
By lap 25, Laffite was pulling away into the lead while Mansell, still chasing Arnoux for second, was in turn being caught by Prost, who began swarming all over the back of him with Piquet in hot pursuit as well. As the little group concertinaed up, Senna began to close up, putting the top six all very close together and before long a five-car train had developed. Piquet got a slingshot past Prost to move up to fourth while Mansell was now clambering all over the back of Arnoux, and then a bullish Senna also forced his way past the McLaren coming out of the tunnel.
Mansell eventually had to wait for Arnoux to pit for tyres before he could get up to second place, but soon lost it to Piquet as the two Williams and Senna ran closely together, keeping in touch with Laffite as he deftly worked his way through traffic. Mansell’s brake problems now chose a bad moment to reappear and he lost his place to Senna and then Prost, only for the McLaren to immediately dive into the pits for a stop of 9.6s. Meanwhile, released from behind Mansell, Piquet got the hammer down and caught Laffite in short order. Within a lap he was through, with Senna now looming large in the Ligier’s mirrors. A few corners later, he was through too.
Mansell’s stop on lap 34 was a slow one at 12.8s as his team doused him with water to counteract the savage heat, but it didn’t seem to bother Piquet and Senna who cruised serenely at the head of the field, the former putting up the fastest lap so far at 1:42.911 as he went. Senna responded the next lap with 1:42.781, and retook the lead a few laps later as Piquet’s tyre stop went horribly wrong, lasting nearly 18.5s, while Senna’s own stop on lap 39 was a lightning 8.28s. Senna maintained the lead and Piquet hung onto second ahead of Prost, with the Ligiers now fourth (Arnoux) and fifth.
Piquet got his foot down, putting up a new fastest lap on lap 41, but a lap later he was out, wiping his nosecone off on the unforgiving barriers along the lakeside section so Senna now had a big lead over Arnoux, who had got past Prost into second place, but the Frenchman was on a charge and began carving a second a lap out of Senna’s lead. For five laps, the hapless marshals failed to move Piquet’s car, which had been left in an awkward position by the exit of the last chicane – and no sooner did they get it moved and stop waving the yellow flags, than Arnoux got a bit wide and sideswiped it. Attempting to rejoin the track, Arnoux collided with Boutsen and put both drivers out.
This put Prost up to second again, 27 seconds behind the leader but the TAG engine was having problems, cutting out under braking – a big issue at a start-stop circuit like Detroit. Laffite began to reel Prost in, passing the McLaren to take second place, which he retained to the end. Senna took his fourth career win by 30 seconds at the end, with Laffite and Prost joining him on the podium and Alboreto, Mansell and Patrese taking the minor points. Senna took the lead in the Drivers’ championship, while McLaren closed to one point behind Williams in the Constructors’ race.