The rains failed to arrive, the sun came out and impetuous Alex Zanardi helped the 24th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach become the most exciting and competitive race since John Watson came from far back to win the final Formula One race in 1983.
CART FedEx champion Zanardi, after qualifying a disappointing 11th as defending Long Beach winner, dropped back as far as 18th--and a lap down--in the first 40 laps before starting an all-but-impossible drive to the checkered flag in one of Chip Ganassi’s Target Reynard-Hondas.
The little Italian, who might return to Formula One after this season, finally overcame pole-sitter Bryan Herta two laps from the end of the 105-lap race around a 1.59-mile temporary course in downtown Long Beach.
“On a day when everything went wrong, we came back and won,” Zanardi said after finishing 2.917 seconds ahead of Scotland’s Dario Franchitti, who slipped past Herta one turn after Zanardi. “I can’t explain it. It wasn’t until I saw Bryan ahead of me that I ever thought I had a shot at winning. It was amazing. I have no words to describe it.”
At one point, Zanardi’s car was pinched in the hairpin turn, bending the steering arm. When he made an unplanned pit stop to have it fixed, mechanic Rob Hill straightened it out with his hands.
“He did as much as he could, but it was still half an hour off center. But I made up that half hour on the race track.”
Ten cars finished on the lead lap with Zanardi after nearly two hours of racing that saw 12 lead changes among eight drivers, including two rookies, J.J. Lehto of Finland and Helio Castro-Neves of Brazil.
Adrian Fernandez of Mexico, last week’s winner in Japan, finished fourth, just ahead of another Brazilian rookie, Tony Kanaan.
As late as lap 93, Zanardi was ninth, but one after another, race leaders Castro-Neves, Gil de Ferran, Fernandez and Greg Moore and second-place Scott Pruett pitted, enabling Zanardi to move up without having to make a pass.
Pivotal moments in the race might have been the final pit stops of Herta and Zanardi.
Zanardi made his final stop on lap 72 and took on four tires and fuel. Herta did not pit until lap 94, but his crew elected to put in fuel only, taking only 6.1 seconds.
“We thought we would save enough time to make it worthwhile, but obviously it didn’t work out that way,” a disappointed Herta said. “We didn’t really talk ‘tires’ or ‘no tires.’ They decided to leave me on the tires I was on, but there was no question Alex had a ton more race car than I did.
“I feel great because I fought him off as long as I could. I told Alex, ‘One of these days.’ This was a totally different deal than at Laguna Seca in 1996. There were no hard feelings on this one.”
It was the second time Zanardi had frustrated Herta in a bid to win his first CART race. At Laguna Seca, Zanardi electrified everyone--particularly Herta--by dashing across a corner of the track’s famed Corkscrew turn, bouncing over the dirt in a desperation pass on the final lap.
Before Sunday’s announced 87,500 spectators realized that Zanardi was charging up from the rear, there were enough bumping and airborne incidents to last a season.
The excitement began on the first lap when six-time Long Beach winner Al Unser Jr. didn’t make it through the third turn before burying the nose of his car in a tire barrier. Little Al was forced to brake abruptly when Pruett slowed. When Castro-Neves bumped him from the rear, Al sailed off course.
Twenty laps later, Paul Tracy tried to pass Christian Fittipaldi, but when his car climbed over Fittipaldi’s left rear tire, it sent Tracy soaring through the air like an acrobat. Both cars were too damaged to continue.
“It was one of those racing incidents,” Tracy said.
“It was bad for him and it was bad for me,” Fittipaldi added.
Michael Andretti was the next to put on an aerial display. As he was passing Bobby Rahal for fourth place, the cars touched and Andretti went airborne.
“It was sort of funny,” Andretti said. “I came down and, surprisingly, the car was OK. In fact, I ran one of my quickest laps right after that.”
Rahal, however, stalled his engine and fell several laps down while course workers tried to get him restarted.
“My car was really good, but hey, at last I had the quickest lap in my final Long Beach race and they knew I was here,” said Rahal, who has announced his plans to retire after this season.
Although no one was injured, and no cars were damaged, one of the strangest incidents was when Hiro Matsushita’s car was bumped by Gualter Salles and Matsushita spun in the middle of the hairpin corner at the end of Seaside Way. One by one, as cars arrived at the corner, traffic stopped--a Grand Prix grid lock.
Course workers finally pushed a couple of cars aside, enough to open a lane, and racing resumed.
Andretti was third in mid-race and appeared ready to challenge for his second win of the season before a tire shredded and sent him into the wall.
“We probably should have come in when I saw some tread coming off,” said Andretti, who won CART’s opening race at Homestead, Fla. “Hindsight is always 20-20. It just exploded without warning. I was driving 170 or 180 mph.”
About that time, Zanardi was making his presence known. Even though he was well back in the field, the sight of his red Reynard passing one car after another was eye-catching.
“I pushed very hard,” he said. “I tried not to lose any time in traffic, whether I was passing for position or passing lapped cars. I had to pass everyone I could see in front of me.”
He did. Just don’t tell Bryan Herta about it.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
THE FINISH LINE
Driver Lag (in seconds) 1. Alex Zanardi -- 2. Dario Franchitti 2.917 3. Bryan Herta 4.336
* ANDRETTI C13
* NOTES C13
* RESULTS C13