1987 Detroit Grand Prix

Detroit21 June 1987
Detroit Street Circuit

“I hate it here,” said Alain Prost. “The track is a joke. We race here simply because it’s in America where everyone says we must race. I agree with that but this place gives Americans no idea what Formula One is really like. There are some great tracks here – Watkins Glen for instance. Why don’t we use one of those and make everybody happy?” He spoke for most people: the circuit had all the problems of Monaco – the narrow, bumpy surface, the cramped pitlane and lack of facilities – but with none of the glitz and glamour, the mediterranean sun and food. Instead, the city of Detroit had never truly recovered from the oil shocks of the 1970s which had hit the “Motor City” hard. By 1987, the decline was such that the new blockbuster movie RoboCop was set in a dystopian “near-future” in the city.

DET87 Boutsen ProstIn the three weeks since Monaco, several teams had made changes for better or worse; the Brabham team had lost designer David North and engineer John Gentry; Zakspeed had made some modifications to their engine, as had Honda for Williams and Lotus. The latter were also debuting their new 5 ½” carbon-fibre gearbox which they hoped would improve engine response times – always a factor at street circuits. Ferrari also had a carbon-fibre gearbox, though a 7 ½” unit instead. Perhaps most significantly, Ford had made some major improvements on the Benetton team’s turbo units and electronics.

Things got off to a bad start when the first practice session started late and the organisers were fined $20,000 by FISA. As in Monaco, the slightest error can mean disaster and with no opportunities to test there, not to mention the high temperatures and humidity, there were a number of accidents of greater or lesser severity: both Brabham drivers, Brundle, Nakajima, Fabi, Campos and Berger all had shunts over the two days of practice, which ended with Mansell and Senna sharing the front row once again; the British driver becoming the first person ever to lap the circuit in less than 1:40.000. In third was Piquet – who loathed Detroit almost as much as Prost, and almost as much as he hated Monaco – alongside Boutsen in the much-improved Benetton. Prost was fifth alongside Cheever, who kept his home fans and sponsor USF&G happy with 6th place. Alboreto, Fabi, Patrese and Warwick made up the top ten, with Johansson and Berger just behind, and the Tyrrell boys an excellent 13th (Palmer) and 14th (Streiff).

DET87 StartIt rained overnight and during the Sunday morning warmup, but the track had already dried out before the start and it was a good one, with Mansell, Senna and Piquet all slotting into position. Boutsen fluffed his best-ever grid position with a bad start, and dropped to 9th, while Cheever got a flyer and went fourth, ahead of Fabi, Alboreto and Prost. Nakajima, who had struggled on the circuit and qualified 24th, collided with both Capelli and Campos and didn’t finish the lap, while the luckless Campos staggered on a little further before retiring himself. A couple of laps later, Piquet strayed wide and picked up a slow puncture from the debris. He too pitted, promoting Cheever to third and rejoining 21st. For six laps, Teo Fabi harried Eddie Cheever’s Arrows, trying left and right but finding no room to pass. In his frustration, the Italian ended up hitting the American’s rear tyre with his front wing, puncturing the tyre and breaking the wing. Both came in to the pits; Cheever rejoined 19th, a lap down, while Fabi retired in frustration when the pit crew were unable to get a new nose-cone to fit his car.

DET87 CheeverMansell, meanwhile, had pulled out a five-second lead over Senna by lap ten, with Alboreto now third, a further 23 seconds behind. However, Senna was encountering brake problems and had to back off, allowing Alboreto to catch up. With passing difficult, the main action on track was the usual litany of accidents and car failures; Alex Caffi retired his Osella when the gear lever came off in his hand (!); the electrics in Capelli’s March failed; Warwick scraped a wall and broke his suspension, Brundle’s new Zakspeed turbo engine blew a turbo and Nannini’s gearbox went. Senna caught a break when Alboreto’s new gearbox also failed on lap 26, promoting Prost to third – and into the points went Piquet, who had driven a stunning 23 laps to carve his way through the field: all the more impressive at a circuit with almost nowhere to pass.

On lap 34, Mansell came in for his scheduled tyre stop, but a problem with the right rear saw the stop stretch out to 18 seconds (almost exactly the length of his lead over Senna) before Mansell could get moving again, now in second place. After he returned to the track, the Williams was moving noticeably slower and more erratically and he began losing time to Prost, who was in turn being caught by a flying Piquet. The Brazilian was past the DET87 SennaMcLaren soon and on lap 53 a clearly flagging Mansell waved his team-mate and rival through into second place. The Briton’s head was lolling in the cockpit and the heat seemed to be taking its toll on him. In the closing stages, both Prost and a persevering Berger also got past Mansell, who held on for fifth place, just ahead of Eddie Cheever. Phillippe Streiff had also retired (lap 44, wheel bearing) so Jonathan Palmer took the 3.5l honours again, followed home by Pascal Fabre, continuing the slow-but-steady tradition that AGS were putting up to qualify dead last and finish dead last – but as he and Palmer were the only two atmospheric cars to finish, he had a second-place finish in the category to his name.

DET87 PodiumSenna’s second win running put him in the Championship lead, and he seemed to be the only driver out there who wasn’t completely exhausted by the end, and he had run his entire race on one set of tyres: both attributed to the active suspension on his Lotus. Mansell, it transpired, had been suffering from severe cramps in his right leg since his tyre stop after having to stay on the brakes longer than usual, and had almost to be lifted from the cockpit. Piquet and Prost were both well satisfied with a podium finish at a circuit they made no bones about hating.


Drivers Championship
1 Ayrton Senna 24
2 Alain Prost 22
3 Nelson Piquet 18
4 Stefan Johansson 13
5 Nigel Mansell 12
6 Gerhard Berger 9
7 Michele Alboreto 8
8 Andrea de Cesaris 4
= Eddie Cheever 4
10 Satoru Nakajima 3
11 Thierry Boutsen 2
= Martin Brundle 2
= Jonathan Palmer 2
14 Rene Arnoux 1
= Ivan Capelli 1
Jim Clark Cup
1 Jonathan Palmer 27
2 Pascal Fabre 22
3 Phillippe Streiff 21
4 Phillippe Alliot 15
5 Ivan Capelli 6
Constructors Championship
1 McLaren 35
2 Williams 30
3 Lotus 27
4 Ferrari 17
5 Brabham 4
= Arrows 4
7 Benetton 2
= Zakspeed 2
= Tyrrell 2
9 Ligier 1
9 March 1
Colin Chapman Trophy
1 Tyrrell 48
2 AGS 22
3 Larrousse-Calmels Lola 15
4 March 6

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