CHAMPCAR/CART: Zanardi, Vasser Ready for Houston

Vasser, Zanardi Ready For Houston GP Houston, TX (September 30, 1998) - There are challenges galore for the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team as it invades Texas for the inaugural Grand Prix of Houston on Oct. 4. For Alex Zanardi, who wrapped up...

Vasser, Zanardi Ready For Houston GP

Houston, TX (September 30, 1998) - There are challenges galore for the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team as it invades Texas for the inaugural Grand Prix of Houston on Oct. 4.

For Alex Zanardi, who wrapped up his second consecutive PPG Cup two races ago at Vancouver, the challenge is to finish out the season as strongly as he began it. The 31-year-old Italian would like nothing more than to continue his impressive parade of podium finishes and to add to his collection of checkered flags (six wins thus far) as he closes out his third and final CART season.

For teammate Jimmy Vasser, who won the PPG Cup in 1996, the challenge is to strengthen his hold on second place in the 1998 point standings and help secure a 1-2 finish for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. With 136 points, Vasser is currently leading a six-way battle for second place, but very visible in his rear-view mirror are hot pursuers Adrian Fernandez (126 points), Dario Franchitti (122), Greg Moore (118), Michael Andretti (112) and Scott Pruett (106).

For both Zanardi and Vasser, and their respective crews, there is the additional and rather large challenge of preparing for a track they have never seen, raced on or tested on before. Zanardi, who announced on Sept. 22 that he will race with Winfield Williams Racing on the Formula One tour beginning in the 1999 season, says competing on a brand-new circuit like Houston is a challenge, but one that has him quite excited.

"I'm really looking forward to Houston," he says. "It's going to be quite a challenge for all of us because we haven't raced there before, but I truly like these kinds of challenges. I think I learn pretty fast, and I think my crew is very good at figuring out the correct set-up for the car very quickly, so I think it will be an advantage for us.

"I have so much confidence in guys like Morris (Nunn, Zanardi's chief engineer) and Rob (Hill, Zanardi's crew chief)," Zanardi continues. "We've always been able to determine the best set-up and make the necessary adjustments to the car when we need to. It's obviously very important in Houston that we find that right set-up very early on, then we can just do smaller fine-tuning as the weekend goes on."

Zanardi, who has posted a CART-record 12 podium finishes this season, says the fact that he has already won the 1998 PPG Cup and has signed on to race in Formula One next season has not diminished his drive or motivation. "I can assure you I haven't lost an ounce of desire or determination," he says. "There are still three championships to be won - Houston, Australia and Fontana -- and I want to win them all, and my crew wants to win them all. Even though we've won the PPG Cup, we're as hungry as ever and we're going to prepare for each race the same way we have all season. As for my future in Formula One, that is next year and won't change the way I approach the rest of this year. If anything it might help, because now I won't have that issue as a distraction."

Like his teammate, Vasser says he welcomes the challenge that an unknown track provides. "It's fun going to a different city and a new circuit, and it's exciting to take on the challenges of a new course. A brand new course makes it a little more difficult, but it's not insurmountable. We're all in the same boat in terms of experience, so it's just a matter of who can get their cars set up the best. If we have a good car coming off the trailer, we can pick up the track a little quicker, so that's one of our goals."

Vasser says he is also excited about the battle that's heating up for second place. "Every race is critical the rest of the way," he says. "I think we've got the tools to put the Target car second, but there are five other guys who have a legitimate shot at second place. They're good drivers and have good equipment, too, so there's a lot at stake the last three races, and it should be fun for the fans to watch."

In terms of preparing the Target Reynard-Hondas for an unknown track like Houston, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Tom Anderson explains that the set-up process involves a combination of computer simulations, data analysis from similar tracks and gut instinct. "Obviously, two of the things we normally use in determining set-up -- past track experience and on-track testing -- don't apply in Houston," he says. "That leaves a combination of mechanical simulation, computer software simulation and good old-fashioned gut reaction on the part of the engineers.

"CART has mapped the race track in terms of the length of the straight-aways and the degrees of the curves," he explains. "Our chassis manufacturer, Reynard, has a computer simulation program, and their engineers will put in estimates on things like top speed and cornering force. Our engineers will study our data from other street courses like Long Beach, Detroit and Vancouver and figure out what they've learned at those places. Then we'll talk to Firestone about which tire they're going to bring and exactly what kind of construction it is. Through the tire manufacturer, who will have had someone down there actually studying the track surfaces, we'll get an idea of whether the Houston surface will be more like Long Beach or more like Vancouver.

"Basically you just acquire as many facts as you can that way, and then it's essentially a best-guess scenario. You really never know how close you are until you actually run on the track. We've been relatively close at some of the places we've gone to, and we've been a bit off at a couple places as well, like Vancouver.

"You'll see by the end of the first session who got the set-up right," Anderson adds. "The drivers are all pretty close, so if one of the top guys is way down on the board, it usually means the set-up isn't quite there yet. If it's a real tight grid after the first morning practice, you know a lot of guys are doing their homework and getting it right."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Adrian Fernandez , Dario Franchitti , Alex Zanardi , Scott Pruett , Tom Anderson , Chip Ganassi , Greg Moore
Teams Williams , Chip Ganassi Racing