Teammates Zanardi and Vasser share the spoils at Monterey
MONTEREY, Calif. (AP) _ Alex Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser really enjoy doing things together.
On Sunday, the Target-Chip Ganassi Racing teammates had one of the best days in their two years as friends and colleagues. Zanardi’s third-place finish in the Texaco-Havoline 300K wrapped up the PPG CART World Series championship, while Vasser won for the first time in 16 months.
``With all the uproar going on around him about the championship, Alex has really wanted me to win a race,″ Vasser said. ``It’s a great thing to have a relationship like that within a team. Alex is the best teammate I’ve ever had and he really deserves this championship.″
Zanardi was so happy for Vasser that he tried to give him a hand as the two drove side-by-side in a slow victory lap around the 2.238-mile, nine-turn Laguna Seca Raceway road course.
``Alex took his hands off the wheel to clap or something,″ Vasser said, laughing. ``We just touched and he spun me out. Chip didn’t seem too upset.″
Zanardi, also laughing, said, ``I was so happy, I was trying to drive with my knees and clap for Jimmy. I always do that on the motorway in Italy, drive with my knees while I try to find a station on the radio. This time, it just didn’t work.″
Zanardi drove his Honda-powered Reynard on to the pits, while Vasser got out of his car, hitched a ride on the sidepod of Max Papis’ car and joined the team celebration, hugging his teammate.
``If I have to give up the (PPG) Cup to anybody, this is the guy I want to give it to,″ Vasser said.
Although he clinched the title with one race remaining on the 17-event schedule, it was not easy. A week earlier, with a chance to put the championship away, Zanardi drove a wild race during which he came from far back in the field twice and was fined $25,000 and put on probation for bumping leader Bryan Herta off the track as he made up a lost lap.
Zanardi, whose last seven starts have included four wins, a second, a third and a fourth, said, ``I knew we could do it. I never doubted it. In Italy, they say, `A lot of enemies, a lot of honor.′
``My life is not going to change, but I’m obviously a much happier man,″ he added. ``Now I’m going to enjoy it. It feels great to win this championship and, tomorrow, I’m going to start thinking about all the pain I went through to get here. If you haven’t experienced feeling bad, you don’t know how good it feels.″
This race was much like last year’s when Zanardi won, capturing rookie of the year honors, and Vasser wrapped up the title by finishing fourth in what was then the season finale.
Vasser was dominating Sunday, leading the final 58 laps of the 83-lap race and coming up with his first victory since the U.S. 500 in May of 1996 at Michigan Speedway. He beat Englishman Mark Blundell to the finish line by 0.543 seconds _ about four car-lengths.″
``I felt very confident that I had the capability to win some more races and that this team was going to give me the car to do that,″ Vasser said.
Zanardi came into the race needing only to finish eighth or better to shut out runner-up Gil de Ferran.
``It was not a perfect race for us, but I knew if I stayed in front of Gil, that was all we needed,″ Zanardi said.
De Ferran, who clinched second place in the championship with his fifth-place finish, said, ``We knew it was going to be a longshot (to catch Zanardi). We were counting on the unexpected and the unexpected didn’t happen.″
The early part of the race saw the most action, with pole-winner Herta and Zanardi battling at the front.
Those two had been the focus of considerable attention during the days leading up to the race because of two previous incidents. Zanardi made a spectacular pass on the last lap of the 1996 Laguna Seca race to beat Herta. Then came the incident last week at Vancouver, British Columbia.
Herta held the lead at the start of Sunday’s race, but Zanardi kept applying pressure. The leaders remained within less than one second of each other through most of the early laps.
Finally, on lap 17, Zanardi slipped past Herta on the inside as the two sped toward the hairpin turn just past the finish line. The Italian actually took the lead momentarily, before Herta slid to the slow side of the track and regained the top spot in turn two.
That battle allowed Scott Pruett and Vasser to close up on the leaders.
On lap 22, Zanardi got inside of Herta again. But, this time, the two bumped front tires and Zanardi had to drive over a curb and along the edge of a sand trap before getting back on the track in third place.
``The tires went off so bad after 15 laps that I was just driving my butt off to stay ahead of Alex,″ Herta said. ``We were driving straight up and I didn’t mean to put him off. My car had no grip and I slid into him.″
Pruett took the opportunity grab the lead as Herta and Zanardi dueled. Vasser than went by Herta, who slid into the sand. Herta was able to continue, but fell all the way to eighth and never got back in contention.
Vasser took the lead during the first round of scheduled pit stops and kept it the rest of the way.
The race was run without a caution flag _ the first time since the Cleveland race in July 1994. Vasser’s average speed of 109.647 mph was considerably faster than the previous Laguna Seca record of 102.687 set last year by Zanardi.