John Francis - Motorsport News International
The weather had been the big story on Saturday. But Sunday was just another picture-perfect California day - an ideal setting for the final round of the 1998 FIA GT championship. At the end of the day one of last year's co-champions would retain the title. But which one?
When the green flag dropped the two factory Mercedes CLK-LMs of 1997 champions Klaus Ludwig and Bernd Schneider led the field into the first turns. They got through unscathed, but the #53 Chamberlain Viper and the #80 GP Motorsport Saleen Mustang came together in turn 4. This was not to be the only incident of the day for either team.
The eight GT1 cars rapidly pulled away from the remainder of the field, with the two works Mercedes in first and second. The Porsche of Alan McNish was third, but the Porsches had been the fastest cars in the morning warm-up, and on lap 7 McNish overtook Schneider to claim the second place. Meanwhile the lead in GT2 had changed twice - first the Marcos of Cor Euser got around the Roock Racing Porsche of Claudia Hurtgen, only to be passed in turn by the Viper of Olivier Beretta.
The two Team Persson Motorsport Mercedes were to run together for much of the day. On the tenth lap they ran a little too closely together, and collided in turn 2 after an extremely optimistic attempt at an inside pass. The #12 car spun, but was able to rejoin the track.
After some twenty minutes the leaders were approaching an intense battle for position between the #60 Porsche 911 of Michel Neugarten and the similar #62 piloted by young American William Langhorne. Langhorne had managed a pass entering the corkscrew, but Neugarten was able to regain the position almost immediately. Half a lap later Langhorne looked though he was considering an outside pass at turn 3. He appeared to think better of it, and pulled back on the normal racing line. Unfortunately by this time race leader Klaus Ludwig was almost alongside him at the apex of the turn, and the two cars came together quite hard. Neither showed any damage, but Langhorne was obviously a little shaken. So much so, in fact, that a few laps later he tried a little too hard to make way for a GT1 Porsche, and slid off at the top of the corkscrew. He was able to limp back to the pits where the extent of the damage to the car could be determined. To add insult to injury the FIA officials also assessed a ten-second stop-and-go penalty for his contact with the race leader. This made no difference, in fact, as the damage was too severe for the car to continue.
Soon it was time for the first round of pitstops for the GT1 cars. The #11 Persson Mercedes was the first car to stop for fuel on lap 43. The #1 Mercedes of Schneider came in on the next lap, also just for fuel. The #7 Porsche of Alan McNish, however, never even made it to pit lane - he spun under braking entering turn 6, and was pulled behind the wall with clutch failure.
On the next lap the leading Mercedes #2 made a stop for fuel and tyres, and young Brazilian Ricardo Zonta took over from Klaus Ludwig, who had probably just driven his final competitive lap. This put the #3 Panoz of David Brabham into the lead - not bad for almost a privateer effort! After pitstops were complete the Panoz (now driven by Eric Bernard) was still in third place, ahead of the sole remaining works Porsche, both Persson Mercedes, and the Zakspeed Porsches. It stayed there until halfway through the race, when an off-track excursion in turn 4 allowed the #8 Porsche to slip past. A few laps later the race leader also passed the Panoz. This meant that there were now only three cars on the lead lap - the three remaining factory GT1s. And the #1 Mercedes of Bernd Schneider was rapidly catching Muller in the #8 Porsche. In another ten laps Schneider was right on the tail of Muller. But that seemed to be as much as he could manage - for the next eight laps the cars ran nose-to-tail, but Schneider was unable to find a way past. Eventually he took an advantage of a mistake by Muller under braking for turn two, and was able to dive down the inside. As he passed he made sure that Muller understood exactly what he thought about being held up for so long with some very expressive gesturing.
While all this was going on the #11 Mercedes had made a visit to the pits for fuel, tyres, and a driver change. Even though they had a put stall close to the end of the pits they managed to exceed the speed limit leaving pit lane, and wee back a few laps later for a ten second penalty.
Soon the leading #1 Mercedes was back in the pits for the second scheduled stop. This time it would include tyre and driver changes, while the #2 car would only be taking on fuel when it stopped on the next lap. This difference in strategy meant that Mark Webber would be rejoining the race on cold tyres, while Zonta would still be on warm ones. That, the extra time of the change, and the additional delay Schneider had suffered caught behind the #8 Porsche meant that Webber would return to the track some fifteen seconds behind Zonta. Not only that - he would end up back behind the #8 Porsche again! Once again the cars ran nose-to-tail for several laps until Webber muscled his way inside on turn 5, pushing the Porsche out of the way.
Webber then set about eating in to the gap between himself and Zonta, sometimes reducing the lead by as much as a second a lap. With only a little over twenty laps to go the lead was down to eleven seconds, and Webber had just set the fastest race lap so far. But Zonta had a little in reserve, and responded when the lead dropped below ten seconds by setting an even faster lap. And that is how it would end; Zonta about ten seconds ahead of Webber, but with no other cars on the lead lap. Klaus Ludwig would retire with back-to-back championships.
The GT2 race was won easily by the Team Oreca Viper, as both of the initial challengers (the #70 Marcos and the #56 Porsche) had retired early on in the race.