The CART season closer and championship decider was a tense, nervous war of attrition - and yet one of the most exciting clashes of the season. In a year that saw 11 different race winners, five drivers had a mathematical chance of taking the title at the California Superspeedway: Roberto Moreno; Paul Tracy; Kenny Brack; Adrian Fernandez and Gil de Ferran.
De Ferran was leading the points standings coming into the race and when he got pole position on the Saturday, it significant for two reasons. Firstly, he set a new world record, completing a lap of the superspeedway at 241.428mph - one tenth faster than Mauricio Gugelmin's record set in 1997.
But, perhaps more importantly, de Ferran's extra point for qualifying on pole meant that Moreno could no longer take the title, and the points difference between de Ferran and closest rival Fernandez was up to six. As Dario Franchitti found out the previous year, single points can be crucial when deciding championships.
Just 25 laps in to the race and another contender was out of the fight. Paul Tracy's engine blew and his title hopes went up with the smoke of his Honda engine. The pressure on the remaining three soon upped when rain started to fall on the track. The race was stopped and we had to wait another day to see who would take the title.
Kenny Brack had to lead most laps and win the race to take the championship, so come the restart on Monday morning the Swede and de Ferran's Penske team mate Helio Castroneves had a terrific slipstreaming battle. With the lead changing up to three times a lap as the drivers tried to judge their overtaking move to coincide with crossing the line, it was a breathtaking site. Reliability was a major factor too and the race was marked with a spate of engine failures and crashes.
De Ferran had a moment when Tony Kanaan's engine went. The pack hurtled through the smoke of Kanaan's Mercedes engine unsighted, and de Ferran came within millimetres of colliding with Michael Andretti. It was perhaps luck more than judgement that kept him out of the wall.
The slipstreaming battles continued, with Brack, Castroneves, Christian Fittipaldi, Max Papis and Juan Pablo Montoya all nicking lead laps from one another, and mechanical fatigue was taking its toll. Dario Franchitti, Jimmy Vasser, Kanaan, Mark Blundell all had engine failures. Brack's turbocharger went, and then Max Papis, Castroneves and Montoya all suffered blown engines.
But de Ferran, knowing that one mistake or one mechanical glitch would ruin his title hopes, ran a conservative race, just doing enough to stay ahead of Fernandez. At the end, Christian Fittipaldi then Roberto Moreno were the first drivers to cross the line, but de Ferran's third place was enough to hand the Brazilian his title.
The emotion was almost too much for the Penske driver. CART's most successful team had another champion, and as de Ferran clambered out of his car, the tears were streaming down his cheeks. "I can hardly talk... I don't know what to say," was all he could say to the expectant press pack. But throughout the season de Ferran let his driving do the talking. He was the series' most consistent racer - finishing in the top six in half of the races - and no one could say that the Brazilian didn't deserve the title.
WHAT THEY SAID
Gil de Ferran: "I always dreamed of this. To be here talking to you as champion is really very, very satisfying. I'll try to enjoy this 'taste in my mouth' for as long as I can. It's fantastic."
Roger Penske:"I can say it now: you give us the right tools and we'll get it done. Look for us to be continually stong next year."
David Coulthard (de Ferran's team mate at Paul Stewart Racing): "I don't think I've ever been so nervous in a race. Now I understand how Heidi or my parents feel watching me. To see Gil win is awesome."
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