Dodging the bullets

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IndyCar racing dodged a high calibre bullet when Jacques Villeneuve clinched the PPG title outright at Laguna Seca. Although Damon Hill’s next teammate earned enough points to win the championship by mid-August, IndyCar’s failure to resolve Penske Racing’s appeal of its Portland disqualification meant that Al Unser Jnr could have won the title if he finished on the podium at Laguna Seca, if Villeneuve finished out of the top 10 and if IndyCar’s Court of Appeals ruled in Penske’s favour. But Unser finished sixth and Villeneuve 11 th (thanks to three punctured tyres and a damaged nose cone), rendering the outcome of the appeal something of a moot point. ,

So while it remains to be seen who “won” the Portland race, everything else about the 1995 PPG Indy Car World Series has been resolved. While championship points totals are often inaccurate barometers of performance, in the case of the 1995 IndyCar season it’s clear Villeneuve and Unser were the year’s best drivers.

Not even Unser’s most ardent supporters could begrudge Villeneuve and Team Green the PPG title. In just its third year of existence (and its second in IndyCar racing) Team Green showed what an efficient, expertly-managed team can achieve. They were fully ready at the start of the season and only got better as the year progressed: the Player’s Reynard started first or second in seven of the last nine races. Working in total harmony with engineer Tony Cicale, Villeneuve was everything a champion should be: quick, consistent and wise beyond his years.

Though his defence of the PPG title was unsuccessful, Unser’s performance was just as impressive as his awesome 1994 season, albeit for different reasons. Last year in the PC23 he had a clear mechanical advantage over everyone but his two team-mates. This year, the PC24 was slow out of the box and only a Herculean effort by Team Penske and Unser turned it into a consistently competitive race car by season’s end. In contrast to Unser’s unflagging determination, Emerson Fittipaldi’s dismal post-Indianapolis performance regularly had the former world champion racing with the likes of Eliseo Salazar and Marco Greco.

After Villeneuve and Unser, however, it gets tricky. Bobby Rahal and Michael Andretti could not have charted more different courses to their totals of 130 and 125 points, respectively. Want a man who can be counted on to challenge for a championship? Rahal’s your man. Want a man who can be counted on to challenge for race wins? Andretti’s your man.

Rahal drove with the steady, calculating style that has earned him three PPG Championships. But he went winless, indeed, he led just two laps. No doubt about it, in the Lola-Mercedes he had the weakest package, race in, race out. But Rahal’s hyper-conservative nature once the ideal formula for winning enough races that championships followed – got him neither in 1995.

Andretti seldom lacks aggression, but a dramatic early season advantage was squandered by his own mistakes, strategic and mechanical failures. After May Newman/Haas lost its advantage and, ironically, the only race Andretti won – Toronto – came after an indifferent qualifying performance. Fittingly, his finest drive of the year ended with a blown engine in sight of the chequered flag at Mid-Ohio.

Paul Tracy and Robby Gordon each won twice, but on the whole Gil de Ferran and Jimmy Vasser had more impressive seasons. De Ferrari re-energised Hall Racing and might have been on the podium half a dozen times but for poor reliability. Then there was the Cleveland race that was his for the taking until he stumbled over Scott Pruett. His luck finally turned around at Vancouver and his dominant win at Laguna Seca may have loosened the flood gates for next year when the Pennzoil Reynard will be Honda-powered.

In his first season with a top team, Vasser would have finished higher in the standings but for pitiful reliability early in the season. Coming up through the ranks, Vasser was blindingly quick, and this year he emerged more in the Unser mode: always a factor – quietly moving through field at Detroit, Portland and Cleveland. Regardless of the outcome of Penske’s appeal, Vasser is destined to win on the track in 1996.

Tracy and Gordon are the most gifted drivers in IndyCar racing but whether they will ever develop into consistent winners, remains to be seen. They both show flashes of maturity – Tracy’s patient win in Australia and Gordon’s equally heady victory at Detroit, for example. But for each step forward, they’re inclined to take a step back – witness Tracy punting off de Ferran at Long Beach and Gordon’s post-Cleveland carve-up with Andretti. The chances of either one rounding into a Rahal are nil, but either could win a championship Michael Andretti-style.

Scott Pruett scored the most dramatic victory of the season at Michigan and, after all he’s been through in his career, no win was ever more deserved. Hired unenthusiastically by Pat Patrick to do the drudgework testing which brought Patrick Racing and Firestone back into IndyCar racing, Scott rehabilitated his battered IndyCar career in 1995, showing that he does deserve to be included among the top rank drivers.

For that matter, Teo Fabi also resurrected his flagging career with a series of strong showings with the new Forsythe Racing team. Along with de Ferran, Fabi was the season’s unluckiest driver and could have won a couple of races but for mechanical failures. Mauricio Gugelmin too, might have won a race or two, but the PacWest team suffered a mid-season slump and there just weren’t enough races for everyone who could win actually to win. Indeed, de Ferran’s win at Laguna Seca marked the 10th different winner of the year, a modern IndyCar record.

Andre Ribeiro was one of those 10, brilliantly bringing Honda and Tasman Motorsports their first IndyCar win at New Hampshire, but he also made his fair share of mistakes. Christian Fittipaldi started off well but his performances faded in the second half of the season when his limited budget caught up with him. That should not be a worry at Newman/Haas in 1996…

Of the rest, Adrian Fernandez had a quietly strong year with Galles Racing, Juan Manuel Fangio II made an impressive, if overdue IndyCar debut and Parker Johnstone set the IndyCar scene on its collective car with an astonishing run at Michigan. But is IndyCar racing ready for a driver who once turned down a scholarship to the Julliard School of Music and who commutes to and from the track by bicycle?

On the other hard, Stefan Johansson, Raul Boesel and Bryan Herta had seasons that are best forgotten, Herta never getting out of Chip Ganassi’s dog house despite taking pole at Phoenix, nearly winning Cleveland and qualifying on the front row at Laguna Seca.

Finally, who can ever forget Scott Goodgear and his nightmarish cameo at Indianapolis? Then again it was altogether fitting that a year when the champion was nearly determined by a court, that the winner of the Indianapolis 500 should be determined by the pace car.

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