Saving The Best For Last

Honours well spread and a nail-biting finale for the IndyCar season, by David Phillips

Did the 1996 PPG IndyCar World Series produce a champion, or simply a man who had accumulated more points than his rivals at the season's end?

Whatever, it was set for a dramatic Laguna Seca finale thanks to a sequence of events at Vancouver which saw Michael Andretti score a dominant victory, Al Unser Jnr finish a gambling fifth and Jimmy Vasser a star-crossed seventh.

But if the Toyota Monterey Grand Prix was an anti-climax in terms of the championship showdown, it witnessed the sport's most exciting moment since the Rick Mears/Michael Andretti duel in the closing laps of the 1991 Indianapolis 500: Alessandro Zanardi bounded over, across and through the steeply inclined Corkscrew to steal his third win of the year from an unsuspecting Bryan Herta on the last lap.

If it's drama and action you want, the 83rd lap at Laguna Seca was tough to beat. First, with the PPG Cup in his pocket, Vasser ceded third place to Scott Pruett in Turn Three, then Zanardi passed Herta in the Corkscrew to win the race and put Targel/Ganassi Racing one-two in the points standings; then Christian Fittipaldi waved past Newman/Haas team-mate Andretti between Turns Nine and Ten, moving the latter up to ninth place and into a dead heat with Zanardi in the points race, with the tie going the American's way on the basis of his five wins.

Laguna's final lap symbolised the most competitive season in IndyCar history, one in which every chassis, engine and tyre manufacturer (save for Eagle and Toyota) won either a pole or a race, and no fewer than 18 drivers either qualified on the front row or finished on the podium.

Under those circumstances, the fact that Vasser led the championship for all but 15 days from March to September and finished every race (all but one in the points) is a monument to his consistency, the flawless preparation of the Target/Ganassi team and the reliability of the Reynard-Honda-Firestone package. After winning four of the first six races, Vasser went stone cold at mid-season, and took a lot of heat as a result. The critics charged that he was not championship material, that he had never won a title in his professional career, that any of a dozen drivers could have won with his car and that Vasser had lucked into a couple of his early wins.

And Vasser agreed — up to a point.

"I'm not tired of hearing how good the Firestones, Honda and Reynard are," he said. "It's the truth. I can't take all the credit. I play a role just like Firestone, Honda, Reynard and the team. In the past people could say the same thing about Penske, but you can't say that Al [Unser] and Paul [Tracy] didn't deserve to win. And it's not like I was a wanker last year."

Ironically, the fact that the championship went down to Laguna Seca was a blessing for Vasser, as he was forced to perform under pressure from two of the toughest customers in the sport. He was up to the challenge. Ultimately, Vasser, Andretti, Unser and Zanardi were head and shoulders above the rest in 1996. Andretti was magnificent, at least as good as when he won the 1991 PPG Cup. He shrugged off a terrible and controversial start to the season to win five times with an engine and tyre package that was, at times, clearly inferior to Honda and Firestone. He also had a pair of aces in the Lola T96/00 and the Newman/Haas team and, together with his hard work, experience and new-found patience. extracted the absolute maximum from the hand he was dealt.

Unser was his usual relentless self, despite the handicap of a chassis/engine/tyre package that was often only marginally competitive. Nevertheless, he regularly worked his way into contention and was profoundly unlucky not to win both Wisconsin races. In truth, he also made some uncharacteristic mistakes, crashing in the Detroit and Mid-Ohio races and during qualifying at Laguna Seca. But those incidents were more a measure of how hard he was having to work to stay in the championship hunt than measurable failings on his part.

Zanardi emerged as the pacesetter on the Target/Ganassi team once he settled in to his new surroundings. In part, that was a function of the fact that circumstances dictated a conservative mode for Vasser, while Zanardi had to go flat-out in his quest for the title. And flat out he went, leading more laps than any other driver and eclipsing Nigel Mansell's mark for laps led by a rookie. Mistakes, he made a few — most notably crashing while leading the Michigan 500 and the bizarre incident at Vancouver which ended his title bid but don't look for him to repeat them in '97.'

The second echelon of drivers has to include Fittipaldi, Herta, Pruett and Bobby Rahal. Many expected Fittipaldi to struggle as Andrettri's teammate, instead he thrived in the Newman/Haas environment and was unfortunate not to win a race. Herta came as close to winning as you can get, and while he will spend the winter with visions of Zanardi ricocheting through Laguna Seca's Corkscrew gnawing at his innards, the fact is he really came into his own in the latter half of the year. Pruett's season was a mirror image of Herta's, starting like gangbusters then fading after a heartbreaking engine failure as he was poised to score a miracle win for Ford-Cosworth at the Michigan 500. Like Herta, Rahal came alive as the team came to grips with the Reynard chassis and Mercedes-Benz coaxed more power from the IC108C. Perhaps even more satisfying, Team Rahal silenced the critics who said they couldn't field two competitive cars.

Like Fittipaldi, Adrian Fernandez improved by leaps and bounds in 1996 under the tutelage of Tasman Motorsports' Steve Horne. He scored a flawlessly judged win at the tragic Toronto race and emerged as consistent contender, although one still prone to the odd mistake, like the one which cost him fourth place at Vancouver.

In terms of results, Gil de Ferran, Greg Moore and Andre Ribeiro rate higher than Fernandez. But they also exhibited a disturbing lack of judgement. Unlucky not to earn multiple wins early in the year, de Ferran won a brilliant victory at Cleveland but was also involved in a string of first lap incidents at the end of the season. Early on. Moore looked like the finest young talent to hit IndyCar racing since Andretti and Unser. Later he precipitated a couple of incidents at Detroit and Mid-Ohio that were more in keeping with his 21 years and he was also involved in huge accidents at Michigan and Road America. Ribeiro earned a joyous victory at Rio and an overdue win at Michigan, but also displayed a bad case of the red mist after a botched pit stop in Toronto, then got into it with Moore at 200 mph at Road America.

Perhaps de Ferran, Moore and Ribeiro will reform their ways in 1997. Unfortunately, the prospects for IndyCars other bad boys — Paul Tracy and Robby Gordon — following suit appear to be all but nil. Last year, many observers saw encouraging evidence that both men had started maturing into complete drivers, but one would be hard-pressed to find any sign of maturity in their 1996 performances.

So for those keeping score, that makes a top twelve of Andretti, Vasser, Unser, Zanardi, Fittipaldi, Herta, Pruett, Rahal, Fernandez, de Ferran, Moore and Ribeiro. Honourable mentions go to Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell, who put in some worthy drives with the outmoded Ford/ Cosworth XB engine, while the latter's recovery from his massive accident at Rio was a triumph in itself. Parker Johnstone also did an admirable job with the under-financed Brix-Comptech team and surely one of the year's highlights was Roberto Moreno's magnificent third place at the US 500, an effort that sent Dale Coyne in search of the IndyCar podium for the first time in his career.