Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Forty Years at Long Beach, Ten Memorable Races

This year's Grand Prix of Long Beach marks the fortieth time Shoreline Drive becomes a straightaway leading to a passing zone and the Queen Mary becomes a backdrop for one of the longest continuously used street circuits.

The history started as a Formula 5000 race, followed by eight years of Formula One and for the last thirty-one years, American open-wheel racing has been proud to make the Southern California stop.

Today we look at ten rememberable race on the streets of Long Beach.

The third edition featured a three-horse race as Niki Lauda, Mario Andretti and Jody Scheckter pulled away from the rest of the field. Scheckter eventually took the lead but had a tire going down with twenty-two laps to go. The South African decided to stay out as long as the tire would hold and was leading with four laps to go but victory was not in the cards. Andretti made a move to the inside off Shoreline Drive and took the lead. The following lap Lauda made the same move on Scheckter and began to chase down Andretti. On the final lap Andretti was slowed by the March of Brian Henton and Surtees of Hans Binder but was able to hold off Lauda by last than a half second with Scheckter rounding out the point just under five seconds back.

The final Formula One race on the streets of Long Beach was one that stands the tests of time. Early in the race, Keke Rosberg spun entering what is now turn nine and made one of the greatest saves in motorsports history, continuing to chase down pole-sitter Patrick Tambay. The defending world champion Rosberg would make an attempt to pass Tambay on the Shoreline Drive hairpin but made contact with the Frenchman, ending both their races.

Meanwhile, the McLarens of John Watson and Lauda had made their way from 22nd and 23rd respectively to 3rd and 4th. Jacques Laffite took the lead after Tambay and Rosberg retired and Ricardo Patrese in second. Patrese went wide allowing the McLarens by and then went on to pass Laffite. Watson won from 22nd which is still the record for farthest back a winner has come from on the starting grid in a Formula One Grand Prix.

This was the first battle between the second generations of Andretti and Unser. Michael and Little Al went at it as they combined to lead 62 of 95 laps. Michael held off Al Jr. by 0.380 seconds, still the closest margin of victory in the forty year history of the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Big movers in the race were Geoff Brabham and Tom Sneva as they went from 14th and 15th to 3rd and 4th respectively.

Al Unser, Jr. had won four consecutive Long Beach races, firmly establishing himself as king of Shoreline Drive. Michael Andretti started on pole and appeared destine to dethrone Little Al but retired before halfway with a transmission failure. This put Unser in the lead and his only challenger was his teammate Danny Sullivan. Entering turn nine, Sullivan made slight contact with Unser, knocking him out of the lead. Sullivan went on to win, extending Galles/Kraco Racing's Long Beach winning streak to five.

Gil de Ferran dominated. Pole position and led 100 laps. With four laps to go the Reynard-Honda of de Ferran started to slow, allowing Jimmy Vasser by for his third win in the first four races of the 1996 season as Vasser would go on to win the championship. It was Chip Ganassi's first Long Beach win and first of four consecutive. Parker Johnstone came home in a surprise second place, his lone career podium with Al Unser finishing third. Paul Tracy finished fourth and de Ferran limbed home in fifth.

Gil de Ferran was in control of another Long Beach race. He started fifth but had led the most laps and was leading comfortably when he made his final pit stop. The Brazilian had a gearbox failure when leaving the pit lane, ending his hopes for victory. This created a three-way battle in the final five laps between pole-sitter Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti and Alex Zanardi, who was a lap down at one point during the race. The Italian made a pass around the Scotsman in turn nine with four to go. With two to go, Zanardi made a daring pass on Herta in turn three and would go on to pick up his second consecutive Long Beach victory.

With Zanardi's famous corkscrew pass on Herta at Laguna Seca less than two years prior to his pass at Long Beach, I wonder if Herta still has nightmares of Zanardi in his mirrors?

Would third time be the charm for Gil de Ferran? Started on pole, led the most laps and now driving for Penske Racing. It seemed this was going to be his year. 2000 was an odd year at Long Beach. Michael Andretti led a handful of laps but a fire in the pits ended his day. Rookie Takyua Kurosawa led seven laps in his second start and Roberto Moreno led before him. Paul Tracy started 17th and worked his way to the front before getting around Kurosawa with twenty-one laps to go. The Canadian held on for his second Long Beach win and the farthest back a winner has come from in the IndyCar-era at Long Beach. Kurosawa retired as Helio Castroneves and Jimmy Vasser finished third. De Ferran finished fifth. He never won at Long Beach despite three poles.

Sixteen years after holding off Al Unser, Jr. for his first career victory, Michael Andretti had to hold off another American champions for his final career victory. Andretti started fifteenth but through pit strategy and a timely caution found himself leading. For the final five laps Andretti had Vasser challenging him but Andretti held on to win by 0.466 seconds. Max Papis finished 3rd from 18th on the grid. The ten cars that finished race were all on the lead lap.

The 2005 Grand Prix of Long Beach saw a record-tying eleven lead changes. Paul Tracy started on pole as he looked for his third consecutive Long Beach victory. The Canadian led 23 laps before the Frenchman Sébastien Bourdais took the led. Tracy could not catch Bourdais as the Frenchman won his first Grand Prix of Long Beach and unlike Tracy Bourdais would take three consecutive checkered flags on Shoreline Drive as he would win in 2006 and 2007. This was Newman/Haas Racing's first Long Beach victory since Mario Andretti won 18 years prior.

The first Long Beach race for the DW12 saw the all eleven Chevrolet teams change engines and take ten grid spot penalties and Hondas started in the first five rows and appeared in position to get their first victory of the 2012 season after Chevrolet took the first two rounds. Hondas led the most laps on the day with Takuma Sato, Simon Pagenaud and Justin Wilson combining to lead 57 of 85 laps. Will Power used fuel strategy to perfection, leading the final fifteen laps as Simon Pagenaud ran out of time to chase down the Australian, falling 0.8675 seconds short. Chevrolet recovered and embarrassed Honda, taking seven of the top ten.

There you have it. Ten memorable Grand Prix of Long Beach. Here is to forty more and let's hope they are all IndyCar sanctioned.