Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Saturday, May 29, 1999

Ex-IndyCar Racer Seeks A Change in Fortunes

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - Alex Zanardi is doing all he can to keep his life from falling from the American dream into a European nightmare.

But as he heads for the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona on Sunday, the Italian driver's return to Formula One from the Champ Car series, formerly known as IndyCar, which he dominated for the past two years, has so far been a failure.

During his three years in the United States, Zanardi became a star not only for his 15 victories and two Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) drivers' titles in 1997 and 1998, but also for his charismatic, happy-go-lucky personality. Crowds adored his trademark ''doughnuts,'' the burning of tire rubber while twirling the car in circles to express his joy after a victory.

Then last year he signed a multimillion dollar contract with the Williams team to return to Formula One, where he drove 25 races between 1991 and 1994 in noncompetitive cars and only earned one point. It is still his only point. He has finished only one of four races -- in eighth place two weeks ago in Monaco -- and many wonder why Zanardi, 32, left the United States.

''For me IndyCar was a beautiful adventure,'' he said. ''But I wanted to try something different before my career came to an end.''

Williams was the dominant team of the 1990s, and Zanardi took the place of another ex-Indy champion, Jacques Villeneuve, who won the Formula One title there in 1997. Zanardi's seat at the Chip Ganassi team, meanwhile, went to Juan-Pablo Montoya, a Williams test driver.

The Colombian has won the last three CART races -- including on the treacherously difficult track at Nazareth, only his third oval race. He now leads the championship into the sixth race on Saturday near St. Louis.

Montoya, 23, said, ''I wouldn't worry about Alex. He's one of the best there is, and I think people need to be more patient.''

But Zanardi still needs a car.

''The result in our sport is so strongly determined by the performance of the machine you're driving,'' Zanardi said. ''You can't put the machine on your shoulder and run faster than other people. Sometimes you just sit in the right car at the right time, right off, and you win. Other times you have to help the team to get to the top.''

He maintains that Williams' financial and technical resources will quickly bring the team back to its 1997 level. But last year the team won no races, and it has steadily lost its best technicians. The quality of the car has suffered as a result.

''The first two races were a nightmare for me,'' Zanardi said. ''Every single session I had problems with the car. Even if I had been the best driver in the world, with all the disadvantages I had I couldn't have done anything because the car stopped in the race.''

But it is no help that his teammate, Ralf Schumacher, has set faster times and won seven points.

On the bright side, Zanardi is looking forward to the new Formula One race next year in Indianapolis, where the 83d edition of the Indianapolis 500 takes place Sunday. And in November CART will hold an exhibition race in Hawaii with a winner's prize of $5 million. Zanardi will race for Ganassi if Williams permits it.

''But by then,'' Zanardi said, ''Ganassi could be so much in love with Montoya that he may say, 'Hey, I don't need that Zanardi.'''

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