Home Automotive Reference Engineering and Motorsports Alex Zanardi - My Sweetest Victory
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Excerpt from Alex Zanardi - My Sweetest Victory

Chapter 9

(4 page excerpt)

A Good Start in CART, and Marriage

I went to back to Italy with my contract in hand. I felt like a hero, but kept a low profile because I'd been kicked too many times and had learned my lesson. I was thrilled to have number 4 on the car. Numbers 4 and 12 had been assigned to the cars several years before and Jimmy Vasser was number 12, and as number 4 I was beside myself to see my name so high up the list of drivers. Little did I know that my name would eventually climb up the rankings and that I would eventually have the number 1 on the front of my car.

During winter testing, I slowly developed a great relationship with Morris Nunn, my new engineer. Morris had been a star in Formula 1, and founder of the Ensign team for which Chris Amon and Clay Regazzoni had once raced. In 1963 Morris started as a driver, and won a few races in Formula 3 with Team Lotus. Then he stopped racing and built a Formula 3 car in his garage in Walsall. In 1971, the car proved to be a winner.

At the end of 1972, Rikki Von Opel, heir of the German carmaker, commissioned Morris to build a Formula 1 car to debut at the French Grand Prix in 1973. Opel and Nunn started a long but ultimately unsuccessful relationship that survived Regazzoni's dramatic accident at Long Beach in 1980 from which he emerged paralyzed. They also had many incredible and funny adventures. But Morris never had any money, so in 1983, he sold the team to Teddy Yip, a Hong Kong millionaire who was a huge racing fan, and moved to the States. After working with Bignotti, Newman-Haas and Patrick, Morris collaborated with Emerson Fittipaldi who won the title and the Indianapolis 500. In 1992, Morris moved to Ganassi's team.

Morris was 58 years old by this point, and after all those years of racing, was ready for his retirement. He was never very enthusiastic about Bryan Herta, whom he had been looking after, and Morris was looking for a new challenge, hoping to find it with me. Nonetheless, he was very dubious in the beginning, primarily because I was Italian. Whenever he had the chance, he would test me. Once again, I was trying to win over my engineer, as with Fassina and his Professor, but this time with more at stake. I learned a lot from Kathyrin, Morris's wife, who was very good fun.

Morris began to change his attitude during our negotiations back at Laguna Seca, and then, after the first test at Homestead, he called his wife and said, "For once in my life, I must admit that I was completely wrong." She couldn't believe her own ears, and started teasing him, "Oh, I can't believe it. What happened that was so important?" He laughed, "We tested an Italian and I've never seen anyone drive so fast and so flawlessly. There is still a lot of work to do, but if today's results are any indication of the days to come, we've got a great future. Today we really put on the pressure and he clearly wanted to impress us, but he never lost his head. He drives in a surprisingly polished way, but also very efficient, never going off his line. He gives the wheels exactly what they can bear, nothing more or nothing less than the required load. This guy really has traction-control in his foot. Peter Collins said so, but I didn't believe it. But it's true. He respects the car's functions and is fast, fast, fast. In addition, he gave us very interesting feedback, which surprised us." Not a bad first impression.

From then on, Morris tried to ignore his prejudices and became more open-minded. I enjoyed going out with him and was fascinated by his stories. I've always been passionate about the era of "real racing" when you had to say a prayer before getting into the car, "Lord, I hope that I get out of the car on my own two legs." Or, you could smoke a cigarette and drink some whiskey before jumping in the car. Morris was racing back in those days and had amazing stories. I never got tired of going out to dinner with him, always had a great time and enjoyed his typically English humor.

Morris and I got along really well and complemented each other: when one stopped, the other would start. We cemented the relationship during the winter testing, when I was competing with my teammate, Jimmy Vasser. Jimmy was very fast and had won the championship, but he was also very generous to me. The first race in the championship didn't go that well for me. I had the typical misfortune of doubting myself. When you trust yourself, you also become lucky and then nobody can stop you. Jimmy was always incredibly nice to me, but I couldn't help wonder if it would be the same if the situation was reversed? I had come from a European school with great friendly rivalries, but I never hid information about the cars or pulled any tricks. My philosophy has always been, "If I have talent, I will go fast and at the end, it will show. If I haven't got it, I'll go home and become a plumber." In terms of Jimmy, I'm ashamed to have doubted his motives, because when the positions did change, he was better to me than I'd ever been to him. We started a wonderful friendship that still exists today.

Winter testing had given me hope. My lap times were always very competitive, especially compared to Jimmy, who was a candidate for the title. But the ovals were a real unknown for me. In CART then, they alternated between classic circuits and oval tracks of various dimensions. In fact, there were three, the short ones-one mile long-like Nazareth and Milwaukee; the long ones at a mile and half, like Brazil or Homestead; and the super speedways such as Michigan and Indianapolis. These are truly temples of speed where you drive at 220 mph, and it is not unusual to go over 250 mph while running in somebody's slipstream. Such a variety of tracks tends to flush out the good drivers. This is one of the reasons why Jimmy started the season so well, winning four of the first six races.

On the other hand, I was rather unlucky. While Jimmy was winning the first race at Homestead, I made my debut by crashing into a wall, thanks to a loose wheel.

My chief mechanic, Rob Hill, was new to the team. He'd arrived from Bobby Rahal's team and was excellent, both in terms of his professionalism and character. The other guys were all exceptional mechanics. In addition to Rob, there was Brad, Steve, John Wayne (his real name), Simon, Norm, Wayne and Ricky. It was Ricky who'd left me with a loose wheel in Homestead. Many in my place would have made a huge scene, but I didn't say anything as I was still happy with things. I only started in 14th position because I had been told to take it easy during qualifying, but during the race, I went up to 5th position and things were going well until the crash. I wasn't scared, but was hoping it wasn't my fault. When I saw the wheel move in a completely different way than the car, I thought, "This can't possibly be my fault." When I went back to the pit, I did something that seemed quite normal and that the team really appreciated. Instead of blaming Ricky during my television interview, I said, "We're a team, and one day we will win. I made a lot of mistakes during practice, so nobody saw them. Unfortunately, today you saw a superb member of our team prove he was human. These things happen."

I then went to Ganassi and repeated the same words. Meanwhile, Ricky was very sad and felt under a lot of pressure. I hugged him and said, "I'm not cross about losing the race. These things happen. And now I know that I can really count on you because you'll try your best to not make any more mistakes." That day, a seed of a very happy relationship was sown. My mechanics realized that I wasn't the typical Formula 1 driver who looked down on them, collected their million dollars and then flew off in a private jet. I obviously hoped that I'd earn that much money one day, but I wasn't there just for money. I was doing that job out of my passion for driving and the relationship with the team. That episode helped me break the ice with them. I'm not comparing myself to Senna, but I felt that the team respected the way in which I dealt with the situation. In addition, because I now lived in Indianapolis, where the team had its headquarters, I always tried to spend time with them.

The second race, in Rio de Janeiro, became another important step in building my relationship with the team. Right before the race, Morris set up the car, based on his considerable experience with poorly paved Brazilian tracks. We only had drawings of the track because we knew that the oval had just been resurfaced. So when I saw the chosen set-up, I was a bit concerned and asked, "Morris, why is the car so soft? After all, it is an oval and a very new, smooth track?" He replied, "Smooth? With Brazilians?" He laughed and started telling stories about his past experiences in Rio. "You'll see when we get there. If the track is smooth, then I'll buy you all dinner for the rest of the year." Obviously I had to buy Morris dinner and in fact, the road was so bumpy that it was difficult to see where you were going, despite the track literature boasting of its "superior technology."

Morris created a fantastic car, thanks to the addition of a superb Honda engine. We had a terrific advantage, especially in qualifying. Even on Thursday's free practice, I came in first. It seemed like a dream. I was first on Thursday, had an even better time on Friday, had the same on Saturday morning, then finished first in qualifying on Saturday afternoon. Jimmy's set-up was completely wrong, and at the last moment, they changed it to match mine, without even testing it. Jimmy immediately improved and then had the best time. Back then, the qualifying sessions worked like the current-day qualifying in Formula 1. I was scared shitless, thinking after having helped him set up his car, he'd steal pole from me. I barely managed stay in front, but got pole back. Jimmy came to congratulate me and confessed, "I swear, for a second I thought that I'd stolen pole position, but you made this car perform like it did, and so it wouldn't have been fair."

The race itself went badly for both of us. I was ahead for the first part, and then the team made a mistake and called me in for refueling. Until then, each time a yellow flag was waved, they called me in and everybody followed suit. This time, a yellow flag was waved, but no one followed me to the pits. After the pit stop, I went down to 24th place. I called Ganassi on the radio and said, "Mr. Ganassi, I don't understand this American strategy-how is it possible that I was first and now I'm 24th?" His rather confused reply was, "But now we have a full tank."

A few laps later, there was another yellow flag and everyone else went in to refuel except me, and I ended up in first again. This time I radioed Chip with a lot more confidence. To be honest, I often pronounced his name as "Cheap" and he was always correcting me. Ten laps later, another yellow flag was waved, I was called in and I was last again. So I said, "Cheap, how does this fit with your strategy?" He said, "It's Chip. Alex, the good thing is that we now have enough fuel to get to the end." I immediately replied, "Cheap, do the others have to stop for fuel again?" Chip replied abruptly, "All the others have enough to finish." There was a long moment of silence. "Cheap?" I inquired. "My name is CHIP!" came the reply. I said, "I don't understand. I was first, then I was last, then I was first, now I'm last again, and you tell me that everyone has enough fuel. So as far as I can see, it's the same as it was in Europe. If I want to be in front, I have to pass as often as possible." He replied innocently, "You've got it right, man." Therefore, 18 laps before the end, I pushed as hard as possible and went from 24th to 4th, finishing just inches behind Scott Pruett.

On the journey home, Nunn was a bit embarrassed about what had happened. I didn't blame him, but rather assumed I was still being tested and after such a performance, my conscience was clear. I couldn't care less about the title because I never imagined that I'd be racing in the first place. In addition, I had a great time with all of the passing, comebacks, and exciting finale. When Mo realized I wasn't angry with him, he relaxed and said, "Well boy, today you really did well. Despite our mistakes, you drove a fantastic race. Are you sure that you're Italian? Are you sure you don't have even a smidgen of English blood in your veins?" I couldn't have asked for a better compliment.

End of excerpt

2004 Robert Bentley, Inc. We encourage visitors to link to this page if you'd like to share this information with others. Please do not copy this excerpt to other web sites. It is protected by copyright and represents significant resource investment by Bentley Publishers.