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1997 Racing Season - Shock Settings

Happenings Ten Years' Time Ago

Kerry Morse
Mar 1, 2008
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So sang The Yardbirds in 1966, in a song noted for having two future members of Led Zeppelin on guitar and bass. Zep are big news again with the reunion, amazing for a band formed almost 40 years ago. Can you imagine BMW bringing out the 1967 1600 Coupe now? That 'everything old is new again' pop culture riff has reached my household with Guitar Hero and just because I recognize every song (and quite possibly have it on vinyl) doesn't mean I want to hear it over and over. For the past few weeks, I feel like I've been trapped in an AM radio playlist. A recent episode of South Park got it right. At least satellite radio can offer up the Dylan-Metallica Hour-let's see that on Guitar Hero.

As nothing seems to age faster than last year's racecar, I decided to look back at the 1997 season. I wasn't too surprised to see that, in many areas, only the price of playing has changed. Laguna Seca hosted a round of the FIA GT Championship, the first time a real world championship had been on the West Coast in years. The crowd of more than 40,000 wasn't a record by any means, but it was easily the most knowledgeable. Mercedes CLK-GTR, Porsche GT1, Lotus, lots of Porsche GT2s, a Morgan (!) and of course, the beautiful McLaren BMW GTR. The AMG Mercedes team was the one to beat, courtesy of a favorable FIA ruling that upset both Porsche and BMW. My, my, some things never change... politics in motorsport.

I witnessed one of the great starts in Laguna Seca's history. Allan McNish passed both Mercedes by turn two to lead the race. This was big, Porsche had not been in front all season. A problem during the first pit stop put the CLK back in P1 and the Porsche GT1s in P2 and P3-at least they were on the podium. In GT2, the Dodge Viper claimed enough points over Porsche to claim that title. The support race was the Professional Sports Car Series final round of the World Sports Cars (WSC), consisting of open-cockpit Ferrari 333SPs, various Riley & Scotts and Mazda Kudzus; mostly forgettable designs that seemed to later morph into forgettable coupes for today's Grand Am series. However, they were capable of good racing and lapped Laguna quicker than the GT1 brigade. One shouldn't read much into that, because the GT1s like longer circuits such as Spa and Le Mans where a WSC becomes traffic. The contrast between the series could not have been greater and the crowd loved it.

Ten years later at Laguna Seca, under the American Le Mans Series banner, McNish once again made a great start aboard his Audi R10, eventually getting past the lighter, more nimble Porsche prototype RS Spyders to win. Porsche had been absent from the front ranks of pure prototypes for almost eight years and there was no doubt that its return did a considerable amount to generate more interest in sports car racing.

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Some other series have not been so fortunate. In an article published in 1997 regarding attendance at sports car races, a writer noted that 40,000 was certainly not going to frighten CART. I wonder what that writer would make of the sorry state of open-wheel racing in the country today after 10 years of decline. With the exception of Long Beach, the permanent circuits don't get much of a draw for open-wheel.

The 2007 Formula One drivers' title went down to the wire among three combatants, but their tussle was nothing compared to the political fighting between the FIA and McLaren over the spy saga involving data from Ferrari. There's something distasteful about battling in the public arena through the media. This isn't life or death-it's motor racing. Is there any better reason why historic events like Monterey and Goodwood are looked upon so fondly?

1997 was one of the better F1 seasons, with a real on-track war between Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher. Williams-Renault versus Ferrari. It all came down to the final race at Jerez, Spain. Schumacher tried to run the Williams off the track- la his move that netted his first world title in 1994 over Damon Hill in Australia. Not this time. The Ferrari sat in the gravel while Villeneuve finished third and celebrated his championship. Schumacher got off with a slap on the wrist. While this was going on, the FIA GT cars were preparing to race at Laguna Seca. Ten years later, as the ALMS cars were warming up for the finale on the Monterey Peninsula, word came over that Raikkonen had won the F1 drivers' title over McLaren's Alonso and Hamilton. It was a situation we really know... four bars guitar.

By Kerry Morse
47 Articles



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