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FIA GT Championship: Schneider and Bell 1997 Champions

26 October 1997

Laguna Seca, CA--The outcome for the FIA driver's championship was decided 
in the early part of this three-hour race. The championship fight came down 
to three drivers: Mercedes driver Bernd Schneider and McLaren drivers JJ 
Lehto and Steve Soper. The two McLaren teammates, who have co-driven all year 
long, were placed into different cars for this race. Soper remained in the #8 
McLaren, while Lehto was switched to the #9.  The strategy  behind the driver 
change was to give the two driver's an equal shot at winning the driver's 
championship on their own. However, the strategy was never put to the test: 
Lehto's BMW McLaren retired 12 laps into the race with engine failure. Soper's 
day appeared to be going ok. At the one hour mark Soper came into the pits to 
switch with Roberto Ravaglia. On the return to racing, Ravaglia tangled in the 
fourth turn with the Parabolica McLaren. By the time that the safety crew 
retrieved the McLaren, five laps had elapsed. Their day to challenge for the 
championship was over. For Lehto and Soper the day had started with a glimmer 
of hope of keeping up with the Mercedes of Bernd Schneider and Klaus Ludwig. 
It ended five laps down to the eventual winners, Schneider and Ludwig.

The team that gave the Mercedes drivers the real test today were the three 
factory works Porsches. Yannick Dalmas and Bob Wollek in the #7 Porsche 
finished second, 14.07 seconds behind the #11 Mercedes. The #47 Porsche of 
Allan McNish and Ralf Kelleners came in third. It was the #47 Porsche of McNish
and Kelleners that set the early tone for the race. Grabbing the lead from the 
pole sitting Mercedes of Alex Wurz and Greg Moore, McNish kept the lead for the
first 41 laps until the Porsche needed fuel and tires. An extended pit stop by 
the Porsche crew lost any chance that the Porsche team had of catching 
Mercedes. On the next lap Schneider brought the #11 Mercedes into the pits for
tires, fuel and a driver change.  While momentarily losing the lead during
the remaining two pit stops, the #11 Mercedes was never challenged for the lead.

The  most interesting battle of the day was in GT2. Five drivers arrived to 
Laguna with a chance to win the driver's championship. Team Oreca Viper driver
Justin Bell came into the day four points (60 points) ahead of fellow Viper
teammates Philippe Gache and Olivier Beretta, each with 56 points. Following 
just one point behind Gache and Beretta were Porsche driver's Claudia Hurtgen 
and Bruno Eichmann.  Gache and Beretta dominated the first two-third's of the 
race. Bell and Archer were battling handling problems.  It looked like Gache 
and Beretta were going to vault past Bell to clinch the championship. Then 
disaster struck: on the team's last pit stop the officials assessed a 10 
second penalty for a pit lane violation (speeding) on lap 90. The penalty 
handed the lead to Bruno Eichmann in the Porsche.  With time running out the 
Team Oreca manager determined that Gache and Beretta could not make up the 
difference to catch Eichmann. With six laps left the word went out to let 
Bell pass so that he could take second place and win the driver's 
championship. Justin Bell summed it up "I've had excellent teammates, and
without them it wouldn't have happened.  This victory is also thanks to Olivier
and Philippe, who have done such an excellent job, bringing the team and car 
on." Eichmann, who won the race but lost the championship was graceful in his 
remarks."I think we had a chance, but it didn't come. We did the best job we 
could and won the race. It's been a happy season."

Results (Top Five)
Pos	Car#	Drivers				Marque	Laps
1	11	Schneider/Ludwig		Mercedes	130
2	 7	Dalmas/Wollek			Porsche	130	-14.787
3	47	Kelleners/McNish		Porsche	130	-49.603
4	 3	Gounon/Raphanel			McLaren	130	-1.15.315
5	 6	Stuck/Boutsen			Porsche	129

1(16)	56	Eichmann/Ortelli		Porsche	121
2(17)	52	Bell/Archer			Viper	120
3(18)	51	Gache/Beretta			Viper	120	-02.925
4(19)	54	Dean/O'Kennedy			Viper	116
5(20)	63	Trunk/Miller			Porsche	115