Toyota give Brazilian a comeback opportunity
This weekend's Hungarian Grand Prix will mark another chapter in the career of one of Formula One racings 'nearly men', Ricardo Zonta, who will be starting the race for Toyota as substitute for the dropped Cristiano da Matta.
Back in the late 'nineties, Brazilian Zonta was considered to be a serious rival for another great South American hope, Juan Pablo Montoya. Indeed he took victory over the Colombian in the 1997 European Formula 3000 championship after a series of brilliant drives, his talent obvious for all to see.
Yet after his last full race drive at the 2001 German Grand Prix (as substitute for the injured Heinz-Harald Frentzen, driving for Jordan), Zonta left Formula One racing for nearly three years, and his future in the sport looked to be over. He knows that Toyota's decision to drop da Matta and evaluate him as a prospect for next season is possibly his last chance to impress.
It should, arguably, have been so different. After a glittering career in junior Formulae, Zonta made his Formula One racing debut back in 1999, driving for the then-new BAR team alongside Jacques Villeneuve. It was the season from hell for both men - the car lacked pace, the team lacked cohesion, and Zonta suffered a serious crash during practice for the Brazilian Grand Prix and did not return until the Canadian race two months later. He scored no points all season.
2000 was better, but only just, with sixth-place finishes in Australia, Italy and the USA bringing him 3 Championship points, but his career suffered another blow with a massive crash at Silverstone during testing - and it was clear by mid-season that BAR intended to drop him for the following year. He spent 2001 as Jordan's test driver, getting two race drives as substitute after Frentzen injured himself in a crash at Monaco. But when Jordan took the decision to get rid of Frentzen altogether, his seat passed to Jean Alesi rather than Zonta.
In 2002 he moved to American open wheel racing, winning the Telefonica World Series at his first attempt. For 2003 he returned to Formula One as Toyota's test and reserve driver. With what Toyota see as da Matta's disappointing form during the 2004 season so far, the decision was made to offer Zonta another chance to impress. As Tsutoma Tomita, Team Principal, explained: "We revised our original plans after we reviewed the results of the last three Grands Prix. Ricardo Zonta consistently performed very well, as indeed he also did in the first half of the 2004 season. We believe it is fair to offer Ricardo the chance to show his potential in full race conditions, before we enter into the final step of our driver evaluation for the 2005 season."
Ralf Schumacher is confirmed for Toyota next season, but the team's other seat is still vacant. Zonta will know that he still has everything to play for.