Alex Zanardi: a champion of lifeWritten by 'Αγγελος Φωτσεινός
Translated by Giannis Binas
Fighting spirit, determination, mental willpower and strength.
Or just a name: Alessandro ''Alex'' Zanardi.
Or, otherwise: a champion in life.
Date of 1st publication: 23/10/12
Alex Zanardi was born in Bologna, Italy, on October 23, 1966.
In 1979, at the age of 13, he experienced the loss of his sister, Cristina, in a car crash.
In the same year, he got involved in karting.
Next year, he starts competing in races systematically and success doesn’t take long to arrive: 3rd in 1982, 2nd in 1983 and 1st in 1985 and 1986 at the Italian 100cc Championship and 1st in 1987 at the European 135cc Championship.
1988 marked the Italian’s move to single-seater races.
He completed the season 15th overall at the Italian Formula 3 Championship with 2 points.
The next one was a better year for him: 7th place overall with 13 points, while, at the same time, he made his F3000 debut at the race of Dijon.
In 1990, he comes 2nd at the Italian Formula 3 Championship; he wins the European Formula 3 Cup with his win at the Bugatti circuit and conquers the pole position at the Formula 3 race of Monaco.
1991: 2nd in F3000, debut in Formula 1
In 1991, he returns to F3000 with the newfound Il Barone Rampante team (the Benetton Junior team essentially).
He wins twice, in Vallelunga and Mugello, startsthe 8 out of the 10 races of the Championship from the first row of the grid and completes the year as vice champion, with 42 points, 5 less that the champion, Christian Fittipaldi.
It was about time to move to Formula 1.
He tests with Footwork’s single-seater at Paul Ricard, but makes his debut with another team.
He signs a contract with Jordan for the last 3 races of the season, at the spot that was orphaned after Michael Schumacher’s move to Benetton.
He finishes his first race in Spain in 9th place, he retires in Japan from gearbox (being 5th) and he gets another 9th place in Australia.
1992: 2 times left out in the cold; test driver for Benetton; 3 races with Minardi
1992 had a strange start for Zanardi.
Whilst Eddie Jordan was reassuring him that he would remain at the team, just a week ahead of the start of the Championship, he finally informs him that Mauricio Gugelmin would race in his place , offering the team a financial “breath” of 8 million dollars.
Ken Tyrrell gives him the opportunity of testing with his team; he is satisfied and enlists him as one of his drivers.
However, the Italian was left out in the cold for a second time, as 2 days ahead of the first race, he is informed that Andrea de Cesaris secured a sponsorship and covered the seat next to Oliver Grouillard.
Zanardi eventually signs with Benetton as a test driver and competes in 3 races with Minardi, without any success (Britain, Germany, and France) at the place of the wounded Fittipaldi.
1993: Problems at Lotus; the accident at Eau Rouge is a highlight
By the end of 1992, Benetton’s team manager, Flavio Briatore, offers him to remain at the team as a test driver for 2 the next years.
Zanardi, however, wants to race and signs with Lotus for the same period (1993-1994).
In the second race of the season, in Brazil, he comes home 6th.
That was destined to be the only point he would claim in his F1 career.
In the fourth race, in Imola, after an amazing appearance, he climbs from 20th to 4th place, but has an exit, 8 laps ahead of the checkered flag, in an attempt to overtake the 3rd Martin Brundle.
His relations with the teams’ personnel aren’t the best, especially with the owner, Peter Collins, and the results only accentuate the displeasure.
The serious accident on Friday’s free practice session at the circuit of Spa, marks the premature end of the season for Alex.
1994: Staying at Lotus; competing in 10 races
1994 finds the Italian remaining in Lotus, as a test driver, though.
His relations with Peter Collins are only getting worse, but the other owner of the team, Peter Wright, appreciates his abilities.
After the first 4 races of the season, Lotus is holding a three day testing session at the Silverstone.
Zanardi drives for 2 and half days and passes the torch to Pedro Lamy on the evening of the last day.
Lamy enters the track and, 2 laps later, has a serious accident, caused by the detachment of the rear wing.
As a result, he “inherited” 2 broken legs.
For the history, Zanardi had completed 397 laps in the same single-seater in the previous days!
Italian raced in a total of 10 grands prix, in a very difficult year for Lotus, financially, which was destined to be her last in the grid.
He isn’t paid and without any offer from any Formula 1 team for 1995, his career is ''at the edge of the cliff''.
1995: races at the BPR GT Series; moves to America
1995 makes a slow start for Zanardi.
Initially, not having any drive offer, he delivers racing driving lessons at the school of Siegfried Stohr.
Next, he competes in the BPR GT Series (a league similar to this day’s FIA WEC) at the steering wheel of a Lotus Lotus Esprit GT.
His mind though, is focused on returning to single-seater racing.
For that reason, he calls his friend Rick Gorne, commercial director of Reynard (CART single-seater constructor) to mediate for arranging a test at the Champcars.
The Italian thought that in America he would have the possibility to “regenerate” his career, as had happened with many drivers of his time.
The team managers, however, didn’t show any interest, and, eventually, the only one who decided to test him was Chip Ganassi.
Τhe test is being held at Homestead and, on October 23, 1995, on the day of his birthday, Alex signs a 3-year contract with Ganassi.
Mo Nunn, the team’s race engineer, believed they shoudn’t sign with the Italian; soon, however, he became one of his biggest supporters.
1996-1998: total domination in CART; his career soaring high
Zanardi went to America, determined to prove the misjudged opinion of his criticizers on his abilities.
He took care of revealing his credentials soon enough.
Pole position at the 2nd race in CART (Rio de Janeiro); 3 wins (Portland, Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca) and 3rd in the final standings, tying with Michael Andretti in 132 points.
Highlight of the “best rookie driver of the season” was the demanding overtake at the famous Corkscrew on Bryan Herta, at the final lap of the race.
An overtake that granted him a well worthy win (0:58 onwards):
1997 finds Zanardi as the “master of the game”.
5 wins; 195 points and first CART Championship, 10 years after the last Championship he had won (European 135cc Kart Championship).
In 1998, his domination is even more emphatic.
He adds another 7 wins at his palmarès, he claims 15 podiums in 19 races and, with 285 points, claims his 2nd title.
The race of Long beach was the highlight of the season, in which he was literally doing whatever he wished:
During his three year passing from the American circuits, Zanardi left an indelible mark at the American spectators, as he was making sure to combine his celebrations with plenty of burnt rubber; or else, the famous “donuts”, which became his trademark:
1999: returns to Formula 1 with Williams
On September 1998, Sir Frank Williams announced the signing of a 3-year contract with Alex Zanardi, who was returning to Firmula 1 after 1994.
The Italian was also in talks with Benetton, BAR (his friend and commercial director of Reynard, Rick Gorne, who had secured him the test with Ganassi on 1995, wanted him at the side of Jacques Villeneuve) and with Honda (which was preparing her 2000 entry as a constructor).
The year, however, wasn’t ideal for the twice CART Champion.
Zanardi faces a problem with managing the grooved tyres (he was using slick tyres at first passing from Formula 1, as well as in CART), the single-seater shows every possible and impossible problem and the Italian’s psychology is at its lowest.
After limited positive moments 9such as the 4th place at the qualifying of Monza) and many problems, the year proves to be a fiasco: 0 points.
At the end of the year, Zanardi, completely dissapointd, agrees to end his cooperation with Williams and decided to take a 1-year break.
That way, 2000 finds him spending time with his family and redefining his goals.
2001: returns to CART
The germ of speed was still inside him and Zanardi’s return to CART was no surprise to anyone.
The Italian, however, sentimental by his nature, makes a decision based not on logic but on emotion.
Thus, even though he had offers from Kool Green, Newman/Haas and Ganassi, the top teams of the championship, he opts to sign with the newfound Mo Nunn Racing to aid his former engineer at his new venture.
The team’s organization is defective and the lack of resources doesn’t allow Alex to match the top combinations… up to the 15th race, at Lausitzring, Germany.
September 15, 2001, Lausitzring: the accident that changed his life.
On September 15, Germany was host to the first European race in the history of CART; the so called ''2001 American Memorial''.
Zanardi, finally possessing a single-seater capable of fighting for the first places, made an appearance that reminded the reason he was considered one of the top CART drivers.
13 laps to the checkered flag, he entered the pits to refuel.
While exiting the pit lane to return to the track, he accelerated more than necessary, the back of the car touched the grass and Zanardi found himself in an uncontrollable car, inside the oval section.
Patrick Carpentier, instinctively, managed to avoid him, but the same didn’t happen to Alex Tagliani, who rammed Alex with more than 240 km/h:
Everyone was speechless at the horrific sight; the single-seater was literally cut in half and the fear for the worst was justified.
What the medical staff came up to, was indicative of the seriousness of the accident: Zanardi was losing blood so quickly, his death was a matter of minutes.
With his heart stopping 7 times and having suffered a 75% blood loss, in an unprecedented incident for the medical data, the Italian survived.
However, the amputation of both of his legs, from his knees and downwards, was necessary.
Life after the accident: born to fight.
There are benefits you know, he said.
First, I can still hold my son.
Second I am alive, and third I can adjust my new legs to get the optimum height to play pool!
The specific quote by Alex Zanardi fully represents his life after the accident.
He didn’t quit; instead, he made the globe admire the greatness of his mental will and strength.
He was interested in the evolution of prosthetics technology right from the first moment, characteristically claiming that he was trying new legs just as someone is trying new shoes.
The time after his accident as well as next year, were spent by the Italian between family activities and trying new prosthetic legs.
Of course, a racing driver can’t stay for long out of the action…
2003: returns to the “crime scene” and first participation in the ETCC
An “innocent” participation in a kart race at Monaco was precursor to what everyone expected: Zanardi’s return to the tracks.
Indeed, 20 months after the nearly fatal accident, Alex returned to Lausitzring for a special ceremony in his honor, in order to complete that fateful race; that is, to complete the remaining 13 laps.
For the history, his lap times were so competitive that his best one would place him on the 5th position of the grid of the upcoming race:
Nevertheless, single-seater races were past.
The new chapter in his career would be touring car races.
Under the mediation of Roberto Trevisan, an old friend of his from the F3000 era, Zanardi tested twice in a specially configured BMW 320i of the BMW Team Italy-Spain, which was competing in the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC).
His debut at Monza, last race of the season, would be accompanied by the team’s announcement on the full participation of the Italian in the next Championship.
2003 ends with a 4th place in the 500 kilometer kart race of Sao Paulo (in a kart he shared with Jimmy Vasser, Michel Jourdain jr and Oriol Servia, old CART co-athletes) and the issuing of his autobiography.
2004-2009: participation in the Italian (ISC), Εuropean (ETCC) and World Touring Car (WTCC) Championships
The first year of his full participation in the ETCC was a year of adapting to the demands of a different class of racing car compared to the single-seaters: hence, the 15th place overall with 8 points.
Meanwhile, the “Zanardi” chassis for karts are a fact.
2005 proved to be a very different year.
Champion in the ISC with a BMW 320i under the support of BMW Italy, 10th in the WTCC with a win at Oschersleben, a circuit only a few kilometers away from the “crime scene”, Lausitzring.
He also receives the “return of the year” award at the Laureus Sports Awards.
In 2006, he focuses his efforts in the WTCC, making random appearances in the ISC.
While the results in the ISC are excellent (he competes in 8 races, wins 4 of them and comes 5th overall), in the WTCC, he claims a win in Istanbul, but finishes the year 11th overall.
Highlight of the year, however, is his return to a Formula 1 single-seater after 7 years:
His statement after exiting the BMW Sauber’s cockpit expressed his delight:
Of course, I know that I won't get a contract with the Formula One team.
Ηowever, having the chance to drive an F1 racer again is just incredible.
During the next 3 years (2007-2009) he focuses completely in WTCC.
2 consecutive wins at Brno (2008-2009) seal the end of a great path in motorsports, and, 30 years after his first contact with a kart, Zanardi is ready for a fresh start; a new challenge: the handbike (races with vehicles powered exclusively by the arms).
2009-today: competition in international marathons and Paralympic Games; Zanardi makes history.
People think that the handbike is not as competitive as motorsports.
Trust me, if it wasn’t competitive, I wouldn’t quit motorsports!
Zanardi’s first contact with handbike racing was in 2007, with his participation in the New York marathon.
After just 4 weeks of training, he claimed 4th place.
At the end of 2009, the announcement of his withdrawal from the WTCC, was joined with the publication of his new plans: participation in international marathons, under the long-term goal of securing a place in Italy’s Paralympic team for London 2012 Olympics.
His wins at various international events are enough for a place at London.
Next target -what else- an Olympic medal.
It was a circuit I always loved, performed really well on, but never enjoyed the pleasure of winning a race there on four wheels.
I had to go back with my handcycle to correct it!
On the anniversary of his pole position in the 1991 F3000 race at Brands Hatch, Zanardi made history.
He won the gold medal at the H4–time trial category and moved the globe.
A few days later, he would add another 2 medals at his palmares: a gold medal at H4-road race and a bronze at H1-4.
At the same time, the International Paralympic Committee included him in the list of the 12 best performances of the Games.
After the Paralympic Games, he expressed his interest in competing in the Indianapolis 500 of 2013, spreading joy to every motorsports fan as well as his former team-mate at Ganassi, Jimmy Vasser, who stated that if he truly wanted this, he would talk to Chip Ganassi to arrange it!
He didn’t race eventually but never dismissed the possibility of doing it in the future.
Anyway, BMW granted him the opportunity to test the M3 of the German Touring Car Championship (DTM):
A year after the London triumph, his palmares was enriched by the 2013 Para-Cycling World Championship:
2014 marked Zanardi’s big return to motorsports.
BMW offered him the chance to compete in the Blancpain GT Series (formerly FIA GT) which was not left unattended by the Italian.
Meanwhile, he competed in the Ironman World Championship (famous triathlon race, which includes swimming, cycling and running).
Using his handbike for the cycling section and a wheelchair for the running one, he classified 272th overall and 19th at the 45-49 years class.
The protagonist of the 2012 Paralympic Games could not miss the chance to take part in the 2016 Games, held in Rio.
2 gold and 1 silver medals were his ingathering, in a great performance.
There is absolutely no doubt that he will achieve whichever target he sets.
The words of his compatriot Max Papis finely imprint that:
His determination brought him to where he is right now.
Even if he doesn't have his legs, he is still the same person, with the same will.
Alex has a way of showing people that you can still reach your goals and dreams in life, even when things don't go exactly your way.