There was a glimmer of hope and we all prayed that Alex Zanardi… might save his Formula 1 career.
I was editing a sister magazine, now a rival, at the time and was an unabashed member of his fan club. I wasn’t alone – the fondness for this big personality with no negative ego verged on universal – but we knew, as did he, that the wave of goodwill engendered by his return to the F1 paddock at the start of 1999 would carry him only so far: about June/July. By now he desperately needed a result if he wanted to stick around.
Williams had yet to recover from the loss of works Renault power at the end of 1997 and was struggling, but even so Zanardi’s performances were disappointing. Put in the shade by team-mate Ralf Schumacher, it was painful to watch. The driver who had rewritten CART’s rules of engagement, who had scrambled past Bryan Herta at the top of Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew, who had unlapped himself to win at Long Beach, who had invented the celebratory smoking donut, appeared unable to adapt to F1’s grooved tyres, twitchier turn-in and shorter braking distances; at one point he even reverted to Iron Age discs as his spiral tightened.
At Monza, however, he was quick from the off: he qualified fourth – his best by six places – leapt to second at the start and was settled in third by the end of the opening lap. But then he (perhaps) rode a kerb too hard and damaged his undertray and his chasers picked him off – except Ralf, whom Alex waved by. The German, who finished second behind Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s Jordan, later paid tribute to Zanardi’s gentlemanly conduct.
Everybody liked Alex. But it wasn’t enough. Nor was that eventual seventh place at Monza. His F1 career had just three more troubled races to run.
A single point – a sixth place for Lotus at the 1993 Brazilian GP – from 41 starts was scant reward for his talent. I think he just loved his life too much. Not in an unprofessional, hard-partying way, but rather with an ebullience that was not only infectious but also redolent of a more carefree age. How he won – or didn’t, as the case may be – seemed as important to him as what he won. He may have looked like Vitruvian Man, but he was shot through with skeins of Corinthian spirit.
He had burst onto the F3000 scene in 1991 with the new and theatrically named Il Barone Rampante team. He won the first round at Vallelunga, started from pole at Pau, finished second at Jerez and won at Mugello.
“Vallelunga was a circuit that I knew better than my pocket,” he says. “My chief mechanic, who was very experienced, said, ‘C’mon kid, keep your feet on the ground. Vallelunga is one thing, but Brands Hatch will be another.’ He really meant it, because Brands was like a private field for the British drivers who knew all its secrets. It was a place that was known to be very technical and difficult to be fast at. I didn’t know the circuit, and that season we only had one session for qualification, so it looked to be very difficult for me.”
Yet he would start from pole.
Alex being Alex, however, he finished that session in the barriers at Dingle Dell.
“That was going to be my last lap,” he says in the half-chuckle that dots our chat. “My team kept radioing me to bring it in because we were already on pole, with a big gap. But I kept saying that I kept hitting traffic and that I could go even faster. I was nine-tenths ahead of my qualifying time when I crashed. It was going to be an incredible lap.”
He’s convinced that it was this eye-catching performance, not his second place in the race behind an on-form Emanuele Naspetti that signed his onward F1 ticket: “Team managers knew that to be so fast there was impressive data from such a young driver like me.”
Six weeks later he made his GP debut with Jordan at Barcelona.
So Brands Hatch was dear to his heart even before his Paralympic Games successes there last week.
“It was always going to be emotional returning here,” he says. “But when I first saw the hand-cycling course, in June, my excitement went through the roof: it is beautiful, very technical – and I love it. It has few flat parts, which suits me because I’m a good climber, plus I’m very aerodynamic on the downhill sections. I didn’t want to be too optimistic, but I knew that I would be able to produce good speed in relation to my opponents.”
He was right: he won two gold medals, one in the Time Trial, the other in the Road Race.
This competitive spirit has never once flickered. It’s what has seen him through the best of times – those flamboyant back-to-back IndyCar titles that signed his return ticket to F1 – and the worst of times. In 2001, he stepped on motor racing’s equivalent of a landmine: a 200mph side-on impact that cost him his legs. He lost three-quarters of his blood, was twice within minutes of death and received the Last Rites.
Yet six weeks later he left hospital.
Two weeks later still he was driving on the roads.
His recovery and adaptation were treated the same: like a race. He even designed his own prosthetic legs.
In 2003, he returned to Germany’s Lausitzring oval, scene of the accident. He wasn’t there simply to look and to remember, but to drive an Indycar again – at competitive speeds.
By 2004, he was racing again.
By 2005, he was winning again – at a world level.
In 2006, he drove a Formula 1 car again.
But then, in 2007, after only a few weeks’ training, he finished fourth in the New York Marathon’s hand-cycling category: “Yes, but I was about 17 minutes behind the winner. I guess you could say I was the first of the ‘normals’ to finish.”
‘Normal’ is something Zanardi is not. That’s why, when his long-term WTCC relationship with BMW Italy concluded in 2009, he took the momentous decision to aim for a distant and very different target: the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“When it was clear there was nothing on the table sufficiently intriguing for me to continue as a racing driver, I decided to quit to dedicate more time to my hand-cycling training. Yes, London 2012 was a dream at that point, but I don’t think I would have made it this far if I hadn’t thought it possible. It was not an easy choice, motor racing has been my passion, but you can only do one thing at a time if you want to do it well.”
Well, in 2009, he won the Venice Marathon. In 2010, he won the Rome Marathon. And in 2011, he won the New York Marathon – plus a silver medal at the World Championships that ensured he would live his Paralympic Games dream.
“There’s no doubt that my previous career has helped me to achieve this. In hand-cycling you tune the set-up of your bike until the last minute, but then, once a race starts, you must do the best you can in the circumstances and with the equipment you have. The same as in motor racing.
“And in a hand-cycle race you must not get confused between what you wish to do and what you can do. If you do, you are going to go pop way before the finish. The same as burning your tyres or destroying your engine in motor racing.”
His experience of motor sport’s technologies and processes were a boon too.
“My bike was made by Carbonbike, a Swiss company. It’s a very good product, but I have strongly personalised it; there is very little left of the original. It’s totally carbon-fibre – no longer an exotic material in cycling – and its seat is bonded to its frame; we made the seat’s mould as we would in motor racing. It fits me like a Cinderella shoe. So my position is very fixed, very strong, which means I can transfer all my strength to the cranks when I climb or sprint. Normally, double-amputees like me struggle uphill because they cannot transfer their power because they have nothing to hang on to. That’s not the case for me.”
The manner in which he lifted his cycle one-handed above his head in celebration at Brands Hatch not only indicated its lightness but also the strength of an athlete who now has the vee shoulders of Viv Richards and the ‘guns’ of Rambo.
Zanardi also spent half a day in the wind tunnel at Milan University. Although he learned nothing new, he gained confidence from the fact that his ‘positive feelings’ about his modifications were now confirmed by hard data.
All that remained was familiar too: the tension before the start, the jostle for position, the rhythm of the races and their strategies.
And thus a man who was a reluctant cyclist during his car career now has two gold and one silver medal around his neck and a legion of new fans hanging on his every word.
“The medals are fantastic added value to what I have done in the past two years, tangible signs of a period of my life that will go down in my book as one of the best. It’s great. But it’s sad too, because holding these medals means that everything is behind me.”
Now 45, he will not press on to the Rio 2016 Games. He is considering a return to the cockpit instead. Whatever he chooses to do, he will tackle it in the same focused yet joyful manner.
“You have to be that way: to always aspire to improve. There is always something at the bottom of the barrel and it’s impossible to resist the temptation to search for it. I have been very lucky in my careers because I have always had possibilities to turn my passions into a profession. I am a very lucky person.”
And in a Paralympic Games packed with life-affirming stories, motor sport – often a ‘sporting’ symbol of excess, greed and pettiness – was very lucky to be represented so successfully and, more importantly, so honourably and humbly by a man such as Alex Zanardi.