Alex Zanardi, in his Target Chip Ganassi Reynard Honda, scored his firstvictory of the '97 season in today's Long Beach Toyota Grand Prix. Heand teammate Jimmy Vasser, looked to have the race sewn up after thelast green flag pit stops, but Vasser had to relinquish the lead toZanardi when he was forced to stop for a splash of methanol on lap 94 ofthe 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 hisrookie year in '96. Long beach was his first victory in '97 after aseventh place finish at the season opener at Homestead, and a forthplace finish at Surfer's Paradise, Australia. Perhaps Mr. Zanardi wouldlobby for elimination of oval courses.
The other half of the Target Chip Ganassi team, Jimmy Vasser, thedefending champion of the Long Beach Grand Prix, ended up finishing 9thafter his late race pit stop.
In a time rushed post-race interview with ABC correspondent DannySullivan, Alex Zanardi's comical final comment was "I'm an Italian, andI eat a lot of pizza, but I don't drive a pizza truck."
Mauricio Gugelmin, in his Reynard Mercedes Firestone package ran asmooth, consistent race all day. He qualified third to start on theinside of the second row, and maintained his poise for the entire race.The second place finish ties Gugelmin's best career finishes. Hefinished second in the 1995 Grand Prix of Miami, and again in last year'sinaugural US500 at the Michigan International Speedway.
Scott Pruett, with his third-place finish, will recapture the '97 PPGCup points lead from a tire-whipped Michael Andretti. Pruett alsomaintained a consistent race, and improved one position from his fourthplace 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 atthe 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 frontstraight. This third tire we figured was enough. I'm lucky I didn'tspin."
The Long Beach Grand Prix has dealt Andretti his first DNF sincethe Michigan 500 in '96. Andretti's temporary teammate, Roberto Moreno,substituting for injured Christian Fittipaldi, also suffered his shareof troubles, and finally ended the day with a wall contact exiting turn8 on lap 50.
Could it be possible that Team Penske's Al Unser, Jr. (Marlboro PenskeMercedes Benz) has finally overcome the "gremlins" that seem to havehaunted the driver in the season's first two races. Unser qualified adisappointing 15th, but was able to fight his way through the pack andfinish a strong fourth, fending off the hard charge of fifth placefinisher Parker Johnstone. Johnstone (Kool Reynard Honda Firestone) wasin close persuit during the closing laps of the race, and nearly overtookUnser, Jr. on lap 105 when Little Al's rear tires found oil on thetrack. Al was lucky to correct the spin and maintain his finishingposition.
Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Reynard Honda) also seems to be bittenby a gremlin or two, at least here at Long Beach. After leading 100 of105 laps in last year's race, de Ferran was again racing for the lead inthe race today until he was forced to pull into the run-off in turnthree on lap 93 with a broken left front suspension after contact withthe barrier. De Ferran grimacedwith frustration as he sat helpless in the run-off.
The Toyota Development Program continued its troubles as well. TheArciero-Wells/MCI Reynard Toyota and Max Papis finished 25th, afterstarting the race in 26th. Papis was forced to retired from the race onlap 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 ownerCal Wells III. "The guys put a lot of hard work into getting his car readyfor this race. This is to be expected though in a development program. Ilook 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 therace with 12 cars on the lead lap. There were five lead changes amongfour different drivers, and only 4 yellow flags for a total of 21 laps.