Ricard Zonta – the rather accident-prone former Grand Prix driver – is today celebrating his 36th birthday!
Hailing from the same town as his compatriot Maurício Gugelmin and spurred on by his father dirt track racing exploits, Ricardo quickly moved up from karting to win the Formula Chevrolet title. He won the SudAm title in his maiden season in 1995, and then crossed the Atlantic to race in the Formula 3000 championship.
After winning two races in his maiden season, his promised was all too apparent, and when he was signed to the crack Super Nova squad for the 1997 season, he went on to claim the championship after a fantastic year-long battle with Juan Pablo Montoya.
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Formula 1 beckoned, and he tested for the Jordan team in 1998 while also dovetailing his efforts with a stint in Mercedes-Benz’s sports car team, winning the FIA GT title. McLaren boss Ron Dennis signed him onto McLaren’s books, and he looked set to be the next South American sensation.
Placed by Dennis at the new British American Racing team alongside Jacques Villeneuve for the 1999 Formula 1 season, in what many hoped would be a year of learning for the young Brazilian. Many expected him to give the Canadian a run for his money.
But in just his second race weekend and on home soil, he crashed heavily in practice and broke bones in his foot. The accident put him out until the Canadian Grand Prix, and he took awhile to regain form. He survived an almighty accident during the Belgian Grand Prix weekend, failing in a challenge put down by Villeneuve to take Eau Rouge flat-out (Villeneuve also wrecked the sister chassis).
He remained on board for the 2000 season, and scored his first championship point with sixth in Australia. But he had another accident: this time his front suspension collapsed during a test at Silverstone, vaulting him over the safety fencing. Incredibly he emerged with no more than a cut finger.
But he fell out of favour in the team after tagging Villeneuve at the German Grand Prix, and despite two more sixth-placed finishes in Italy and Indianapolis, he was out of a race drive for the 2001 season, signing as Jordan’s test driver.
Mid-year he was called up to the Canadian Grand Prix after Heinz-Harald Frentzen was ruled out through injury, and later had another outing with the team in Germany when Frentzen was fired. But he was overlooked for a full-time berth at the expense of Jean Alesi, and it was abundantly clear that he wasn’t going anywhere with the Jordan team.
He dropped back to the Telefonica World Series in 2002, and won the title, proving that he still could do the job behind the wheel.
He rejoined F1 in 2003 as Toyota’s test driver, and remained there for the next four seasons, later deputising (but rarely impressing) in the latter half of 2004 when the team fired Cristiano da Matta.
He joined Renault’s F1 test line-up for the 2007 season, but was used little during the year, and so he also concentrated on the Stock Car Brasil series, later making a successful switch to sports car racing.
[Images via AUTOSPORT, F1Onboard, LAT, The Cahier Archive, XPB]
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