Alessandro Zanardi was THE driver in Indy cars in the latter part of the '90s. He thrilled fans with his on-track style, and off track character whose good nature sealed the deal. Zanardi was and is still the real thing. He practically hit the ground driving, as a promising start in karting and Formula 3, then Formula 3000, then a mixed bag of under-funded teams in F1. He finally found a home in the CART series, where he dominated. A return to F1 driving for Williams was met with more problems, thus his return to CART. Then, while leading a race at the Eurospeedway in Germany, Zanardi suffered a horrific accident that many thought claimed his life. It didn't; however, he did lose both legs. He would find a way around this inconvenience. And after five years of being a factory BMW driver hustling around the world as part of the World Touring Car Championship, he remains, as always, a positive force.
ec: How are things at home in Padova?
AZ: Things are good, thank you for asking. But I wished I had a better result at the last race in Imola. (laughs)
ec: It's a shame that the FIA WTCC doesn't make an appearance in the U.S. because to me that's what NASCAR really should be. Real production cars modified with trick parts and not fiberglass, tube-frame, nine-inch-rear-end specials.
AZ: Yes, but from the driver's point of view I would want to drive something more powerful, although you couldn't then directly buy that from your dealer.
ec: That probably stems from your roots of being mostly a single-seater racer, and you certainly couldn't go down to the local Fiat dealer and buy that.
AZ: (laughs) You know, that's what I've been doing all my life. Certainly what I'm doing right now is dramatically different. Not less enjoyable, just different. Different game with different rules, and if you believe you're good enough to win races you're going to be good enough to do it on every level, not just where you like it the most. Nevertheless, to this day I have to torture myself a little bit because the driving style you need for these type of cars is quite different from the ones I developed and drove. The days where I had 1,000 hp behind my back.
ec: After you had the operation and were contemplating on what you had accomplished and what you were going to do next. How much of a transition was it going from single-seaters to a sedan? A modified one, granted, but a racecar in a production shell.
AZ: After my accident it was less than one year where my thoughts were not solely on racing. Mentally I knew I could do it, but technically I didn't know if I was going to be able to operate the pedals, to do things the way you're supposed to. I knew there would come a day I'd be curious to find out. But that was not my priority, because my priority was actually to regain my normal life, to do things on my own, to once more be the owner of my life and not just a passenger. It was pure coincidence that an old friend of mine-a technical director for the team I'm driving for-was kind of kidding and he said, "We've got a spare car, would you be interested in driving it? My answer was immediately "OK, of course I would." And that was it. He went back to Podova and said that Alex would be interested in testing our car. That's the way it happened. After the first test, BMW Italy got excited as well, took it a little further and gave me the opportunity to drive the last race in Monza, the last race of the championship. One thing came to another, and they offered me the entire championship. So I wasn't really looking at this series as the ideal platform for me to restart my racing career. It just happened. I'm here, I'm enjoying what I'm doing and have discovered some very enjoyable and very intense racing, just a different way. It would be like asking, "Do you prefer lasagna, or do you prefer ice cream?" I like both.
ec: I'm more of a tortellini man.
AZ: (laughs) OK, tortellini and ice cream. You would like to have both. I enjoy what I'm doing: touring cars. Yes, I miss the days when I was driving single-seaters. I believe overall that this is more difficult to develop the correct driving style. But eventually, if this is what you've been doing all your life, it is what you would call instinctive. For me to drive a touring car sometimes I have to sort of torture myself because my driving style is very smooth, and to let the car lean into the corner carrying a lot of speed, which is the typical way to take advantage of downforce. You kind of cuddle the car into the corner, take the tires to the limit; if you take the car into the corner a little bit faster you generate more downforce, therefore you manage to go around the turn. At certain times I'm still trying to use that technique. In touring cars, of course, we have no downforce at all with the result of me losing my line and having to slow down in order to not end up in the grass. Still, for me it's quite harder to drive the car the way it needs to be driven. On top of everything, I had to build and generate everything because there was no experience, no previous feedback we could rely on. Build my own controls, and that was quite difficult, because when you jump in the car you take for granted everything being in the right place and you can operate the car very naturally. They didn't know where to put the gear stick, the throttle pedal, or the brake, so the car felt a little funny. So I helped.
ec: When you were originally working on the development of the hand controls, all that work was done in the workshop in Italy?
AZ: It had to be. It was consistent development. One day I would show up to the shop and they would say, "What do you need?" And I would say, "Of course I need to do everything with my hands." I had to pull the brake lever with my finger, hit the throttle with my thumb, use the right hand to downshift and to operate the clutch, and with my palm control the steering. That was definitely too much. That's when I suggested they let me use my prosthetic leg to press the brake pedal, and they said, "No, impossible." But, I'm a pretty unstoppable guy so, I went to the local grocery store and bought a scale to use, and I brought that back to the shop and put it against the wall and took my engineer and said, "Look, try to push on that thing." And it was more or less 180 pounds. And it was my turn and once I got into position, I was able to press over 200 pounds. Actually, it went up to 220. That's normal, you know? It's not because you have three joints like, heel, knee, and hip, you divide the force you generate by three. You've got that force in every single section of your leg. I know for sure that I cannot react the same as I normally could with all the right equipment that Mother Nature gave me in the first place, but I believed I could generate enough pressure to push the brake pedal. We went from there to designing a special pedal that would fit my foot, and basically this is the way I've been using the car since. I keep my prosthetic leg at a certain angle and when it's time to brake I just push down with my hip. The difficult thing was picking up the sensitivity it takes to correctly modulate the brake pedal, because that's the real part of being a driver that you have to master. I am specially needed in the sense of being handicapped, and I have developed hidden talents that we all have, but we normally don't need to use. This is why I can do things that a normal individual couldn't. If one were to jump in my car, they'd come out screaming that it's impossible and nobody can do it.
ec: Do you feel that what you've developed along with your team can also be used in a commercial application?
AZ: It has potential for sure. If somebody has similar problems such as mine, and wants to try, thanks to what we've done they wouldn't start from zero. But to say that the exact identical controls would work for them... I could not guarantee that. Basically, you've lost some talents, but you've gained some others.
ec: Interesting, you've sharpened your mental abilities right there by that statement. The mental toughness alone, that's one aspect that not only continued, but you were able to build upon.
AZ: Thank you for putting it that way. I don't think I can take that compliment without adding that I don't really believe that I would call that determination, because in reality I had a lot of fun doing it. When you have fun doing something you don't have to sacrifice to do it. You cannot call it commitment, or dedication, anything different. It was good to do it, so why not? It's as simple as that. There were times where I got to doubt a little that we could efficiently reach exactly what I thought we could. But the reality very often was the answer was right around the corner, and once that we got it under our belt we got an injection of new confidence.
ec: You are still very popular with motorsport fans in the U.S. Last year BMW had a WTCC car shipped over for the SEMA show in Las Vegas and it had your name all over it. I suppose it was a show car, but the point is your name has a strong attraction.
AZ: I was there; it really was my car with the controls removed. The people were supportive and it was fun to be part of it.
ec: Are you signed up with Team BMW Italy to run next year also? Doing another season in the WTCC?
AZ: Theoretically, yes. I say theoretically because right now, unfortunately, there's a little bit of controversy going on between the constructors in terms of writing the rules for next year's championship. It's quite a difficult task for the FIA to write technical rules that make everybody happy. When you have cars that were designed to be driven on the road and transform them into racecars, it's very understandable. I think the BMW, which costs $45,000, has a quality that translates into performance when you turn it into a racecar. When you take a SEAT, which goes for $15,000, you cannot expect the same type of quality, the same type of performance. So if you want to have these different manufacturers compete with each other, you must have flexible rules. But sometimes that type of flexibility creates inequity, which affects the racing, the series and everybody's view. And right now we're facing the big problem with the diesel, which in BMW's mind is utilizing the advantage of having too much boost, being too big, and so on. BMW has built a diesel car and out of the box it was immediately a second per lap faster then the gas car. So of course they had the option to say, OK, we can go with that and forget about the gas car. But they didn't want to do that, first because they don't believe the diesel engine may appeal to race fans because it's very quiet, and second, BMW has sold more than 50 touring cars around the world for national championships. If they accepted this new set of rules, and go for a new car with diesel power, that would mean that the gas cars would immediately become obsolete.
ec: So basically BMW is protecting the customer base.
AZ: Exactly. What they are asking is the FIA to write new rules that would keep the diesel competitive so it would still be a choice for manufacturers to pursue. But it would not be mandatory if you want to win. This is basically what is happening right now. We've been under the impression all year long that SEAT kept the performance of the their car lower than they could have, not to impress too much. To use it just when it's needed. And now that we're getting near the end of the championship, it is just a rocket. That kind of proved the BMW theory. We've got a little bit of fog on the issue right now, but I'm confident that they will find an agreement. I already have an existing deal with BMW Italy and Team BMW Italy-Spain.
ec: Do you still follow other forms of motorsport?
AZ: Oh yeah. Never forget that before I'm a driver, I'm a race fan. I was just very, very lucky to be able to turn this into a profession. I love motor racing and for sure, every time I switch a TV on, if there's a race, I watch it.
Happenings in the world of motorsport
Formula One: This season has been torpedoed by the sexscapades of FIA Boss, Max Mosley, and ridiculous officiating by certain stewards whose judgement and mental capabilities has not only been called out but the ongoing damage to the FIA which only gives ammo to those who see Ferrari complicity behind every move. The episode at Spa will remain a topic long after this season is over. Lewis Hamilton, whose McLaren was in a tight on-track battle with the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen, overshot a chicane and came out ahead. Having gained an unfair position, Hamilton correctly backed off to give the Ferrari the lead again and then make the pass the proper way. Hamilton won, the podium show went on and most went home happy. Not quite; after the race was over, the stewards slapped a 25-second penalty on Hamilton, wiping out his win. McLaren immediately filed an appeal, which as usual took weeks to get anywhere. The FIA International Court of Appeal ignored the apparent facts and refused to let McLaren to proceed.
Grand American: NASCAR has effectively taken over the Grand Am series, not that this is any surprise to those who followed the circus since it's inception. The shell that Grand Am operated under has always been a mystery of sorts. The fans certainly didn't embrace the series, even with guest appearances by NASCAR drivers.In a tight economy where even top NASCAR teams are watching the budgets, it's difficult to see how the International Speedway Corporation (ISC) will devote anything worthwhile to anything other than their top moneymaker. The previous investors in Grand Am have lost money and there really isn't anything in the current structure that will generate revenue for the ISC. Oddly enough, Grand Am is very popular with the entrants, who really don't seem to care if anybody is watching or attends. Notice I said entrants-how the sponsors feel is another matter entirely. One thing's for sure: there haven't been any cars on the grid lately sponsored by mortgage firms.
American Le Mans Series: The most interesting news out of the ALMS comes from GM and its plans for the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Give them credit for being optimistic as we ride out the financial crisis. A recent announcement will have the Corvettes that compete and largely fill the GT1 category campaigning in only three events next season as Pratt & Miller develop the new GT2 Corvette that will go head to head against Porsche and Ferrari. The plan is to contest a few GT2 events as a factory squad and then offer cars to private teams. The Pratt brats are very capable and there's no reason to doubt that they will be successful with the new Vette.
Le Mans Series: Pity the poor Peugeot. The LMP1 908 HDI diesel coupe had everything going for it in 2008. Fast, newfound reliability, driving talent, a virtually unlimited budget. The team cars finished first in all but the last round of the Le Mans Series endurance races based on the rules for the les 24 heures as written by the ACO. However, none of that mattered. In the big one that counts, Peugeot lost out to the Audi R10 TDI at Le Mans and the Le Mans Series championship also went by way of Ingolstadt to the tandem of Rockenfeller and Premat, who didn't win a single race but collected enough points for Audi to get the laurels. Somebody has to be the fall guy, so in my e-mail inbox, the following communiqu via the Lion: Following a period of three years of fruitful cooperation together, and by common accord, Paolo Catone and Peugeot Sport have decided not to extend the contract between them which extended until the end of 2008. Indeed, Paolo Catone wishes to give a new direction to his career.
Still want to be a chief engineer for a major manufacturer that wants to go racing?-KM