Features - Exclusive Interview
OCTOBER 17, 2000
Return for Zonta: Why Jordan test role is imbuing the Brazilian with fresh enthusiasm
BY DAVID TREMAYNE
Confused? We're talking about the once-scorned role of F1 test driver. In the Englishman's case, his performance as stooge for Mario Andretti and Elio de Angelis chez Lotus in 1980 gave him the perfect opportunity to learn about driving an F1 car, and his pace would eventually earn him a full-time ride for 1981. He never looked back. In Panis's case, stepping down from his unhappy full-time race status at Prost to take up test work at McLaren worked like a charm and gave him the perfect chance to catapult himself back into the limelight for 2001 with a race drive at BAR.
So Ricardo Zonta's optimism in his new role at Jordan may not be misplaced. But there is something depressing about a driver of his obvious calibre being forced to stop racing in order to try and move forward. Everyone talks of Juan Pablo Montoya's prowess, but many forget that Zonta beat him to the F3000 title in 1997.
The Brazilian smiles shyly when you raise the subject. "Sure, but people have very short memories in F1, don't they? Now I cannot dwell on what I did back then, I have to look to the future instead."
Where Panis scored so heavily this year was in the sheer mileage that he was able to accumulate with McLaren. The test program was genuine and heavy, and he got as much seat time as either Hakkinen or Coulthard. And enough opportunity to run against them in comparable circumstances. He was thus able to remind the world what he had to offer, and BAR was tempted.
But the test role at Jordan has never been a trip to Paris. Back in 1994 it seemed like the big chance for upcoming Briton Kelvin Burt, deputizing for Rubens Barrichello and Eddie Irvine, but Burt rarely ever got into the car and faded into touring car racing.
"Ricardo was an exciting talent before, and now he has added experience to go with it, which will be hugely important to Jordan as the team doubles its testing efforts in order to mount a championship challenge. Ricardo will be very busy next year!"
Drives at Sauber and Arrows were possibilities for the 24 year-old from Curitiba. But in the end the chance to continue working with Honda, while helping Jordan to progress, proved too much to resist. From Jordan's point of view, having a driver with prior experience of the Honda V10 which will propel next year's EJ11 will prove invaluable.
"Returning to Jordan and staying involved with Honda is the ideal situation for me to build my experience," Zonta says.
He has a good relationship with the Honda personnel, and a lot of respect for the Japanese manufacturer. "Honda has made a lot of difference for us," he said back in Monaco with the total enthusiasm of a man facing a bright future. "They are pushing the team. They can see the problems, and they are giving us good direction. It's created a lot of pressure, but that's good pressure, for the team and for the drivers. The Japanese guys know the engine, but every time we have problems on other things they push hard to know about them too.
"Their engineers are very experienced people. They worked with Piquet and Senna before, so that puts more pressure on me to try to live up to that! But times in F1 are different now. It's very difficult to say much precisely about the engines, because when you take out fuel or use new tires, it changes the car a great deal. That makes comparison difficult. There really is a big difference between new tires and old tires. But of course we try to do our best to quantify changes.
The reliability that one takes for granted with Honda engines also helped enormously. "Last year I could hardly work on the car, because it was so unreliable. Sometimes I would go straight to a race with no real testing, then on Friday and Saturday I would have a problem again. I couldn't run and therefore I couldn't learn. Sometimes I just went straight into qualifying the car. But this year has been much better. We could work more on the car and the set-up. I'm new in F1 and so was my engineer, so we needed to work more on the car, to learn more about how the set-up works. In my first year I really didn't learn anything in 1999. So 2000 was my first chance to learn everything. I was starting again."
Last year's Supertec engine was problematic because its vibration caused a lot of other things to break down. The Honda has more power and its spread is wider. "It's been very good and very consistent. It's not all or nothing. It's very drivable. That means a lot with the F1 cars the way they are now. You can gear the engine better too."
Though he won't race, Zonta is confident that the future is bright. "I'd say that this is a winning engine already. Honda are going to push a lot more to have everything right for next year. When they came to BAR it was like being in a new team. Everyone had more motivation, a better mental direction. Sometimes we had a problem, say in the gearbox where we couldn't finish the race. Honda came and they used the experience they had racing bikes, and one of the guys said, ÔHey, when we had this problem with the bikes we did thisÉ' And they did that on the car and they fixed it! These guys just know so muchÉ"
Next year, with Honda, he expects success. "Of course I would like to race, but I am happy to be a part of building Jordan-Honda into a winning team."