Motor Racing: Zanardi retains zest for speed

Mechanical problems and doubts over driving style dog Williams newcomer before British Grand Prix; Italian has no regrets about swapping comforts of US series for a return to Formula One.
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WHEN "DNF" becomes a permanent appendage, a racing driver has cause for concern. Alessandro Zanardi did not finish any of the seven grands prix contested this season and, worse still, did not figure as a serious contender in any of them.

It is scarcely the scenario he or his team, Williams, anticipated when they negotiated a three-year deal to bring the Italian back to Formula One from CART. He had won the American series twice and produced an aggressive style of driving traditionally preferred by his new employers.

However, Zanardi has encountered difficulties adapting to the more sensitive features of a Formula One car and his plight has been compounded by a series of problems on the Williams which have reduced his running time and propelled him into a vicious circle.

Nor does it help that Williams are going through an inevitably subdued period, completing their course with customer Renault engines before joining forces with BMW next year. The most successful team in the history of the world championship are currently clinging to fourth place in the constructors' standings, behind Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes and Jordan- Mugen.

That they have any points at all - 15, in fact - is down entirely to the efforts of their other driver, Ralf Schumacher, who at just 24 is almost nine years Zanardi's junior. The German, although lacking the sublime talent of his brother, Michael, is performing admirably and setting the standard Zanardi accepts he must aspire to.

"I would not want to take anything away from the beautiful job Ralf is doing," Zanardi said, "but let's face it, he has had a lot of trouble- free weekends where as mine have been completely different. I can go to a test and do a lot of laps but then I go to a grand prix and I'm in the garage for three hours of the day. Ralf has been finishing races.

"It is very frustrating for me when I know there is much more to come from me and people cannot see the real Alex Zanardi. Right now we are putting Band Aids around the problem. When we fix one thing the car breaks somewhere else.

"I'm not pointing the finger at Williams, saying they are doing a bad job for me, because I know they are trying very hard. Our team is a strong and solid organisation, full of smart people who are trying to produce a fast and reliable car.

"Certainly when you look at Ralf's performances you have to say, `Ooh, well, despite everything there's a little more than you have done with the car.' Again, I put that down to lack of experience with the car. With more laps, that will come."

Zanardi was embraced by most of Formula One when he returned for part two of his grand prix career, having competed in 25 world championship races between 1991 and 1994. His warm disposition complemented his driving. But now he prepares for Sunday's British Grand Prix at Silverstone, the mid-point of the season, still seeking to disturb the scorer and conscious he could be branded another transatlantic flop.

The Canadian driver Jacques Villeneuve made a successful switch, winning the Formula One title with Williams, but Michael Andretti failed to make an impression at McLaren and the suspicion is that the latter provided a more accurate gauge of the calibre of driver in CART.

Zanardi countered: "If I had the Williams three years ago it would have been much easier, it's as simple as that. Jacques received some criticism for the way he drove the Williams last year, but he probably drove better than he did the year before, when he won the championship. But that year before, the car was the best. We are competing in a sport where the car is everything.

"If the team are unhappy with me somebody will eventually tell me, but I don't think it helps me or the team worrying about it. I don't believe the responsibility can be put entirely on my shoulders. In fact, Frank [Williams] is being complimentary with me, despite the fact that it may look like he shouldn't."

Zanardi could have stayed in CART for the rest of his racing days, doubtless winning more titles, perhaps earning more money than in Formula One and enjoying the more relaxed environment. He reached the point where he needed something more.

"Coming from CART to Formula One is a bit like camping and then going in a five-star hotel," he said. "Camping is always a lot of fun but sometimes you like to enjoy the facilities of a five-star hotel.

"Right now, I am certainly missing all the friends I had over there, all the fun times and also the results. But it's much better in life to have something good to remember than waste it by doing it too much and for too long. I would not have wanted to spend the rest of my life regretting not trying Formula One again.

"I am glad to be here and I've got to believe I can do as good a job as any of these guys here. Otherwise I would be a fool to take this decision. If it is there it will come out."

The fear - which has been raised by, among others, Villeneuve - is that even if Zanardi is good enough, his natural inclination will always been alien to the finer requirements of Formula One.

"Yes, I had a reputation to be very aggressive, to take too many risks," he acknowledged. "But it's ridiculous to say a guy takes too many risks when he finishes 18 races out of 19 and gets 15 podium finishes.

"Certainly I have a spectacular driving style and I would love to be able to do similar things in Formula One, but out there I had a car that was capable of winning races.

"If, together with Williams, I am able to straighten things out and put together a good package - and knowing how good the people in this factory are I am sure it will happen - then it's just a question of time; when that day comes it will be much, much easier."


AUSTRALIAN GRAND PRIX Did Not Finish - Accident, 20 laps.

BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX DNF - Differential fails, 43 laps.


MONACO GRAND PRIX Finished eighth, 2 laps behind.

SPANISH GRAND PRIX DNF - Gearbox, 24 laps.

CANADIAN GRAND PRIX DNF - Gearbox, 50 laps.

FRENCH GRAND PRIX DNF - Engine, 26 laps.