Alex Zanardi finishes 13th in Blancpain GT Sprint debut

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Yesterday, the toughest man on the planet got back to doing what he does best.

Former CART champion and F1 pilot Alex Zanardi – who lost his legs in a 2001 crash but has become a two-time Paralympic champion in hand cycling – got back behind the wheel in the Blancpain GT Sprint Series’ season opener at Nogaro, France.

Zanardi drove a modified BMW Z4 GT3 for the Roal Motorsport team, whom he competed for in the FIA World Touring Car Championship. The Italian appeared on line for a Top-10 finish at Nogaro, but in the final laps, problems with the clutch caused him to fade to 13th at the finish.

Afterwards, Zanardi tried to look at the big picture but still called finishing out of the points in his Blancpain debut “a pity.”

“In the race, our BMW Z4 GT3 was probably better than many other cars, so this gives me hope for the next races,” he said in a team statement. “Unfortunately we had this problem – which has nothing to do with BMW – but it was the clutch which we installed for me. It compromised my race even in the first half.

“After the pit stop, I managed to somehow start without the clutch, but then the car became very difficult to drive and basically, I was driving the whole third sector in fourth gear to avoid problems. At the hairpin, I tried to shift down but nothing was happening, then all of a sudden the gears were there. But what can you do, this is racing. Now I am looking forward to the next round.”

Nonetheless, Zanardi held his own on Monday, with team principal Roberto Ravaglia noting that he logged one of the ten fastest laps during Monday’s race.

“This shows how competitive Alex can be,” he said. “In the first stint, before the clutch troubles, he was consistent and was able to go faster and faster, lap by lap, and in all track sectors.

“Now we need to work in order to improve in qualifying and to let him start from a better position than this weekend’s 14th.”

BMW Motorsport director Jens Marquardt also hailed Zanardi’s effort, which he said proved that “he is still a real racer.”

“He can be satisfied with his performance,” said Marquardt. “You should not forget that GT racing is something new for him, and that he is competing against strong and experienced rivals.”

Mercedes drivers Maximilian Buhk and Maximilian Götz won the race at Nogaro.

Schmidt Peterson hires IndyCar’s first female lead engineer, will work with Hinchcliffe

Photo courtesy Audi Sport
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Leena Gade, who helped lead Audi to three wins in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, has joined Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as lead engineer for the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda of driver James Hinchcliffe.

“I’m really honored that I’ve got a chance to come across and work in INDYCAR,” Gade said in a team media release. “When I was a kid, I used to watch Indy car (racing), especially when Nigel Mansell first came over (in 1993), and I followed it quite a lot.

“During my sports car days, it was a little less so, until I had friends come across to the U.S. to work in it like Piers (Phillips, SPM’s general manager).

“I’m quite honored to be given the chance. It is going to be something completely different to anything I’ve ever done before, so it’s a big learning curve, but it’s a challenge that I’m really relishing, so I’m looking forward to it.”

Gade, who grew up in India and is from Great Britain, is one of the most recognized engineers in all forms of international motorsports. She becomes the first female lead engineer in Verizon IndyCar Series history.

She’s also the second female lead engineer in Indy racing history, joining Diane Holl, who served as engineer for Adrian Fernandez, Tony Kanaan (Tasman Motorsports) and Richie Hearn (Della Penna Motorsports) in CART from 1996-2000.

Gade, who holds engineering degrees from the University of Manchester in England, has engineered cars in several race series and for several manufacturers, including F1, BMW, A1 Grand Prix, GT racing, Jaguar, Audi and most recently with Bentley Motorsport.

She became the first female race engineer to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2011, and followed that up with another Le Mans win in 2012, as well as being part of the World Endurance Championship drivers and manufacturers titles in the same year.

Also in 2012, she was named FIA WEC “Man of the Year” and was awarded the C&R Racing Women in Technology award from the Lyn St. James Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation.

Her team also won Le Mans for a third time in 2014.

“There was significant interest in Leena amongst the international motorsports community, so we’re really excited that she sees where we’re taking SPM, believes in what we’re doing and that she is now a part of our organization,” Piers Phillips said. “ I’ve known Leena for quite some time now and I’ve worked alongside her, so I knew the credit she’s been given is well deserved. We’re very much looking forward to throwing her into the deep end and seeing her add to the team’s success.”

Gade and Hinchcliffe go into the deep end that Phillips referenced when they take part in a team test Jan. 24 at Sebring International Raceway, the first time the pair will work together.