Senna’s surprising win without pit stops in Detroit

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GP de Detroit 1987/ Detroit Grand Prix 1987

Fans expected great things from Senna in Detroit. The driver was coming off of a big win in Monaco, three weeks earlier, and had already won in the US in 1986, also driving a Lotus.

Known for his talent in street circuits, Senna was confident about the weekend, but the heat had been bothering him since the practice sessions.

“The skin of the face, for instance, dries up and burns. And there`s no way to avoid that, he told the Brazilian journalists who attended that year`s Detroit Grand Prix.

Fighting for every last tenth of a second, Senna tested a new rear wing – smaller than the usual one – in the first official practice session. After a good performance, the part was approved by the team and used in the qualifying sessions and the race.

Senna had the second best time on both Friday and Saturday. He finished the deciding session with 1min40s607, earning the right to start alongside William`s Nigel Mansell, who ended up beating the Brazilian in the fight for the pole position – in 1987, the Williams`s superiority was clearly evident. Nelson Piquet, behind the wheel of the other Williams, had the third best time, ahead of Benetton`s Thierry Boutsen. Alain Prost, now a two-time world champion (1985 and 1986) and the current season leader, had the fifth place in the starting grid, with his McLaren.

After the qualifying rounds, Senna received good news about the heat inside his racecar.

“The mechanics found out the heat from the radiator was leaking to the inside of the car due to a defective weld in the chassis. Now I can drive a little more comfortably”.

On Saturday night, a heavy rain fell over Detroit. By Sunday morning, the weather remained unstable, but the track was practically dry when it was time to start the race – so much so that drivers decided to use slicks.

After the start, Mansell held on to his lead, followed by Senna. Piquet had a flat tire during the third lap, and the Williams driver had to make a pit-stop before returning to the race.

Mansell led the race, but Senna put pressure on the Britton. The Williams driver decided to make a pit-stop on lap 34. Senna would have passed the Britton anyway, but he had a little help from the Williams’ mechanics, who weren`t able to quickly change Mansell`s rear wheel, and he spent 18 seconds out of the race.

With a comfortable lead, Senna was able to masterfully spare his tires. So, he bet on a risky strategy: unlike the other 26 drivers, he stayed on the track without changing tires and pushed far enough ahead to complete the 63 laps in the lead – a daring gamble which rewarded him with his second win of the season.

Senna defied logic, since the Williams mistake was his cue to make a pit-stop and still come back in the lead.

“That`s the time to stop, the time to chance tires and come back in first place”, said Galvão Bueno, the TV Globo announcer, when Mansell took a while to come out of the pit-lane. But Senna was about to race another 30 laps without stopping – he kept going until he saw the checkered flag.

when Mansell came out of the pits, he was 21 seconds behind Ayrton, who wasn`t worried only about managing his lead. He started doing one quickest lap after another. On lap 39, he did 1min40s464, the best of the race.

Unable to keep up with Senna, Mansell started cramping and was overtaken during the final laps by Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger. All of them had stopped once.

In the end, Senna crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Piquet – a repeat of the result they achieved in 1986, the second Brazilian one-two in a row. In 1987, Senna won twice, with Piquet in second, in Monaco and Detroit. The previous year, the same had happened in Germany and Hungary, only with Nelson at the top spot.

It was Senna`s second win with his Honda engine in three weeks. But, this time, he boldly trusted in his own ability to take the Lotus to the finish line.

Gérard Ducarouge, the team engineer, and Peter Warr, Lotus sports director, celebrated the victory, singling Ayrton Senna out as the only driver capable of triumph on that circuit without changing tires:

“He’s a beast!”

At the end of the race, Senna talked to the press and explained why he decided not to make a pit-stop.

“I felt that Mansell and Prost – then my direct competition – weren’t able to keep up wth my pace. So, I thought it was best to keep racing, since the car was still alright”.

During the cool-down lap, Senna repeated the gesture he made the previous year in Detroit, when he held up a Brazilian flag from inside his Lotus.

“I think that I got the flag from the same fan, because I grabbed it at the same spot”, said the champoionhip’s new leader. Now, the Lotus driver had 24 points, while Prost hat 22 and Piquet, 18.

Race Summary

  • 1 N. Mansell
  • 2 Ayrton Senna
  • 3 N. Piquet
  • 4 T. Boutsen
  • 5 A. Prost
  • 6 E. Cheever
  • 7 M. Alboreto
  • 8 T. Fabi
  • 9 R. Patrese
  • 10 D. Warwick
  • 11 S. Johansson
  • 12 G. Berger
  • 13 J. Palmer
  • 14 P. Streiff
  • 15 M. Brundle
  • 16 C. Danner
  • 17 A. de Cesaris
  • 18 A. Nannini
  • 19 A.Caffi
  • 20 P. Alliot
  • 21 R. Arnoux
  • 22 I. Capelli
  • 23 P. Ghinzani
  • 24 S. Nakajima
  • 25 A. Campos
  • 26 P. Fabre
Turns 63
Time Nublado
Fastest lap A. Senna - 1´40´´464
Podium 1º Ayrton Senna 2º N. Piquet 3º A. Prost
Cars 26
Leaving 14

Senna in race

Starting position 2
Final position 1
Best lap 1´40´´464
Points added to the Championship 9
Championship position after the race 1
What did he say after the race
“The championship begins now. We did well on the street circuits and now the faster circuits begin. You have to be on top of your game in moments like this in order to have a chance.”