Alex Zanardi smiled for the first time all weekend.
Surrounded by familiar, friendly faces, he relaxed and looked for a positive sign in the gloom of his frustrating return to Formula One.
As the talk turned from his disappointment with his Winfield Williams car to much happier days in CART, Zanardi's eyes shined and he showed his quick wit.
The Italian driver, who went from CART's rookie of the year in 1996 to two straight championships with Target-Chip Ganassi Racing, suddenly reached for his cell phone and dialed.
''Hey, Ganassi, this is your old driver,'' he said, laughing. ''I've got a bunch of old friends from CART here, and I thought I'd call and say hello.''
He got more excited as the conversation turned to Ganassi's visit to the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal -- Zanardi's only racing appearance this year in North America. But, when the call ended, the smile faded and some of the gloom returned.
''It's been another bad day,'' Zanardi said after a practice session. ''We broke the gearbox, and I only got a few laps. Things keep happening to my car.''
He qualified 12th and finished 12th in the race Sunday, having more brake problems and finally succumbing to another broken gearbox.
''I'm not very happy,'' Zanardi said. ''This is not what I came here to do. Maybe it's just that I have been too lucky in the last three years and just have to pay my dues.''
If that's true, he might be over budget.
So far, the 32-year-old Zanardi has been running at the end in just one of the first six races this season.
''We've had problems with brakes, an oil cooler, the gearbox,'' he said. ''I've had some problem adapting to the new grooved tires and finding the balance in the car.
''It's hard to come from a small organization like Chip Ganassi, where I only had one failure in three years, and have all these things happen with a big, successful team like Williams.''
Nonetheless, Zanardi isn't disappointed with the team.
''The crew could not work any harder,'' he said. ''Things have to get better. A team like Williams should have the capability to put things right.''
Team owner Frank Williams, who brought Zanardi back to F1, believes in his driver.
''His problems are technical ones,'' Williams said. ''They're not his problems.''
Adding to the perception of Zanardi's failure is the success of teammate Ralf Schumacher, who has been among the top six in four races this year. But that hasn't caused Williams to question Zanardi's ability.
''When Alex has had a good lap, we can look at the telemetry and see he is every bit as fast as Ralf,'' Williams said. ''But Alex can't seem to get more than a few laps without some problem cropping up.''
Those lost laps are denying him the experience he needs as he adjusts to a new car and new road courses.
''And, remember, Alex has had only a few races and a few tests on the grooved tires, while Ralf has more than a year working with them and getting a feel for the car,'' Williams said.
The inevitable rumors have surfaced that Zanardi's job could be in jeopardy, but they are not coming from Williams.
''I've watched him in Champ Car racing, and I have the maximum respect,'' he said. ''I watched Alex win very cleverly. He's got it. It's as simple as that.''
Zanardi isn't worried about the rumors.
''My career has always been up and down,'' said Zanardi, whose first shot in F1 was cut short by a crash in 1994 that left him with a serious shoulder injury. ''Fortunately, I always find a way to get up again.''
In fact, Zanardi had no ride of any kind when Ganassi called -- at the suggestion of car builder Adrian Reynard -- in the winter of 1995-96.
Zanardi's success in CART earned him his shot with the Williams team, allowing him to bring wife Daniella and baby boy Nicola back to Europe to be close to family and friends.
''I'm missing CART a lot,'' Zanardi said. ''But I'm not unhappy with my decision.
''If I was there, I'd be thinking I should be here. I don't want to play the role of the victim.''
Zanardi insists he hasn't lost the ability to drive and win.
''It's just the beginning of the adventure.''
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