Audi's Mattias EkstrÃ¶m swung the championship pendulum back in his favour by one point, yet again, when he took the victory at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz. Title rival Gary Paffett, who had held the same small advantage over EkstrÃ¶m before the...
Audi's Mattias Ekstr?m swung the championship pendulum back in his favour by one point, yet again, when he took the victory at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz. Title rival Gary Paffett, who had held the same small advantage over Ekstr?m before the race, harassed his sparring partner all the way to the line in a thrilling fight, but the Mercedes man had to settle for second. Tom Kristensen kept well out of the way and bought his Audi home third.
Despite the predictions that the rain would return, race day at Lausitz was sunny and dry. Pole sitter Jamie Green got bulldozed by the Opels at the beginning and his Mercedes dropped to fourth. Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Manuel Reuter hurled their Opels to first and second respectively and Ekstr?m had a good start up to third. Further down the field, Marcel F?ssler's Opel charged across the grass and then got shunted out by Stefan M?cke's year-old Mercedes.
Paffett had got up to fifth, while Mika H?kkinen's Mercedes dropped two places to sixth, with Kristensen and the year-old Mercedes of Bruno Spengler in seventh and eighth respectively. Christian Abt spun his year-old Audi but kept going and meanwhile Ekstr?m was all over Reuter. Paffett got past Green for fourth and homed in on Ekstr?m, then the pair of them dived in the pits together for their first stop. The order was maintained when they rejoined, Ekstr?m ahead.
Frentzen and Reuter were then the leaders, with Kristensen third. Pierre Kaffer's year-old Audi had a trip across the grass but recovered, and Ekstr?m and Paffett made short work of the Audi of Martin Tomczyk in polite formation. Kristensen took his first stop, which allowed Laurent Aiello up to third to make it a temporary Opel one-two-three. Paffett was still all over the back of Ekstr?m's Audi, a scenario that would remain for the rest of the race as they fought tooth and nail every single lap.
Aiello was closing on teammate Reuter, the Opels going a very long way into the race before pitting. H?kkinen and Abt came to grief, although it was debatable who was the culprit, and they hit twice before Abt spun off. H?kkinen managed to keep going. Aiello was the first of the Opel trio to pit, which left Frentzen and Reuter still at the front, with the battling Ekstr?m and Paffett up to third and fourth. M?cke's Mercedes beached itself in the gravel after a spin and the Mercedes of Bernd Schneider appeared to have a puncture.
Frentzen and Reuter finally took their first stops and Frentzen got ahead, and Ekstr?m and Paffett took over the top two positions. Schneider retired to the pits with what was indeed a puncture from collecting debris on the track. Ekstr?m took his second stop and Paffett did likewise a lap later and they held position. There was a lot of debate about whether Paffett had crossed the white line when exiting the pits but he never got a penalty -- he was lucky not to because it certainly looked like he had crossed the line.
Aiello was leading Frentzen but then pitted, followed by Frentzen and Reuter on consecutive laps, that time Reuter getting ahead of Frentzen. Green retired to the pits with a brake problem and for the final stint of the race all eyes were on the title rivals. Ekstr?m and Paffett were once again back to first and second and fighting all the way. Every lap Paffett had a look down the inside of the first corner but Ekstr?m held him off.
It was great driving by both of them -- Paffett tried everything, absolutely nailed to the rear wing of the Audi, taking different lines, harassing like mad to try and find an advantage, but Ekstr?m did an equally fine job of keeping the Mercedes at bay. Behind them, Kristensen was keeping a careful watch in third and Aiello was closing in, with Reuter not too far adrift. Then came Frentzen, who was being chased by the Mercedes of Jean Alesi. Aiello had a brief wander over the grass but kept his place.
Frentzen was not so lucky; Alesi, apparently fed up of the Opel in front, barged up the inside and shunted Frentzen into a spin. Alesi got a drive-through penalty for his rude efforts and rejoined behind Frentzen again. Ekstr?m and Paffett stayed glued together all the way to the line, fighting all the way but Ekstr?m made it stick and took the chequered flag four tenths ahead. It was a real thriller of a race between the two title rivals and Ekstr?m regained the lead of the championship by that one point.
Kristensen had a fairly uneventful race for third, while Opel had three cars in the points with Aiello, Reuter and Frentzen fourth, fifth and seventh respectively. Spengler did a good job to get his year-old Mercedes home sixth and Alesi took the final point in eighth. Lausitz was a really good race and with only two to go the championship battle is as close as ever between Ekstr?m and Paffett. Opel has made a notable improvement so the last two races promise to be a fitting finale.
Sincere sympathy to the family and friends of WRC co-driver Michael Park and 250cc motorcycle rider Richard Britton.