March 23 in Motorsports History: Iceman keeps cool in Malaysian GP

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A future Formula One champion made his mark on the racing world on this date 17 years ago in the hot and humid conditions at Malaysia’s Sepang Circuit.

Though the initial race day forecast for the Malaysian Grand Prix called for rain, the only drops the 20 drivers competing in the race felt were those of their own sweat.

With a track temperature of nearly 135 degrees Fahrenheit, drivers needed to keep themselves cool both physically and mentally if they intended on winning the race.

Perhaps fittingly, it was Kimi Räikkönen, the driver nicknamed ‘Iceman,’ who found his way to victory lane.

Driving for McLaren, Räikkönen started the race from seventh but quickly challenged for the lead within a few laps.

As the cars entered the first corner behind pole-sitter Fernando Alonso, third-place Michael Schumacher made contact with Jarno Trulli, forcing Trulli off-track and Schumacher into the pits for a nose-cone replacement.

Kimi Raikkonen celebrates winning the 2003 Malaysian Grand Prix. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

During the chain-reaction crash in Turn 1, Antônio Pizzonia rear-ended Juan Pablo Montoya, and David Coulthard emerged in second place, followed by Nick Heidfeld and Räikkönen in third and fourth.

Coulthard experienced an electrical issue on Lap 2 that forced him to retire. Räikkönen passed Heidfeld and remained in second before inheriting the lead when Alonso pitted on Lap 14.

Räikkönen remained on the track before eventually stopping on Lap 19, briefly ceding the lead to Rubens Barrichello before retaking it when the Brazillian pitted on Lap 22.

The Finnish driver held on for the remaining 35 laps to score his first F1 victory. Barrichello was second, and Alonso finished third for his first F1 podium.

Räikkönen has scored 20 more victories in his Formula One career, including another Maylasian Grand Prix that also took place on this date in 2008. He won the World Championship in 2007 with Ferrari.

Also on this date:

1986: Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna finished 1-2 in their home Grand Prix of Brazil. The victory was Piquet’s second at the Jacarepaguá Circuit. Piquet previously won there in 1983.

1996: Alexander Albon was born in London. The Red Bull driver finished eighth in the Formula One points standings in his rookie season last year.

1997: Jim Guthrie pulled off one of the biggest upsets in IndyCar history, beating Tony Stewart to win at Phoenix. Guthrie entered the race weekend unsponsored and had taken a second mortgage on his house to get the money needed to race. The win was Guthrie’s lone podium in 15 IndyCar starts.

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April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994