Alex Zanardi experienced both the ups and downs of the Rolex 24 during his opening stint in the No. 24 BMW Team RLL BMW M8 GTE.
“I really cared about it — I cared about it like it was my first race,” said Zanardi, who was not quite ready to give an impression of his time at the wheel when he met with the media after his first stint. “Keep that question in your pocket. Basically, I was [crapping] in my pants, pardon the expression. I felt like it was the very first race of my life. There was no time for enjoyment out there, no time to say ‘Wow — how lucky I am.’ It will come probably later in the race, but not after this one.”
Zanardi had problems engaging his special steering wheel at the beginning of his stint, which delayed his pit exit by about a minute. Then, after turning competitive laps and getting back on the lead circuit, the car came to a stop with an apparent electrical problem seconds after Jesse Krohn took over.
Zanardi thought he might not be able to drive again during the race if that problem continued. But when the team took the car back to the garage they diagnosed the problem: When Zanardi pushed his steering wheel in place on the column during the pit stop, the car was dropped off the air jacks, causing a jolt that damaged the column — something that had never occurred in testing. The team replaced the column.
Zanardi said he had no problems with the steering wheel prior to the event. The custom wheel designed by BMW Motorsport has hand controls that enable him to accelerate and shift, while he has a special lever for braking.
“That’s why I was devastated,” he said. “The engineers in Munich and over here prepared very meticulously, getting ready for every situations. The steering wheel is the brain of the car, it controls everything — my case on top. If the steering wheel is not interacting with the car, it won’t work. I’ve worked with it a thousand times, no problems. Here, on my first pit stop — I don’t know. Maybe, with all of my luck, I had to pay a little duty. But the race is not over, we will see.
“When I jumped into the car, everything seemed to be OK. Then when I went to restart the car, it wasn’t working. The steering wheel wasn’t properly connected to the car. We went to the spare steering wheel, and it wasn’t working either. I was getting ready to jump out of the car, and have John Edwards get back in — that would have been the shortest stint of my life — but then magically everything was okay and I took off.”
While he lost a lot of time, Zanardi credited his team for regaining all the time they lost on pit road and getting back on the lead lap.
“The car was really good underneath me,” he said. “The pace was not bad, especially at the beginning, and as the race progressed I was feeling better and better and better. Then I gave up a little time to save some fuel. Things were looking good. The tire pressure came up a little bit too high near the end, but I just had to hang in there. The pit stop and driver change went smooth, but when Jesse took off, evidently he encountered some more electrical issues.
“If we can solve the problem, we can go home and get something out of this event — I sincerely hope so — not only for myself but for the team, because everybody on the team worked so hard. So far, it’s been a fantastic experience. Even if it would end like this, I would certainly not regret dedicating a lot of time preparing for this event, rather than keeping the hammer down from my handcycling campaign to prepare for 2020. That can wait.”
Zanardi was not sure if he would return for any additional races after Daytona, but he did not rule out a return behind the wheel.
“How can I say no if somebody comes and asks me to do it again?” he said. “But I cannot forecast that. Every single driver in the BMW lineup — I’m shocked at how good they are. I met [co-driver] Chaz Mostert — man, how good that kid is! He jumped into the car Thursday night and was at speed on his first lap. It always took me about six laps. I’m very impressed by the level of the BMW drivers, so quite frankly, they do not need me. But if ever they want [me], why not?”