Mercedes Ponders Le Mans

Mercedes may pull out of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race for good after a series of unexplained spectacular crashes this year, Mercedes-Benz Chairman Juergen Hubbert was quoted as saying Friday.

"I would not recommend that we compete there again," Hubbert told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He added that no decision had been made on whether the Mercedes CLR cars that crashed at Le Mans would enter the French race again.

But it was likely that the cars -- a different version closer to the road-going model -- instead would compete in the mainly German-based DTM sportscar series.

Briton Peter Dumbreck's Mercedes flew off the track into trees during last month's race, lifting vertically, then flipping over five times in the air. Mercedes withdrew its one remaining car from the race immediately afterward.

Australian Mark Webber had a similar accident in the pre-race warmup and also crashed in qualifying. Neither driver was injured in the crashes, which occurred away from the main spectator areas.


No Prosecution Of Pantani Over Blood Test

The Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) confirmed Thursday it would not prosecute Marco Pantani for failing a blood test during this year's Giro d'Italia cycling race.

"Our anti-doping committee noted that Pantani consented to a blood test strictly as a health check. Therefore the results of the test can't be used for disciplinary purposes," a CONI spokesman said.

The anti-doping commission met Wednesday to consider the case of Pantani, who was forced to drop out of the Giro d'Italia after the tests showed he had a hematocrit (red blood cell) level 2 percent over the 50 percent limit.

With just two stages to go, he was only 48 hours away from his second consecutive victory in the prestigious race.

Pantani insists he has never used performance-enhancing drugs, including the banned substance erythropoietin (EPO), which boosts red blood cell levels. He has said he plans to make a comeback at the world championships in Italy in October.


Champions Square Off

The UEFA Champions League has expanded again and is already in full swing, having completed its first qualifying round last Wednesday. The eight winners will move on to the second round this Wednesday and Aug. 4.

In Riga, Latvia, forward Mikhail Miholaps scored five goals in Skonto's 8-0 victory over Luxembourger champions Jeunesse Esch. Skonto was a 10-0 aggregate winner and advances to play Rapid Bucharest of Romania. Gilbert Agius's two goals led Maltese title holder Valetta to a 3-2 second leg and aggregate victory over Welsh club Barry Town and a second-round date with Austrian power Rapid Vienna.

Elsewhere, Partizan Belgrade defeated Flora of Estonia, 4-1, to clinch a 10-1 aggregate victory and a matchup with Rijeka of Croatia. Haka of Finland defeated HB Torshavn of the Faroe Islands, 6-0 (7-1 aggregate), and draws Scottish champions Glasgow Rangers, who feature American star Claudio Reyna.

In other matches, Liteks of Bulgaria advanced to play Widzew Lodz of Poland after moving past Glentoran of Northern Ireland, 2-0 (5-0); Macedonian club Sloga Jugomagnat defeated Azeri champion Kapaz on away goals after a 2-1 second-leg victory and will play Danish power Broendby; Zalgiris of Lithuania beat Tsement of Armenia, 3-0 (5-0), and is drawn against 1999 Champions League semifinalist Dynamo Kyiv; Zimbru Chisinau of Moldova routed Irish champion St. Patrick's Athletic, 5-0 (10-0), and will play Dinamo Tbilisi of Georgia; and IBV Vestmannaeyjar of Iceland moved on to play MTK Budapest of Hungary after nipping Tirana of Albania, 2-1 (3-1).

The draw for the third qualifying round was made Friday in Geneva, and there are several potential matchups of interest, including one between Glasgow Rangers and 1999 UEFA Cup champion Parma.


Making a Splash

Peggy Buechse brought Germany the first gold medal of the European swimming championships when she retained her five-kilometer open-water title in a dramatically close finish Friday in Istanbul.

Olga Brusnikina maintained Russia's tradition of winning the synchronized swimming by taking the solo event ahead of Virginie Dedieu of France and Giovanna Burlando of Italy, who repeated their silver and bronze medal placings of 1997, respectively.

Buechse, European champion over 25K in Vienna in 1995 and 5K in Seville in 1997, swam the course in 1 hour 1 minute 56.6 seconds and edged unsung Italian Viola Valli and her own Rostock-born teammate, Britta Kamrau. It was the first international open-water championship for former Italian national team skier and pool swimmer Valli and her silver was a surprise to almost everyone except herself.