John Francis - Motorsport News International
The morning qualifying session for the FIA GT race was abandoned after only fifteen minutes because of a typical California wet-weather problem: Mudslides! The most serious was across the track on the exit from the corkscrew, where a river of mud flowing over the track added to the tricky conditions caused by a steady rainfall.
By the time the afternoon session got under way, however, track conditions were far more promising. The rain had stopped early in the intervening WSC event, and there was now a dry line round the track. Off the racing line the track was still rather damp, and cold track temperatures suggested that a driver would do well to start out with some caution until the tyres were sufficiently warmed up. One driver not starting was David Donohue - his Viper had been badly damaged on Friday when his front right-hand brake disintegrated going into turn five, sending him almost head-on into the tyre barrier. The car suffered extensive front-end damage (including losing the windscreen), and then caught fire when fuel was pumped onto a hot engine.
The first fifteen minutes of qualifying was reserved for the GT2 cars only. The fastest car nearing the end of that time was the Marcos of Cor Euser with a time in the 1:26s, followed by a trio of Porsche 911s and the sole remaining Viper of Olivier Beretta and Pedro Lamy. Then just as the GT1 cars were coming on to the track the Viper leaped up into first place. Then two of the GT2 911s made off-track excursions, while the #3 Panoz spun in turn 11. Despite all this excitement Bernd Schneider lost no time in putting his Mercedes CLK LM on the top of the qualifying sheet, with a time some six seconds faster than the Viper. Nobody was very surprised to see this, but the same was not true when Michael Bartels in a Zakspeed Porsche went even faster, and briefly sat on pole. But he was only to hold it for a few seconds - Schneider came across the line with a lap time some two tenths faster. Meanwhile Alan McNish had put a factory Porsche into third, although still almost five seconds slower than the customer car.
The next five minutes saw the factory Mercedes cars battle for the fastest lap, as Bernd Schneider and Ricardo Monta repeatedly put in new fast times. At the midpoint of the session Zonta was ahead of Schneider by over a second, while third and fourth were Bartels in the Zakspeed Porsche and the Persson Mercedes of Bouchut & Maylaender. This was a 1997 factory car with the V12 engine, not the V8 used by the 1998 factory team.
Schneider had briefly relinquished his car to his co-driver Mark Webber. When he got back in he soon improved his time by over a second, but was still a tantalizing few thousandths of a second slower than Zonta. Most of the GT1 cars now stopped for fresh tyres, as the GT2 cars were leaving the track for the final fifteen minutes of qualifying, which was reserved for the GT1s. Alan McNish soon had a factory Porsche up into third spot, and a few laps later he put it on the front row, putting Schneider back into third place. This would stand until the final two laps. On his penultimate lap Schneider tried to carry too much speed into turn ten and ran wide. He was able to get back on track without losing too much time, and put in a lap at 1:16.741. The next lap was even better - 1:16.588
So on Sunday the front row will be made up of the silver Mercedes. They have won eight of the nine of the races so far, so a Mercedes has to be favoured to win. But which one? The answer will decide the championship.