Though Alessandro Zanardi remains umbilically connected to his European roots, the USA is, nevertheless, a powerful magnet that continues to draw him back to a culture that he truly enjoys. Now, on the eve of a Mo Nunn Racing Team test, it appears that the Italian Donutmaker will be back in a Champ Car as early as the next CART event - Toronto.
His first time around Zanardi came with a fire and a desire that was extremely rare. Podium-producing comebacks from deep in the pack after contact, penalties or botched pitstops were equally mixed with those performances in which Alex was just plain dominant from the start. Sly, gutsy and even unthinkable moves - like "The Pass" Zanardi put on Bryan Herta in the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca - have been the sorely missed stuff-of-legends since he departed for an unsuccessful F1 bid and the comfort of being closer to his family in Europe.
Of course, the glue that held Zanardi's inimitable gut-driven "take no prisoners" style together was the technical and strategic wisdom of Engineer, Mo Nunn. The near-perfect management style of team owner Chip Ganassi, the Reynard/Honda/Firestone "package" and an American pal and confidant named "Jeemy" completed the equation that launched Rookie of the Year and back-to-back PPG Cups in Zanardi's three CART campaigns.
With even more to prove in a return to CART than the first time around, no one suspects that Zanardi will be any less fired-up than he was during his first stint in the FedEx Championship Series. Returning as a recognizable entity with a large fan base and connections in virtually every element of the sport should make the personal aspects of Zanardi's comeback very easy.
"Jeemy" would be nearby for moral support. Competing against "Cheep" could be just as much of an inspiration as competing for him had been. Mo Nunn's mentorship, of course, is invaluable on the technical side.
Nunn's Mercedes Benz "factory team" would have little trouble getting the engine maker to furnish the cash and technology necessary to turn his team into a two-car effort (the assumption being that after Zanardi finishes subbing for the injured Tony Kanaan, Tony would return to his well-sponsored Hollywood ride and Zanardi would stay on with a ride of his own). Acquiring sponsorship for a multinational CART Champion should be a cakewalk.
In fact, it is Mercedes that desperately wants: A) a driver who is a proven success to drive for its factory team, in hopes of bringing its Champ Car engines back to CART prominence and B) a European driver who, under any circumstances, would serve to enhance the company's image in its home market. That market, obviously, is significantly more Formula One-oriented than our own. It is Mercedes that has spearheaded the effort to get Zanardi back into a Mo Nunn Champ Car.
So what could be missing…what could go wrong?
The competition and/or the package could spoil Zanardi's fun.
Competent drivers - ex-F1 pilots, at that - in the form of Mauricio Gugelmin and Mark Blundell have struggled with "the same" equipment as Mo Nunn's. While no one doubts that Alex Zanardi would have better results than the PacWest guys have had with the Reynard/Mercedes combination, it's still a stretch, at this point, to envision an instant turnaround.
What about the competition? After almost three years of Zanardi dominance and a year of Montoya mania the aggregate of Champ Car pilots has seized the opportunity - and the philosophy - that made those smoky donuts possible.
Roberto Moreno, Max Papis, Gil de Ferran, Paul Tracy, Helio Castroneves, Michael Andretti, Adrian Fernandez and Juan Montoya - not to mention imminent future winners Cristiano da Matta, Kenny Brack and perhaps half a dozen others - have dedicated themselves to the passionate pursuit of success in our beloved speed sport. It will be very challenging, indeed, for Alessandro Zanardi to prove that his fire and his desire are still second to none.
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