Alex Zanardi is skeptical when he walks into a mirrored workout room in Indianapolis. He has spent 16 months in a quest for his old confidence, searching from the mountaintops of Italy to the gentle sea swells of the Mediterranean. It's been a long time since his last race, longer still since he felt he could do no wrong in a race car. And now that he's trying to come back to the business that seemed ready to let him fade away, he must rebuild his body as much as his mind.
So he has agreed to visit the gym, famous for training racers and located just 10 miles from the renowned speedway. But Zanardi is only halfhearted about it. "I'm going to be living in Monte Carlo for most of the season," he tells his trainer. "I don't want you to think I can be here every week."
A short workout ends with tennis balls flying at Zanardi, who repels them with a medicine ball, his arms falling from 10 o'clock to something approaching an early dinner hour before the fusillade finally stops. "You're weak," the trainer says. "But you'll get stronger. You'll have to."
Three years ago, Zanardi was the strength of American open-wheel racing. He had just won his first CART championship and would soon win his second. He was hailed as Alexander the Great. And his success drew him back to racing's ultimate stage, Formula One. Zanardi wasn't the first CART star to jump to Europe, nor would he be the last. (Juan Montoya, his successor as CART champion, debuts this year for the team Zanardi left behind.) But he has been the most puzzling. In the 1999 F-1 season, the best finish Zanardi could muster in any race was seventh. His talent deserted him in a blur of technical failures and crashes.
After agreeing to be bought out of the final year of his contract for an estimated $6 million, he retreated to the well-heeled anonymity of Monte Carlo, where he whiled away his days as a gentleman racer in exile -- grocery shopping with his wife, strolling his infant son through parks, biking and sailing. And this is where the story could have ended. Depressed and angry, Zanardi was ready, even willing, to remain a wealthy has-been.
Then, in December, the man who helped lead him to his twin titles, CART engineer-turned-car-owner Morris Nunn, tempted the 34-year-old Italian back with $5 million and a chance to write a happier ending to his career. "I can't wait to kick his butt," says Zanardi's ex-teammate, Jimmy Vasser. "The last time he was here, he burned the freaking village. He left us all in a shambles."
Zanardi seems strangely ambivalent about his widely anticipated return. He refuses, for instance, to move from Monaco, insisting on a trans-Atlantic commute to most of CART's 21 races -- except for a brief stretch this summer when he'll rent a condo in Indianapolis. And he signed a one-year contract. It's as if, chastened for having too much ambition, he's afraid to have any. He practically chokes on the word comeback.
"When I was new to this sport, I felt I was the fastest driver in the world," Zanardi says. "Every day I repeated, 'I'm the best.' I was just trying to convince myself. Now, I know I'm not the best. I'm willing to succeed, but I'm not willing to succeed no matter what. I'm comfortable with that."
The words, punishingly honest, are the result of one man's journey into and out of arrogance. Zanardi's year in F-1 turned his cocksure smile wan and added lines to his delicate features. If you ask him a question now, he answers it after a long pause, as if rendering the verdict to some painful trial. "To be honest, if I lose I'll look like an idiot," he says. "But in the end, I couldn't care less. In Italy, they have a saying: Sometimes the wind will close a window but open a big door."
Power lines whiz past as Zanardi drives a rental car through a stretch of central Florida dotted by used-car lots and grits-serving diners. There's a big blue patch of morning sky above and an orange grove to the left. Taking in the landscape, Zanardi drums his fingers on the wheel. "Right now," he says, "Formula One seems very far away for me."
A plumber's son from Bologna, Zanardi spent all but three years of his career -- his 1996 to 1998 CART stretch -- as a struggling Formula racer, first in F-3 and F-3000, then filtering through short-term rides and test driver stints into F-1. His first stretch there was marked by shabby cars, broken promises and a horrifying August 1993 crash in Europe's most feared corner -- the Eau Rouge at the Spa circuit in Belgium. Zanardi hit the wall at 170 mph, nearly the limit of human endurance, and suffered brain swelling that sidelined him for months. He raced just one more season before his Lotus team went bankrupt. With an F-1 record that had a sixth-place finish as its highlight, "I couldn't even get a bad ride in touring cars," he says. "It was the bleakest period in my life."
After teaching driving to dilettantes for a year in Monaco, Alessandro (as he's known in Europe) flew to California to job hunt in the CART paddock at the end of the 1995 season. There he found the Target team's boss, Chip Ganassi. The racer-turned-owner gave him a second chance by pairing him with Nunn, the engineer and father figure who gave Zanardi the confidence that had eluded him. Zanardi unveiled his self-assuredness as a rookie in the last race of 1996, when he dashed through the sand to cut clear across Laguna Seca's unpassable corkscrew turn, a move that had never been seen before and that brought him his third win.
"Alex was impatient to prove himself," says CART's reigning champion, Gil de Ferran. "But it was hard to separate the man from the team. They were an amazing force. I can't remember a weekend when they were off pace. In two years!"
They won five races and the title in 1997, and another championship in '98, with seven victories and the largest points lead ever. Zanardi may have been a piece of a puzzle, but the motorsports press had reinvented him as a dashing, daring, European gunslinger. These days, he doesn't seem especially eager to relive those highs. "In '98, I had a lot of confidence," he says. "Things were just rolling very naturally. I fully realize how lucky I was."
Even before he'd nailed his second title, word spread in Europe that Zanardi wanted to return, this time to challenge the Ferrari and McLaren dynasties in a car prepared by British team owner Frank Williams. Between the money dangled by Williams and the priceless chance for redemption, he didn't need much prompting to ditch CART.
But something else was at work. In 1978, at 12, Zanardi lost his older sister to a motorbike accident. Seventeen years later, during Zanardi's bleak year out of racing, his father died of cancer. So when his wife got pregnant, he didn't want to be racing in Michigan while their child was taking his first steps in Monaco. "I don't regret going to Williams," he insists. "I regret not going prepared."
"Alex is the kind of person who needs pats on the back," says Nunn. "And F-1 is a very cold place." That was evident from the moment Zanardi met Williams' technical director, Patrick Head, who found the robotic cool of Ralf Schumacher, the team's other driver, much more in the F-1 style. Head cringed when the new guy told jokes in the hauler or made the crew cappuccino. But did Head play favorites with his drivers' cars? Zanardi stops short of the accusation. He says only, "Frank Williams wanted me to do well, but unfortunately he wasn't in control of his team at the time."
Zanardi had so many parts failures and mishaps that he finished just six of his 16 races. His best showing came in front of his countrymen when he qualified fourth for the Italian Grand Prix. But a rattling floorboard slowed him down, forcing him to wave by his 24-year-old partner after 18 laps. Schumacher drove to a second-place finish while Zanardi finished out of the points in seventh. The shaky ride was a glum metaphor for his season. To the F-1 crowd, Zanardi's reinvention in America never happened.
"Every race, I'd see the problem light go on on my dash, and I'd start losing three seconds a lap," he says, sighing. "My team would tell me to stay out, so I did, but the crowd didn't know what was happening, and I wound up looking like a fool. Then I'd try to do too much to make up time, and I'd crash. Of course it looked like it was my fault!"
Buried by the technocracy, Zanardi was a ghost in the machine. "Sucking confidence out of you is what they do best in F-1," says Michael Andretti, who had his own hapless year there in 1993. "It left me with everything to prove. I came back to CART with as much vengeance as I could muster."
Zanardi, on the other hand, is still a haunted racer. "My year at Williams taught me my limits as a human being," he says. "I've always been too nice to people because I didn't have the guts to tell them bad things. Maybe that is the biggest evidence that I am not a true champion."
Zanardi watched as Williams publicly shopped for his replacement before buying out the last year of his deal. He returned to Monte Carlo, a tax haven where he'll live until he retires to a mansion he recently purchased in the foothills of Bologna. Sailing on his 55-foot boat, the Hakuna Matata, he vacillated between happily spending his new wealth and telling himself that retiring was just giving up. "The only thing that would've pushed me back is ego," he says. "And, frankly, I didn't see that as a strong enough motivation."
Ego not enough motivation? Nunn didn't believe it. "When you've been as successful as he was," says Nunn, "eventually you miss the attention when the phone stops ringing." So he lured Zanardi to a test session last July, hoping to rekindle a flame. It didn't. "He hadn't released his anger at Williams or himself," says Nunn. "So I waited patiently until I saw that he was missing racing."
Early in the winter, after most of the rides were scooped up, Zanardi started phoning Nunn, the man he calls "Dad." His own son was beginning nursery school, and Zanardi was growing restless. And at 34, he wasn't sure he'd recover his form if he took a second year off. Nunn's engine supplier had just decided to pull out of CART, and Honda was stepping in, giving his struggling operation -- it finished 19th last year with the Brazilian driver Tony Kanaan -- the firepower to become an instant contender. With his old engineer using the same package that they ran in their glory days, Zanardi felt the stars had finally aligned for him.
CART has become more wide-open. Only seven racers won in 1998; last year 11 did. With as many as five more cars in the paddock, bringing the total to a crowded 33, victories could be tougher to come by. But don't doubt the redemptive powers of that first green flag for a man who has rediscovered himself in America once before.
Zanardi pulls into Sebring's track for a day of testing. It's the first time he has seen his car in racing trim, and he approaches it tentatively, stroking the length of its side. There have been racing comebacks before, but maybe not by anyone who has been as high and as low and wears the marks of the journey quite so nakedly.
"Desire has driven me to my goals," he says, looking at his reflection in the paint. "But it has also screwed me. I lost sight of obstacles in front of me and kept falling down. I lost opportunities because of an excess of desire. You don't get many chances to learn from mistakes, but I think I have."
Then his Mediterranean blue eyes brighten, and maybe sparkle a little. "I want racing to be fun again," he says. "If I can succeed here, under my own rules, it's going to be fantastic."
This article appears in the March 19 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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