Detroit street circuit

Detroit street circuit

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Detroit Street Circuit
Downtown Detroit Street Circuit.svg
Location Detroit, Michigan, USA
Major events Formula One, CART, Trans-Am
Length 4.023 km (2.499 mi)
Turns 18
Lap record 1:40.464 (Ayrton Senna, Lotus 99THonda, 1987)

The streets of Detroit, Michigan hosted Formula One racing, and later CART racing, between the 1982 and 1991 seasons. The course was set up near the Renaissance Center and the Cobo Arena, also including a small part of the M-1 highway, also known as Woodward Avenue.


Formula One

Created largely in an effort to improve the city’s international image, the race meant that the United States would host an unprecedented three Grands Prix in the 1982 season. (The other two US races, Long Beach and Las Vegas, were also added to the schedule for similar purposes.) The inaugural Detroit Grand Prix saw John Watson claim victory after starting in 17th place, the lowest grid position for an eventual race winner on a street circuit. (Watson would break his own record at Long Beach the next year by winning from 22nd place.)

The Detroit street circuit’s place in Formula One history was assured when Italian Michele Alboreto won the 1983 race driving a Tyrrell 011. It was the last ever of 155 grand prix wins for the 3.0L Cosworth DFV V8 engine which had made its debut back in 1967 when legendary Team Lotus boss Colin Chapman matched his Lotus 49 with the engine. The DFV had won on debut at the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix in the hands of dual World Champion Jim Clark. It was also the last of 23 Formula One race wins for Tyrrell, who had won their first grand prix as a constructor at the 1971 Spanish Grand Prix with that year’s World Champion Jackie Stewart driving the Tyrrell 003.

The narrow track resulted in a large number of cars retiring during the race due to contact with the concrete walls. In its years on the F1 schedule, at least half the field retired in each race. The 1984 race, won by reigning World Champion Nelson Piquet, tied an F1 road course record by featuring 20 drivers that failed to finish. The race eventually set the record when one finisher, 2nd placed F1-rookie Martin Brundle driving for Tyrrell (the only F1 team left competing without a turbocharged engine), was disqualified several months later for technical infringements.

In 1985, Detroit became the sole American venue on the F1 schedule after the Dallas Grand Prix was dropped following its less than happy debut in 1984 in which the heat, and deteriorating track conditions almost saw it almost cancelled on the morning of the race. The 1985 Detroit race was the won by Finland‘s 1982 World Champion Keke Rosberg driving a WilliamsHonda.

Detroit also became a track which triple World Champion Ayrton Senna had great success at, winning pole position in 1985, 1986 and 1988 and starting 2nd in 1987. He would win three straight Detroit GP’s from 1986 to 1987, and 1988 driving for McLaren, the latter being his first World Championship driving for McLaren (Senna drove for Lotus 1985-87). Senna’s first Detroit GP in 1984 ended with an accident on lap 21 after qualifying his TolemanHart 7th.

The track was only moderately received by the drivers, and was disliked especially by world champions Alain Prost and Nelson Piquet. Despite his open dislike of the track, Prost did finish second in 1984 and 1988 and third in 1986 and 1987 (all for McLaren). Piquet, who generally disliked street circuits, with the exception of the faster and more open Adelaide Street Circuit in Australia, won at Detroit in 1984 driving a BrabhamBMW, and was second to Senna in 1987 driving a Williams-Honda.

Detroit was removed from the Formula One schedule after 1988 after F1’s governing body FISA declared the temporary pit area wasn’t up to the required standard. The 1988 race was a very hot race, and the circuit broke up very badly (as it often did during races, but the track disintegration was worse that year) due to the intense heat and humidity. As a result, the drivers after the Grand Prix that year became outspoken with their dislike of the event. The only Grand Prix in the USA then moved in 1989 to Arizona and the desert city of Phoenix to race on another street circuit. Detroit, instead, gained a CART race, replacing a circuit in the streets of Miami on the schedule.


Starting in 1984, the SCCA Trans-Am Series held a support race during the Grand Prix weekend. The Motor City 100 was often regarded as one of the most important events of the Trans-Am schedule due to the increased television and sponsor exposure, made possible by the international broadcast of the Grand Prix. The Trans-Am race wasn’t popular with the Formula One drivers though with the heavy and powerful Trans-Am cars with their huge rear wheels having a tendency to break up the track, already in a suspect state thanks to the heat of the summer when the races were scheduled. This often made the Grand Prix’s a more difficult prospect due to drivers having to go offline on to the ‘dirty’ part of the road to avoid problem area’s on the track surface.


Three CART races were held on the track. Emerson Fittipaldi won the first and last races and Michael Andretti won the second race; Andretti also won pole position for each Detroit race. The final race featured an unusual lack of attrition as nearly 3/4 of the drivers finished.

The race was not economically viable for the city, so the venue was changed to a temporary course on Belle Isle for the 1992 season. That event lasted until 2001 as a CART event and was briefly revived for the 2007 and 2008 American Le Mans Series and IndyCar Series seasons.

Formula One winners

All Detroit Grand Prix were held in the same place.

Detroit street circuit used in 1982

Year Driver Constructor Report
1988 Brazil Ayrton Senna McLarenHonda Report
1987 Brazil Ayrton Senna LotusHonda Report
1986 Brazil Ayrton Senna LotusRenault Report
1985 Finland Keke Rosberg WilliamsHonda Report
1984 Brazil Nelson Piquet BrabhamBMW Report
1983 Italy Michele Alboreto TyrrellFord Report
1982 United Kingdom John Watson McLarenFord Report

CART winners

Season Date Winning Driver Chassis Engine Team
1989 June 18 Brazil Emerson Fittipaldi Penske IlmorChevrolet Patrick Racing
1990 June 17 United States Michael Andretti Lola IlmorChevrolet Newman/Haas Racing
1991 June 16 Brazil Emerson Fittipaldi Penske IlmorChevrolet Penske Racing

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