Round four of the 1987 Formula One World Championship saw the teams and drivers head to Monte Carlo for the forty-fifth running of the Monaco Grand Prix.
This year would prove significant for a number of reasons, none so more than the organiser’s decision to allow a twenty-six car field for the first time.
Earlier in the season both the FISA and the FOCA had announced that restrictions would be lifted to allow the entire fraternity in to race – bringing an end of a long standing issue between organisers, the ACM, and the powers-that-be as with increasing commercialisation and pressure from sponsors began to grow.
However these changes came in for criticism from many, most notably some of the drivers who were concerned that a swell in grid size would lead to more accidents around the tight and twisty track. Unfortunately, such apprehensions would be realised as early as the opening qualifying session, when Christian Danner’s Zakspeed made contact with the Ferrari of Michele Alboreto on route to Casino Square.
Misjudging the huge difference in closing speed between the two cars, Alboreto did not back off on his fast lap and instead went for an ever-closing gap, resulting in his car ploughing straight into the left-front tyre of Danner’s and tearing into pieces – with the whole rear suspension and gearbox of the F1/87 sheared off at the bell housing and the front nose ripped apart. Miraculously the Italian walked away from the accident unharmed, but this did not stop officials taking a dim view, immediately laying blame squarely at the feet of Danner and excluding the German for the remainder of the weekend – the first time such a measure had ever been handed out in the history of the championship.
In hindsight the stewards may have acted wrongly, with practice being littered with many other incidents and Ayrton Senna – who had been right behind Alboreto and Danner but had chosen to back off – giving an account completely different to that used in the prosecution’s conclusions. Nevertheless the Brazilian had plenty of other issues to contend with, as his crash with Nigel Mansell and subsequent antics at the last round in Belgium continuing to hang over the paddock.
How ironic then that both men would share the front row for Sunday’s Grand Prix, with Mansell dominating both qualifying sessions to post a time more than three quarters of a second ahead of his Lotus rival. Under dry but overcast skies, the Englishman would rocket away off the line to lead on lap one, followed by Senna and Williams team-mate Nelson Piquet. Elsewhere McLaren’s Alain Prost bogged down at the start, allowing Alboreto to squeeze through into fourth on the exit of Sainte Devote. Although the first lap passed without any real incident (barring Nakajima and Phillipe Alliot briefly tangling) it was not long before drama emerged when on lap three, Tyrrell’s Philippe Streiff crashed heavily for the second race in succession.
Meanwhile at the front Mansell continued to stream away, lapping consistently faster than his rivals and seemingly on course to get his 1987 campaign back on track. However the Englishman’s luck would desert him on lap thirty out of seventy-eight when an exhaust pipe split between the engine and turbocharger on his Williams, forcing him out of the race with fading gas pressure. This immediately promoted Senna , who had been keen to see how the race played out rather than attack Mansell at the start, into the lead and in prime position for victory. Further behind and Nelson Piquet was in a race of his own, finishing an untroubled second having been relatively quiet throughout the entire proceedings. Even so the result would be one of many which would eventually swing the balance of the championship in his favour come the end of the year.
Any threat to Piquet quickly evaporated with Prost continuing to be held up by Alboreto, until around the halfway stage when both men stopped for tyres. Consequently, the Frenchman’s chances of victory were now all but over and the reigning champion appeared happy to settle for the final step on the rostrum – only for his engine, which had been suffering with gremlins throughout the race, to expire with only two laps to go.
Prost’s demise promoted the Ferrari duo to third and fourth, with Gerhard Berger having made his way up from eighth on the grid – helped largely by successive retirements for Arrow’s Eddie Cheever and Derek Warwick, who had both been running strongly in the top six.
Therefore this handed the final two points places to Tyrrell’s Jonathan Palmer and March’s Ivan Cappelli with both men also taking first and second in the normally-aspirated class. But while the race failed to live up to expectations the day undoubtedly belonged to Senna, who took full advantage of Mansell’s misfortune to claim his first triumph around the streets of Monte Carlo. The win was even more significant as it would be the first for a car with active suspension – which had been pioneered and developed by Team Lotus over many years and had finally made its introduction as part of the design of the 99T.
While his maiden Monaco victory would be far from his best, it would begin a string of successes at the Principality which would only be interrupted the following year when the Brazilian crashed out with only a handful of laps to go. Triumph in Monaco was followed immediately with success in Detroit as Senna ended his final season at Norfolk-based outfit third in the standings.
References: Jenkinson, D.S. ‘The Rising Sun in Dreamland’, MotorSport Magazine, (MotorSport Magazine Limited, London, July 1987) pp. 640-644.