CHAMPCAR/CART: Long Beach is Time to Change Gears

Changing Gears - by Marc Sproule, Editor No pun intended, but it's time for the CART drivers to start changing gears. After two races at high-speed ovals, they must change their mindsets as they get ready for the first weekend of...

Changing Gears - by Marc Sproule, Editor

No pun intended, but it's time for the CART drivers to start changing gears. After two races at high-speed ovals, they must change their mindsets as they get ready for the first weekend of left and right turns at the ocean-side street circuit in Long Beach, Calif.

It remains to be seen how fast the average speed will be in qualifying -- it was over 110 mph last year. Speeds should be close to that, but the circuit changed and now runs by the new aquarium near the Queen Mary. The competition for the pole and race win is sure to be fierce.

There will be no defending race winner this year, since Alex Zanardi moved on to F1. That leaves Bryan Herta as a logical choice to be up front. He qualified on pole, led 26 laps and finished third at the beach last season and won the last road race in 1998. He was fastest in preseason testing at Laguna Seca and is motivated to improve on his slow start in the first two races of this year. Max Papis joins him at Team Rahal, giving Herta added impetus. Papis was also fast in testing at Laguna. The Rahal cars have always done well at Long Beach, and Papis can be expected to continue the tradition. Both drivers have the Reynard/Ford/Firestone package at their disposal.

Actually, it's probably just whistling in the wind to make predictions about who will be up front. Herta is just one driver who could or should win. Maybe the safest way to go about this is to look at past winners driving Sunday. Surprise, surprise: Only three former winners are at Long Beach this weekend -- four if you count Al Unser Jr., but he's sidelined with a broken ankle.

Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and Jimmy Vasser are the active drivers who have won at the beach. Mikey won in '86 (was it really that long ago?), so he probably figures he's due again. With his confidence in the Swift chassis and the Newman/Haas team's switch to Firestone tires, he's not a bad bet. His entry is powered by Ford.

Pauly won in '93 for Penske. After sitting out the season opener at Homestead, he'll be shooting at scoring maximum points. Team KOOL Green is supplying him with the dominant Reynard/Honda/Firestone package, giving him a very good chance. Since we're talking about the Green Team, Tracy's teammate Dario Franchitti was one of the stars on the road circuits at the end of last season. He finished second to Zanardi in last year's edition of Long Beach and is a good pick this weekend.

Vasser won in '96 on his way to the series' championship, and he's still driving for the same Target Chip Ganassi team with the same mechanical package as Tracy and Franchitti. Vasser may not be the hardest charger, but he is one of the most consistent drivers out there, and his team has been dominant in recent years: No other car but a Target car has had the winning setup since '95. Vasser's teammate, rookie Juan Montoya, might be the surprise of the weekend -- if he can keep it on the island. He's very quick, but may be in too much of a hurry.

Others who have a good shot at their first seaside victory are Greg Moore and Gil de Ferran. Moore won the season opener, probably should have won last weekend at Motegi and has a strong combination with his Player's Reynard/Mercedes/Firestone entry. De Ferran qualified his Walker Racing Valvoline Reynard/Honda/Goodyear entry on pole at Motegi and finished second despite a pre-green flag spin. He led more laps than anyone at last year's Long Beach, and he'll want to lead the lap that counts this year.

If Adrian Fernandez were still in his Patrick Racing Tecate/Quaker State Reynard/Ford/Firestone car, he would also be considered a threat. He'll be in a Swift for the first time this season, and a lack of testing in that chassis could hamper his chances. He finished fourth at Long Beach last year and has been showing very good form in 1999. It might not be a bad weekend for him after all. How's that for a definitive evaluation?

Just to make the list a little longer, I'll throw in PacWest teammates Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell. In their Reynard/Mercedes/Firestone cars, they could throw a spanner in the works for the others. Both are accomplished road racers, and they both finished in the top 10 in last year's street scramble. They have a lot to prove after difficult seasons in 1998.

If the winner doesn't come from this list, I guess I'll just give up trying to pick winners. It wouldn't be the first time.

Source: CART Online

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Max Papis , Adrian Fernandez , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Alex Zanardi , Mauricio Gugelmin , Bryan Herta , Mark Blundell , Chip Ganassi , Greg Moore