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The Return of Alex?
by Robert W. Butsch
 
Rumors abound that current CART hot-shot Alessandro Zanardi will migrate to Formula 1 next season where he would labor for the Williams organization. He's been in F1 before, from 1991 through 1994, as a journeyman and test driver with Jordan ('91), Minardi ('92), Benetton ('92) and, lastly, Team Lotus, once a legend but in its death throes in '93 and '94. His move, should it come off, will generate excitement, but that will be due to his CART heroics, not his F1 history.

Zanardi was not an F1 regular, running the last 3 races of '91 for Jordan, and the middle 3 races of '92 for Minardi. He drove somewhat sporadically for Lotus as well. He competed in the first 11 races in 1993. In 1994 he was relegated to testing (a service he had rendered for Benetton in '92) until the Spanish GP, where he took over for the injured Pedro Lamy. He sat out Belgium, but became team leader (the last for Lotus) at the European GP after Johnny Herbert departed for greener pastures. He competed in 25 Grands Prix, with 6th as his best finish (providing him with his only championship point to date) and 13th as his best qualifying position.

Zanardi did attract some attention. Late in the wet but classic '93 European GP at Donnington Park, fighting a rear guard action, he went off into a gravel trap, collecting much of its contents in the Lotus's body work. This unloaded onto his rear tires at the next heavy breaking point, making for another hairy moment. He survived these travails to preserve
his last-still-running position, which turned out t o be a respectable 9th.

His major accomplishment during his first F1 stint was to produce some truly spectacular highlight footage by virtue of having an almighty crash in '93 at Spa exiting Eau Rouge. The resulting injuries forced him to sit out that race plus the remainder of the calendar. The following year this fantastic corner was temporarily emasculated by a hastily constructed chicane while the runoff area was being enlarged. So severe was this kink in Spa's normally hold-your-breath-and-say-a-prayer stretch of roadway that a driver, blasting downhill from La Source past the old pits, toured virtually his entire gearbox negotiating it. The runoff area improvements were not inspired by Zanardi's off, though, goodness knows, it was a big enough one to rate such changes. Rather they were results of the tragic
events at Imola that year. Zanardi was not able to sample the '94 one-year crippling of Spa's landmark since
Phillipe Adams was driving in his place at the time. As a matter of fact, if you haven't seen the tape of 1993, you may get a chance on the pre-race show next season as that, should Zanardi return to F1, will be his first encounter with Eau Rouge since his accident.

Zanardi seems to have showed promise in his 1st F1 career. In '93 Lotus team boss Peter Wright, in an apparent effort at a complement, called Zanardi "very un-Italian." Wright also used the terms "mature", "intelligent" and "analytical." He did not use the terms "front runner" or "fast" (which have been closely associated with Zanardi's name in CART) but, of course, he could not say those things about the cars either.

Zanardi would follow closely in the footsteps of impressive CART veteran Jaques Villeneuve who joined Williams in 1996. The Canadian came with the 1995 CART championship and Indianapolis 500 victory on his resume, and
the magic of his family name. Villeneuve lived up to his billing, seriously challenging teammate Damon Hill for the '96 F1 championship, and winning it in '97.

Zanardi won't show up with Villeneuve's reputation since he hasn't won Indy. Of course, he hasn't had a decent shot at Indy because Tony George decided take his toy home and play with it by himself. Once upon a time Indy car and F1 drivers mixed it up at the brickyard to the benefit of both types of racing. Over the past couple of decades, however, the
scheduling and financial arrangements of both F1 and CART have prevented their drivers from participating in other forms of racing. This is unfortunate. Villeneuve, Nigel Mansell and Mark Blundell have amply demonstrated that each circuit has something to offer the other. It is likely that, should Zanardi return to F1, he will represent more evidence
of this.

He may have a tough row to hoe. The once mighty Williams cars have lost their edge. Also, F1's nose tends to go up in the air just a bit higher when U.S. racing is spoken of. The culture clash between F1 and CART may eliminate one Zanardi trademark. The Formula 1 establishment are a sober lot who are unlikely to take to their new driver cutting donuts should he contrive to win a race.

One gets the impression that Zanardi is a very talented, aggressive race car driver disguised as a really nice guy. He's obviously a more experienced driver than in '94 thanks to his CART career. In particular, he's had experience at winning, and winning on a regular basis. And he's no F1 novice either. He knows what he would be in for. If Williams are able to get their cars going fast again, fans can hope that Alex might give Michael a run for his $123 million.




Past Articles

Introduction by Dennis David
Ugly Grand Prix Cars by Robert W. Butsch
Driven to Crime by Robert W. Butsch
The Return of Alex?
by Robert W. Butsch
Appreciating the Professor By Peter Dick
Horribly Beautiful by Dennis David
The Unknown History of the 308 in Argentina by Estanislao Iacona