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De Ferran and Vasser Have Unser in Rearview Mirror

April 13, 1996

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) _ While Gil de Ferran and Jimmy Vasser were turning in record-breaking qualifying runs in the opening round of time trials for Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Al Unser Jr. was lurking.

De Ferran, last year’s rookie of the year in the PPG Indy Car World Series, led the way Friday on the 1.59-mile, eight-turn street course in downtown Long Beach, turning a lap of 109.482 mph.

That broke the record of 109.066, set last April by Michael Andretti, and gave de Ferran the provisional pole.

Vasser, who has won two of the first three races this season and leads the point standings, was close behind at 109.310.

But going into today’s final round of qualifying, which will determine the starting positions for Sunday’s 105-lap, 166.95-mile race, Unser’s Penske-Mercedes was on the edge of both their rearview mirrors in fifth, at 108.417.

``We’re just doing our work and getting ready for Sunday,″ said Unser, who has won six of the last eight Long Beach races, including the last two. ``I think we’ll be competitive.″

De Ferran, who needs to stay the fastest qualifier today to earn his second Indy-car pole and first since the Cleveland race last July, said, ``Al is always a factor here.″

With both of Friday’s fast qualifiers in Honda-powered Reynards, the difference between the two tops cars apparently was their tires, with de Ferran on Goodyears and Vasser’s car shod with Firestones.

Firestone, in only its second season back after a 21-year absence from the open-wheel series, has dominated so far this season, winning all three races, with Andre Ribeiro taking the event that Vasser didn’t win.

But Goodyear, which had the division all to itself for all the years that Firestone chose not to participate in the Indy-car series, is not giving up without a fight.

``The car has adapted very well to the track, and so have the tires,″ de Ferran said. ``Goodyear’s development work is coming through and, hopefully, there’ll be more to come. I guess (the tire competition) puts a lot of strain on the tire companies and they have to keep adapting to stay with the competition.″

Scott Pruett, second in the season standings, trailing Vasser by five points, was third on Friday at 108.910 in a Ford-powered Lola with Firestone tires.

Pruett, who has finishes of fourth, third and second so far this season, said, ``In the early ’90s, Goodyear had no competition and they could come to the track with a real conservative tire that everybody had to use.

``Sometimes, that tire was a real pain in the butt to drive. Now, it’s more fun, because the tires are faster and the car’s work better all the time.″

Alex Zanard, a rookie and Vasser’s teammate, was fourth on Friday at 108.488, followed by Unser; rookie Greg Moore at 108.291; Paul Tracy, Unser’s teammate, at 108.144; Christian Fittipaldi at 108.111; Ribeiro at 108.003; and, rounding out the top 10, Andretti at 107.951.