Williams invest in Zanardi's new zest

New faces for 1999: Italian's status is enhanced after hiatus while tennis player benefits from change in nationality; After finding glory in America, a former Formula One reject is back to prove that he can beat the best.

HE IS not so much a new face as a remould. Tried and rejected by Formula One in the early 1990s, he returns this year with a reputation made in America and an ambition to prove he has what it takes to succeed in grand prix racing.

Alessandro - or Alex as the Americans inevitably re-christened him - Zanardi is a 32-year-old Italian entrusted with the task of directing the sport's most successful team out of a relative slump and into the more familiar confines of the winner's enclosure.

Williams' trust is based on Zanardi's remarkable record over the past three seasons, and on the performances of the man he effectively replaces, Jacques Villeneuve. The Canadian repaired the damage to the perception of the transatlantic raider created by Michael Andretti's ill-starred adventure, by winning the 1997 world championship.

Villeneuve's defection to the embryonic BAR camp was a severe blow to Williams. Already intent on unloading Heinz-Harald Frentzen and unable to compete for the services of Michael Schumacher or one of the other leading Formula One drivers, the team decided to follow up on a contact with Zanardi.

In his first two seasons in the Champ Car series, Zanardi had been rookie of the year, then champion. He leaves with a second title and an unparalleled record of 15 wins from 50 starts.

Williams are equally impressed with his style of driving. He is a renowned charger, a racer in the image and likeness of Villeneuve, Nigel Mansell and Keke Rosberg, men who embodied the spirit of Frank Williams and his long-time partner, Patrick Head.

Zanardi also brings experience, albeit experience garnered from another arena, driving heavier, less sophisticated cars. He knows his way in racing, and that is considered a crucial attribute since the team's other recruit, Ralph Schumacher, is 23 and still learning the ropes.

Zanardi was given his first opportunity on the grand prix circuit in 1991 by Jordan, who had unearthed the gem called Michael Schumacher only to have him whisked away by Benetton.

Zanardi made nothing like the same impact as the original Schumacher but after three races with Jordan and one with Minardi in 1992, he won a full-time drive and admirers at Lotus the following year.

He earned his one, and so far only, Formula One point in Brazil and his season was cut short by a spectacular accident at Spa. Still more damaging was the demise of Lotus and their withdrawal at the end of 1994 left Zanardi in the pits without a car after 25 grands prix.

He sought employment in GT racing in 1995 before trying his luck on the American tour with Chip Ganassi's team, a move which changed his fortune and his life. He could have stayed to attempt a hat-trick of series victories, but the professional and personal lure of Formula One was too much to resist.

He is said to have signed a three-year deal worth more than pounds 10 million, time and compensation enough to carry him through what may be a difficult transitional period for the team before they launch their alliance with BMW in 2000.

"I had a thousand reasons for coming back to Formula One," Zanardi said. "I wanted to be back in Europe, to see my wife again and see my child grow up in an environment which means a lot to me and which I was missing.

"Professionally I can now express myself in a discipline which did not really provide the opportunity the first time. It was time to finish one chapter and start another. I might regret it one day, but at the moment everything is wonderful."

His perspective of wonderland has been challenged already by test sessions in the Williams, something of a culture shock for an American racing hero. "I did not expect it to feel so strange," he said. "It has changed completely and in every way. The most surprising thing is the driving position. Never before have I sat in a racing car with my feet higher than my backside. I am also used to driving much heavier cars. When I was at Lotus it was a prehistoric era, now it's space-age.

"Every lap I take in the Williams teaches me something new, which is exactly what we are here to do. The more I drive the more the fog clears from my mind. I'm here to learn and to communicate my experiences and opinions with the team. I will be eager to get back in the car after the New Year."

He and the team will be keener still to put their new car through its paces. "The team are currently third in the constructors' championship and a slight improvement will be a good enough start," Zanardi said. "Having seen the factory and the programmes that are under way, it is clear Williams are not expecting to go without success for the next couple of years. But I have no target for 1999, apart from doing my best. Everything will depend on the car."

Whatever the competitiveness of the Williams, Formula One is ready to embrace Zanardi again. Cheerful and popular in his original guise, the mature version also offers candid expression born of achievement and self-assurance. The coming months will determine whether he regrets his return.

News
Pro-Russia rebels guard a train containing the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 crash in Torez, Ukraine
i100
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
tech
News
people
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Rock to play DC character in superhero film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Damon Albarn is starting work on a new West End musical
artsStar's 'leftfield experimental opera' is turning mainstream
Life and Style
Paul and his father
artsPaul Carter wants to play his own father in the film of his memoirs
Sport
Ben Stokes trudges off after his latest batting failure for England as Ishant Sharma celebrates one of his seven wickets
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
Members of the public are invited to submit their 'sexcapades' to Russell T Davies' new series Tofu
tv
News
Sky's Colin Brazier rummages through an MH17 victim's belongings live on air
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
arts + ents'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate Sales Executive

17.5k + Commission (£18.5k after probation period): ESI Media: You will be res...

History Teacher

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a teacher o...

IT Teacher

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a suitably ...

Legal Cashier - Oxford

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Legal Cashier - Oxford We have an excellent ...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor