Alex Zanardi, in his Target Chip Ganassi Reynard Honda, scored his first victory of the '97 season in today's Long Beach Toyota Grand Prix. He and teammate Jimmy Vasser, looked to have the race sewn up after the last green flag pit stops, but Vasser had to relinquish the lead to Zanardi when he was forced to stop for a splash of methanol on lap 94 of the 105 lap race.
Zanardi's victory was his fourth victory in the PPG CART World series. He won three previous road and street course races (Portland, Mid-Ohio, and the thrilling season finale` at Laguna Seca) during his rookie year in '96. Long beach was his first victory in '97 after a seventh place finish at the season opener at Homestead, and a forth place finish at Surfer's Paradise, Australia. Perhaps Mr. Zanardi would lobby for elimination of oval courses.
The other half of the Target Chip Ganassi team, Jimmy Vasser, the defending champion of the Long Beach Grand Prix, ended up finishing 9th after his late race pit stop.
In a time rushed post-race interview with ABC correspondent Danny Sullivan, Alex Zanardi's comical final comment was "I'm an Italian, and I eat a lot of pizza, but I don't drive a pizza truck."
Mauricio Gugelmin, in his Reynard Mercedes Firestone package ran a smooth, consistent race all day. He qualified third to start on the inside of the second row, and maintained his poise for the entire race. The second place finish ties Gugelmin's best career finishes. He finished second in the 1995 Grand Prix of Miami, and again in last year's inaugural US500 at the Michigan International Speedway.
Scott Pruett, with his third-place finish, will recapture the '97 PPG Cup points lead from a tire-whipped Michael Andretti. Pruett also maintained a consistent race, and improved one position from his fourth place qualification.
The Zanardi, Gugelmin, Pruett podium gives Firestone their first top-three finish since Surfer's Paradise in '96.
Michael Andretti (KMart Texaco Swift Ford Cosworth), seeming a little relieved at the teams' decision not to push his luck, commented on his tire troubles:
"We blew the first left rear and then the second here on the front straight. This third tire we figured was enough. I'm lucky I didn't spin."
The Long Beach Grand Prix has dealt Andretti his first DNF since the Michigan 500 in '96. Andretti's temporary teammate, Roberto Moreno, substituting for injured Christian Fittipaldi, also suffered his share of troubles, and finally ended the day with a wall contact exiting turn 8 on lap 50.
Could it be possible that Team Penske's Al Unser, Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes Benz) has finally overcome the "gremlins" that seem to have haunted the driver in the season's first two races. Unser qualified a disappointing 15th, but was able to fight his way through the pack and finish a strong fourth, fending off the hard charge of fifth place finisher Parker Johnstone. Johnstone (Kool Reynard Honda Firestone) was in close persuit during the closing laps of the race, and nearly overtook Unser, Jr. on lap 105 when Little Al's rear tires found oil on the track. Al was lucky to correct the spin and maintain his finishing position.
Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Reynard Honda) also seems to be bitten by a gremlin or two, at least here at Long Beach. After leading 100 of 105 laps in last year's race, de Ferran was again racing for the lead in the race today until he was forced to pull into the run-off in turn three on lap 93 with a broken left front suspension after contact with the barrier. De Ferran grimaced with frustration as he sat helpless in the run-off.
The Toyota Development Program continued its troubles as well. The Arciero-Wells/MCI Reynard Toyota and Max Papis finished 25th, after starting the race in 26th. Papis was forced to retired from the race on lap 40 when the engine expired. "The engine was giving us trouble the whole race," said Papis. "Eventually it just let go."
"I am very disappointed that Max did not finish today," said team owner Cal Wells III. "The guys put a lot of hard work into getting his car ready for this race. This is to be expected though in a development program. I look forward to Nazareth where we will learn more."
All-in-all, the '97 Long Beach Toyota Grand Prix proved to be a good, clean, competitive race. There were 20 cars running at the end of the race with 12 cars on the lead lap. There were five lead changes among four different drivers, and only 4 yellow flags for a total of 21 laps.