Vasser returns to Victory Lane

Jimmy Vasser turned the tables on his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team-mate Juan Montoya to win the Texaco Havoline Grand Prix of Houston, leading home his young Columbian partner for the team's first one-two finish since August 1996

Vasser returns to Victory Lane

Even better for Vasser, it marked his return to the top step of the podium after an absence of nearly two years. Prior to this weekend, he had not won since his victory at Fontana in the 1998 season finale. Given that Ganassi will not be requiring his services in 2001, this result couldn't have come at a better time.

Gil de Ferran finished third and extended his championship lead to a commanding 19-point advantage with just two races to go, but in a way this was still a disappointing result for the Penske driver. The Brazilian had started from pole and made an early break as the initial laps veered between typical street course chaos and full-on farce.

Vasser made a great start to dive inside Dario Franchitti for second into the first turn. Eager to fight back, Franchitti then got sideways on the exit and clouted the wall, breaking his right rear suspension in the process. He failed to notice until the next corner however, when his KOOL Green Reynard refused to turn in on the reasonable grounds that only three of its four wheels were touching the tarmac.

Franchitti wasn't the only one in the wall, as Mark Blundell had punted Patrick Carpentier into a spin down in the less interesting half of the field. A six-lap caution duly followed, with several cars diving into the pits to try and extend the length of their first stint and gamble on a one-stop strategy. Max Papis and Memo Gidley were among the gamblers, but at the restart Papis' car cut suddenly on the exit of the painfully slow turn two hairpin. Stuck right behind him, Gidley's attempts to navigate around the stranded Rahal Reynard left his Della Penna Reynard-Toyota perched on the rear wing and wheel of Papis' car.

That was fairly bizarre. The sight of a team of marshals, a tow truck and a crane finding it impossible to disentangle the two cars was odder still. Gidley's front wing was trapped between Papis' rear wing and right rear tyre and it took a further six laps before they could be prized apart.

The action finally got underway on lap 12. De Ferran led from Vasser, and their respective team-mates Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya. The latter immediately tried to muscle past Castroneves for third, reprising their Vancouver battle as he tried the brave route around the outside line into turn five. The two cars stayed side-by-side, wheel-banging all the way, through turn six too before Montoya was forced to concede, which is not something he does too often...

For the next 40 laps, the top four ran tantalisingly close together without ever really threatening to do anything dramatic. A short distance further back, Paul Tracy was fending off Newman-Haas team-mate Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi. However the undoubted star of the show was Tarso Marques. The Brazilian had qualified Dale Coyne Racing's unfancied Swift-Ford in 11th and was now fighting furiously for eighth with Alex Tagliani in the Player's/Forsythe entry. He finally made it past with a stunning tyre-smoking dive at the end of the backstretch shortly before the pit stops, then wasted little time in closing in on Tracy, Andretti and Fittipaldi. Which is not something that Dale Coyne's cars do too often either...

The early yellows meant that the first pit stops didn't come until half distance. De Ferran held the lead, but the Patrick Racing cars of Roberto Moreno and Adrian Fernandez had stopped under the first yellow and were able to stay out, moving up to second and fifth respectively with Vasser and Montoya in-between.

Castroneves exited the lead battle at this point, losing time with a slow pit stop then getting involved in an unsuccessful wheel-banging match with Tracy in the pit exit. With Andretti moving up to sixth thanks to a strong stop, Castroneves found himself way down in eighth place.

The Ganassi cars were eager to pass Moreno and attack de Ferran once more, only for Montoya to run wide and lose fifth to Fernandez. Then Cristiano da Matta's hitherto inconspicuous afternoon became more noteworthy when he ran into the turn eight tyre barrier and brought out another yellow. The Patrick cars pitted at once, giving everyone a dilemma. This was the ideal time to make a final pit stop... but if there were more yellows in the remaining 43 laps then maybe there would be no need to stop again at all...?

In the end, all bar de Ferran, Vasser, Montoya, Tracy, Castroneves and Tony Kanaan stopped. Fittipaldi was behind them in seventh, but Andretti stalled at his service and dropped back to tenth.

De Ferran decided to go for it at the restart, putting on a ferocious charge in the hope that he could build up enough of a lead to stop again and still win. The Ganassi pair hung back and lapped around a second slower, but everything looked to be going de Ferran's way until a transmission problem left Marques' Swift stranded in the middle of the track, bringing out the yellows again on lap 75. De Ferran pitted at once and a quick stop meant he rejoined third, but Kanaan was less lucky. Also playing an aggressive strategy, he had charged past Castroneves, Tracy and Montoya to run third, but a slow stop by the Mo Nunn crew dropped him to the back of the lead pack.

Vasser and Montoya may have been ahead now but they would still need to drive carefully and save fuel if they were to make it to the end, whereas de Ferran had no such worries in third. Then Tagliani unwittingly saved Ganassi's day by pushing the luckless Andretti into a spin. Oriol Servia, Shinji Nakano, da Matta and Kenny Brack all got involved too, while Kanaan squeezed through the tiniest of gaps between Tagliani and the wall and survived unscathed.

An extended yellow for this untidy incident meant that Vasser could run hard to the finish, and he duly did, rebuffing Montoya's initial challenges and pulling out a 5s lead as his team-mate successfully held off de Ferran and the hard-charging Tracy for second place.

Castroneves' fuel economy run was less productive and he had to settle for fifth, well clear of the unobtrusive Fittipaldi. Fernandez was seventh ahead of the impressive Nakano, who had also been rapid in the warm-up. It was a novel experience for the Japanese driver to even make it to the end of a race this season, but he drove strongly to run with the leaders despite losing time with a spin in turn five and when he got caught in the Andretti/Tagliani traffic shambles.

Servia took ninth after Kanaan's engine went sick and he slumped to tenth in the closing stages. Mercedes' impending pull-out may be a blow for CART, but Tony Kanaan desperately deserves a competitive engine. Again, he was the only Mercedes runner to finish- PacWest's Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell may have to be reminded what a chequered flag looks like soon...

Moreno had to pit when his seatbelts came loose, he salvaged two points for 11th ahead of Alex Barron. Andretti and da Matta rejoined and lapped rapidly after their early incidents but were too far behind to make an impression.

Vasser was suitably delighted after his victory, while Montoya seemed genuinely pleased for his team-mate too. It was Toyota's first win on anything other than an oval, and the Japanese's manufacturer's fifth win of the year. Most of all, it was a timely reminder that Target Chip Ganassi Racing should never be underestimated. A fifth straight title for the squad would now take a mathematical miracle as Montoya is 31 points behind de Ferran with only 44 to play for at Surfer's Paradise and Fontana, but Ganassi's Lola-Toyotas will still be strong at both venues.

De Ferran's 19-point lead means that he could, in theory, take the title in the next round at Surfer's Paradise in Australia two weeks from now. However, his nearest rival Paul Tracy has been a factor all year too, and if he wins Down Under with de Ferran failing to score, the Canadian could yet arrive at the Fontana decider with a narrow points advantage. Stranger things have happened, especially this season...




1 Jimmy Vasser Ganassi Lola-Toyota 100 laps
2 Juan Montoya Ganassi Lola-Toyota + 1.914s
3 Gil de Ferran Penske Reynard-Honda + 2.317s
4 Paul Tracy Green Reynard-Honda + 2.729s
5 Helio Castroneves Penske Reynard-Honda + 8.339s
6 Christian Fittipaldi Newman-Haas Lola-Ford + 15.319s
7 Adrian Fernandez Patrick Reynard-Ford + 17.227s
8 Shinji Nakano Walker Reynard-Honda + 21.915s
9 Oriol Servia PPI Reynard-Toyota + 25.827s
10 Tony Kanaan Mo Nunn Reynard-Mercedes + 31.952s
11 Roberto Moreno Patrick Reynard-Ford + 1 lap
12 Alex Barron Coyne Lola-Ford + 1 lap
13 Michael Andretti Newman-Haas Lola-Ford + 2 laps
14 Cristiano da Matta PPI Reynard-Toyota + 3 laps

Retirements:

Kenny Brack Rahal Reynard-Ford
Alex Tagliani Forsythe Reynard-Ford
Tarso Marques Coyne Swift-Ford
Michel Jourdain Jr Bettenhausen Lola-Mercedes
Patrick Carpentier Forsythe Reynard-Ford
Mark Blundell PacWest Reynard-Mercedes
Memo Gidley Della Penna Reynard-Toyota
Luiz Garcia Jr Arciero PRG Reynard-Mercedes
Mauricio Gugelmin PacWest Reynard-Mercedes
Max Papis Rahal Reynard-Ford
Dario Franchitti Green Reynard-Honda

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