by Rafael Ligeiro*
São Paulo (BR), 24 Apr 2009
At first glance, Alessandro Zanardi just seems one of those middle-age men stuck in a driver's overalls. But then you see the number of fans surrounding him in the paddock of the FIA WTCC - looking for an autograph or a handshake, and soon you realise that this guy is someone with a long, worthy story to tell.
42-year-old Zanardi is an example of perseverance. Two-time Champ Car champion and former driver of Jordan, Minardi, Lotus and Williams Formula 1 teams, the Italian had both legs amputated in an accident on the Lausitzring Oval in 2001. However, his passion was stronger. Once adapted to artificial limbs, Alessandro had no doubts and so he returned to the track. Nowadays, he drives a BMW 320si with manual controls. He is one of the three official drivers of the WTCC's BMW works team.
The charismatic Bolognese driver - unanimously regarded by journalists as a very attentive person - talked about a range of topics, such as the differences between open-wheel and touring cars and the challenges from disabled people. It is worth checking.
LIGEIRO: Despite you have been driving in several series, your career 1991-2008 is mainly associated with Formula 1, Champ Car and WTCC. What is your analysis of that period? What about the differences and similarities in these three different stages of your career?
ZANARDI: These three categories are mainly divided by the relation between the power, grip from the tyres and downforce. With the touring car you have less power, decent mechanical grip and no downforce at all. Therefore, the driving style is always the same whether you are in front or behind somebody. However, due to the fact you have less power, you certainly brake as late as possible. But the difference between top speed and cornering speed is not as great as it is if you have 1,000 BHP behind you. Braking at the last minute might not be as relevant as driving smoothly, so you carry speed around the corner, in order to go back on the power at as high a speed as possible. Normally the lack of power would allow you to keep that small gap for the entire distance of the following straight line. If you are 2 km/h faster when you go on the power, you normally keep this advantage for the entire straight. That's why you have to drive aggressively - but in a special sense. It's all about keeping control of the car, even if you are sliding. It's crucial that you carry as much speed through the corners and then accelerate rapidly.
With a Formula One car's high speed it's very important to brake really late so you can take advantage of the downforce. If you hit the brake pedal at a very high speed, it's virtually impossible to lock the wheels due to the downforce. It's just when you are reducing the speed while approaching the turn that you can get the wheels to lock. It doesn't really matter if you get the car almost to a stop, as long as you turn it very rapidly and go back on the power very quickly. You just have so much power. Even if you just go a few tenths earlier on the throttle when exiting a corner, it will make you accelerate very fast. Even if you lose some speed in the middle of the corner, this can be recovered by just going on the throttle a bit earlier.
With an IndyCar, you take this extreme even further, as the car is very heavy. But it has a very good mechanical grip with its slick tyres. You have a lot of downforce - even more than F1 - and you have a lot of power, at least it had at the time I was driving such a car. In those days we had even more power than F1 cars. Under braking you could literally turn your line into a V - you brake, then turn the car quickly and go back on the throttle. Such a car has the capability of regaining time very rapidly out of the corners.
LIGEIRO: In 2006, you drove a BMW Sauber adapted for you. Basically, what are the differences between the BMW car you tested and a 'regular' F1 vehicle? Do you think the teams in Formula 1 are prepared and willing to set up a car for a physically-challenged driver for a regular season?
ZANARDI: Personally I don't think that it will ever happen. But I never thought that Kimi Räikkönen could win the Formula One Championship last year either. And he did. For me my handicap was a plus. Without it I might not have got the chance to drive an F1 car again. It was something exceptional, not just for me, but also for BMW and the whole world. Not to say that I was quite fast as well. But it was clearly just this one shot.
LIGEIRO: You have travelled all over the world. What is your assessment about the structures offered in different cities to the physically-challenged? Is there a city that is a good or a bad example regarding this?
ZANARDI: I haven't been in the Scandinavian countries recently. But 20 years ago, I spent quite a lot of time in Sweden. Back then they were quite well-equipped in all the public facilities to make the lives of handicapped people much easier. If you go to the U.S., you never have a problem finding a car with hand controls. In Italy they used to have just one of these cars available in Rome - and now this has been sold. This gives you an idea how big the differences are between different countries.
LIGEIRO: You, like many other drivers, found difficult to convince your family about starting your racing career in go-karts. I know of different cases in Brazil - more precisely about kids who only drive go-karts to please their parents. What do you think about that situation?
ZANARDI: I think we are not just talking about karting. It's the way the world is going. Life is changing. In think, in the search for total freedom we become slaves of exactly this freedom. This goes back to education. If I did nine out of ten things right when I was a kid, and did only one thing wrong, then my father would have kicked me in the back. Today kids do nine things wrong, and when they do one thing right, then expect a reward. This is wrong, but reality. I think many people offer their kids too much with result that the children don't know what they really want. Many parents confuse their kids. But still there are some young guns who have the necessary dedication. If this is combined with natural talent, they will make it. I have met some of these kids.
LIGEIRO: You are a great friend of a Brazilian champion. I will not reveal his name, but he has got a big nose and you used to called him 'Pinto' during your Champ Car career. Do you know who is he? What is the story of that 'exotic-for-Brazilians' nickname?
ZANARDI: First of all, ‘Pinto' obviously is a bad word in Portuguese. Of course this was a nickname which we used to call each other up to the point when the guy you are talking about made his way to his first ever press conference in his Champ Car career, as he qualified third in Rio de Janeiro. I was already there, and when he walked in he sees me from the distance and shouts ‘Pintooooo!' as he was really happy. I asked him: ‘Where do you think we are?' From then on, I decided he was going to be the only 'Pinto'. Of course I'm talking about Tony Kanaan.
* translated by Maximiliano Catania/FUNO