Motor racing: The charmer with a cutting edge

Formula One welcomes back Zanardi, the dasher who has learned how to win.
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FOR ALL the charm that he brings to racing, Alex Zanardi is fundamentally a pragmatist. It shows through in the no-nonsense, instant-decision manoeuvres he pulled time and again when overtaking rivals in America's Champ Car series these past three seasons, and in the clear-headed judgement that made him the apple of engineer Mo Nunn's sometimes jaundiced eye. But even he acknowledges one of life's little ironies. At the start of his Formula One career, back in 1993, he collided in his first race, in South Africa, with the Williams driven by another rookie, one Damon Hill.

Now, six seasons later, when the World Championship starts in Melbourne next Sunday, Zanardi will be driving the car that took Hill to the top of the world. Hill won the World Championship in 1996, while Zanardi made the most of his exile to America to dominate in a manner reminiscent of Nigel Mansell. And, as Mansell did, Zanardi is coming back to Formula One. But where Mansell saw it as unfinished business, after an acrimonious divorce from Williams at the very apogee of his success, Zanardi views his situation differently.

"I still feel I'm a very lucky person. I had my career in America, and now I hope I am able to keep it up at the same level in Formula One. Obviously, I'm here because it was my decision, because I strongly believe that I am capable of doing the job I have been asked to do by Frank Williams. But I don't see it as revenge, or unfinished business. I just see it as a great opportunity that was presented to me, and I will do the best I can to justify it."

It is not going to be easy. Mika Hakkinen looks set to carry on where he left off with McLaren-Mercedes in 1998, and his team-mate David Coulthard vows to be stronger in his own challenge. Michael Schumacher and Ferrari will be equally threatening, anxious to put two last-race defeats behind them in the quest for the elusive title. "If we go to Melbourne and they are a second ahead of us," Zanardi said, "we will simply have to work harder."

But it is not just a matter of McLaren and Ferrari. Eddie Jordan has his eyes set on Williams' spot in the pecking order, while Benetton, Sauber, Stewart and Prost are equally sure they can joust for it in a season that holds the promise of some surprises.

Zanardi describes his job as helping Williams' engineers to clear the fog from the technical picture as they continue to seek perfection. Part of the team's problem in 1998, besides the defection of Adrian Newey to McLaren, was that neither driver showed sufficient interest in the engineering side for technical director Patrick Head's taste. Zanardi loves all that. "You test things, then you come home and think about it, go back to the factory, talk to the people, and you all end up with ideas and hopefully something comes from that. But it is up to us, me and Ralf, to help to change things and make the car faster." The word at Williams is that they already love his commitment.

He is careful not to be critical, but it is clear Zanardi shares his rivals' dislike of the grooved tyres, which compromise a driver's preferred cornering technique. He has taken a while to get the hang of it all. "You can't try to carry the car round the corners because it doesn't want to do that, and that's against my instinct," he said. "But when these tyres were first introduced all the drivers, who now have a year's experience with them, had this trouble. They had to adapt. It has taken time for me to set my new limits. To begin with I was driving flat-out, driving the best that I could, and I wasn't fast enough. So it was a little frustrating. But along the way my limit moved up."

In America, his Ganassi Racing team-mate Jimmy Vasser became a close friend. Now much may depend on how well the 32-year-old Zanardi gets on with 23-year-old Ralf Schumacher. So far, they are working well. "He is flat-out leaving the garage, and you can read in his eyes that he is very fired up. He's very fast. For an old man like me it's very challenging. We have a sparkle and he understands that it's in the best interests of the team that we get on. Maybe it is just dreaming to have a relationship where I was probably kissed by luck to have a team-mate like Jimmy, because in a competitive sport like this one it is very rare to have space for friendships, but..." An eloquent shrug replaces words.

Melbourne brings all of the teams together for the first time, and will thus establish the truth about winter testing lap times. "I know I'll be a better driver at the end of the season than at the start, because I'll still be learning," Zanardi said.

"In 1996 I had a very good car and was close to winning races at the beginning of the year and did win them at the end. In 1997 I did a job good enough to win the championship. In 1998 I won the championship by more than 100 points. Certainly I had a great car to do that, but I also drove quite well, right? But you don't do so these things without experience. So I'm not expecting to go in Melbourne and outperform everybody in a very easy way. I know the value of my opponents, and I do respect them very much.

"My dream would be to finish the season and say, `I sincerely did my best'. I can't really say my dream is to win at least one race, because if I win one then I'm going to want to win all the others. If the car is capable of winning one race, it's normally capable of winning all the rest, so why should I be aiming at just one?"