“I’ve started to think the accident was the greatest opportunity of my life”

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Alex Zanardi should have died when he lost his legs in an Indycar crash. Instead, it was the beginning of a new life for a wonderfully engaging man. His high-energy story is one of speed, gruesome tragedy – and uplifting joy

Writer Damien Smith

The words spark that hair-raising warm tingle when you know you’re in a moment you will never forget. Alessandro Zanardi – more commonly known as Alex – is speaking, and you find yourself mesmerised, as if under a charm. It takes genuine effort not to gawp open-mouthed as you take in what he is saying, given his very particular circumstances.

“In principle I think I am very lucky because I had the possibility to do so many things in my life and fill it with so many experiences, which makes my existence kind of unique,” he says in his wonderfully precise and richly accented English. With that voice, he could make a tax return sound riveting. 

“I’ve got to the point where I’ve started to think the accident was the greatest opportunity of my life because, for sure, I would not be involved in all the things I’m doing these days.”

Looking into his eyes, I can tell he means it. There’s no bitterness, these words aren’t for show, yet this man has no legs – because of motor racing. Here we are in the drivers’ club garden at the Goodwood Festival of Speed and he’s talking about a life-ravaging trauma as an “opportunity”.

Such people trigger a natural response in most of us: you ask yourself, ‘How would I respond if it happened to me?’ The only answer is to hope you never have to find out. Zanardi knew the risks and accepted them long ago. But even in a sporting breed celebrated for its bottomless reserves of stoic determination, Alex’s desire to choose life – and one many of us would genuinely aspire to – is beyond anything we’ve known. 

***

Before September 15 2001, Zanardi was already special. Here was a kid from humble roots in Bologna, who scrapped his way through karting, rolled with the punches through the junior single-seater categories, then found himself thrust into Formula 1 against his expectations – the dream becoming reality. So far, as these pages often tell, it’s not a tale so out of the ordinary, especially as F1 spat the kid out in less than four short years.

But what happened next really kick-started the Zanardi legend: those three years with Chip Ganassi in Indycars, third to team-mate Jimmy Vasser and Michael Andretti in his rookie season and those glorious twin titles in 1997 and ’98. And he did it all with such verve and character that even blinkered F1 couldn’t resist calling him back to the fold. A rare second chance was the least he deserved, and at Williams of all places, that supposedly ‘proper’ race team. They seemed made for each other – and how we all wanted him to fly. Instead, the flair and swagger were swamped by the era’s grooved tyres and a team that rapidly lost faith in him, even by F1’s harsh standards. He sank.

Now here he was, two years later, in the midst of an Indycar comeback. Familiar Reynard chassis, pushed by familiar Honda shove – except the old spark was gone. How badly had Williams hurt him? Ganassi ally Morris Nunn was in the mix, but he was on the pitwall as team owner, not engineer, and Zanardi was doubting the Englishman’s commitment. Fourth in Toronto had been the only pinprick in a brooding sky of bleak results.

But here in eastern Germany, on the newly built Lausitzring oval, that old magic from the Ganassi days was back. He’d sensed it, selfishly wanting the race to run while his American comrades reeled just four days after the atrocities of what would become known globally as ‘9/11’. Zanardi left the pitroad after his final splash-and-dash stop, 13 laps to run, with the tantalising taste of victory on the tip of his tongue. Then he spun. Marooned broadside across Turn One, he left the approaching Alex Tagliani nowhere to go and, at 200mph, no time to respond. 

One Reynard split the other in two, Tagliani’s nosecone spearing behind the front wheels and ahead of the sidepods. The worst-case scenario. In his autobiography, Zanardi describes it quite simply: “Part of the car stayed with me, and the other part left, with parts of me in it.”

Indycar’s illustrious medics, Drs Terry Trammell and Steve Olvey, saved his life. By-passing the circuit’s medical centre and the closest hospital in Dresden, it was decided the 55-minute helicopter flight to better-equipped Berlin was Zanardi’s only hope. His heart stopped three times en route and he was down to a single litre of blood… but somehow he pulled through. Multiple operations were needed to remove debris from what was left of his left leg, while the barely attached right knee was removed to ensure he lived. Critically, the surgeons didn’t amputate from the hip: they left a stump, allowing for prostheses. Alex would walk again.

Within six weeks, he would leave hospital; less than two years after the crash, he would complete those missing 13 laps in an Indycar on a highly charged return to the Lausitzring; he would also return to racing, joining BMW in the World Touring Car Championship, no less – and he’d win races too. Amazing.

But the best was yet to come. He found a new sport almost by mistake. Invited to attend the New York marathon in 2007, he decided to enter the hand-cycling category, bought a bike and with only a few weeks of training finished fourth. At the London Games of 2012 he became a Paralympic champion – twice – winning gold in both the individual road race (H4 class) and individual time trial (H4), adding a silver in the mixed team relay (H1-4). The venue? Brands Hatch, of course, where 21 years earlier he’d qualified on pole in Formula 3000 only to crash trying to improve his time. These were his first victories at the Kent speedbowl.

***

“Very often I’m asked ‘where did you find the strength to react that way?’” he says, under the shade of a Goodwood tree. “I don’t think you can talk about the reaction. I just opened my eyes and was very happy to be alive. I didn’t have to produce any reaction, I just wanted to get back to the same quality of life I had before – or at least the best one I could reach. 

“Once I was able to meet people, I had a lot of journalists coming to my hospital in Berlin, and surely it wasn’t the first question and not even the second, because they were nice, but you knew what they had in mind was ‘Alex, will you ever step into a race car again?’ The problem [for me] was not psychological, but the question from their point of view was [exactly that]. For me at the time, I knew absolutely 100 per cent that if I would find the way to solve all the technical issues related to me driving with no legs, up here” – he puts his finger to his head – “I was the same driver I used to be. 

“But that was not my priority. What it would take to live a self-sufficient life again was what mattered, because while I was answering that question I couldn’t even take a leak on my own. One year after, once everything else was fixed, I started to say ‘OK, what’s next?’”

He humbly suggests that being ‘Alex Zanardi’ has always opened doors when he has set himself a challenge. Certainly BMW jumped at the coup of running him in the European and World Touring Car Championships. Also his racing driver skills and “mental set-up”, as he describes it, were directly transferable to hand cycling. Before he turned a crank he had an edge over his fellow athletes.

He’ll be calling on all that experience again this September, as he heads to Rio to defend his Paralympic titles. The man will be 50 in October.

“It won’t be easy because I can tell you London was not easy either,” he says. “I knew I could get there, but I only managed to close the circle right before the games. In 2011 I finished second in the time trial world championship, learning a lot of things and proving that I could somehow be a contender. But nobody was counting me as the favourite – so I surprised them all.”

In true racing driver fashion, he sought another edge from the technical spec of his cycle. “It’s a relatively new sport and there was a lot to innovate,” he says. “I was not the most experienced, and still I am not, but I managed to discover things that other athletes still ignore to a certain degree. In London you could see people with 250mm cranks and others with 200. You could see people sitting almost 10mm from the ground and others sitting high enough that a rabbit could run underneath. I think I had the best vehicle by the time we were due to go racing, and that was part of my success.”

Back in 2012, he dismissed any notion of defending his titles in Rio because of his age – but here we are, four years later. And just as in London, there are good omens. Last time it was Brands Hatch – this time the Olympic Village is close to the old oval he loved to race on in Indycars. As at Brands, he took a pole position, but never won there…

“Last year I managed to win the world championship, both in the time trial and in the road race,” he says, “This time the team relay is where my chance to win a gold medal is the highest because we are very strong as a team.” Who is his biggest rival? “Above all, Jetze Plat, a Dutch kid – and I say kid because he is half my age! You look at me and say ‘Alex, you have big arms’ [he really does…] Then you see him next to me and you say: ‘Oh Alex…’”

***

There’s a leading question from all this. What is his greatest sporting achievement? The assumption would be London 2012. But as usual, he surprises with something more interesting and thoughtful.

He begins with a long pause. “OK, if you say ‘Alex, do you think out of all the achievements you have cashed after your accident, there is something greater than the ones you earned previously in your life?’ I’d say no, because it was much tougher when I was 15 and I had to stand in front of adults who would say, ‘You’re not good enough.’ I come from a little village near Bologna, with a father and a mother who were fantastic parents. They gave me the best education they could and were always next to me, supporting me, which was far more important than supplying me financially with what it would take to get into a Formula 3 team. But still it was very hard. 

“When you are 17 it is rare to be wise, to have two wires touching to make an electrical shock. One day, I don’t know why but I thanked my old dad for all he was doing. I said ‘Hey, since we started this go-kart adventure you’ve never gone with your friends for a holiday fishing at the river, you’re always with me, and I want to thank you for it.’ He said, ‘Do you know what, son? The other night I came home from work very late and I parked in front of the bar in the village. All your friends were nicely dressed ready to go to the disco. I came by the garage and noticed the light was on. I found you asleep in your go-kart. I could imagine this kid working on his go-kart all day long, preparing for the race, up to the point he fell asleep. All the time you show me this passion for what you are doing, I’ll do my best to support you, because it’s worth it.’”

Alex continues: “When you are so passionate about what you do, you just take every day, not because you want something out of it, but because you enjoy it. I felt the same thing getting ready for the London Games. When I crossed that line to win the second gold medal, yes, it was a fantastic moment, but it was also a little sad because I knew it was all behind me. The fun part was getting ready for it, not cashing the achievement on that magical day.”

***

The karting began when he was 13, just a year after his older sister Cristina had been killed in a car accident. Naturally his parents became over-protective of their wild and energetic son, but his father – a racing fan – reasoned from that brutal personal experience that the controlled environment of a kart circuit would be safer than the public road.

Zanardi was a contemporary of Michael Schumacher and crossed swords with the German during largely successful and enjoyable years he remembers fondly. After Formula 3, they would make their F1 debuts in the same year, 1991 – and for the same team. Michael famously subbed for the jailed Bertrand Gachot at Jordan for the Belgian GP, his performance catapulting him into a Benetton seat and future glory. Three races later it was Zanardi’s turn, after he’d completed his Formula 3000 season with the grandly title Il Barone Rampante (two wins, a close and unlucky second in the title race to Christian Fittipaldi). In the final three Grands Prix of ’91, Alex scored a pair of ninth place finishes, sandwiching a DNF. It was the retirement at Suzuka in the bright green 7UP Jordan 191 that Alex reflects upon today.

“I managed to drive one of the best-looking cars of all time,” he says. “That was very special. I had a very good relationship with [designer] Gary Anderson and Trevor Foster, who was my race engineer. I remember the second race I did in Japan because the car was working very well. I didn’t qualify too well because I got blocked three times by the same driver – I tell you the sin but not the sinner. I started 13th, but before the Sunday morning warm-up I fought quite hard with Trevor because the car was working well already, and I said I thought we could make it better. So we changed the set-up and man, in the warm-up for most of the time I was the fastest car out there with a full load of fuel. I remember passing Alain Prost’s Ferrari… In the race I was coming up like a rocket, and then I had a gearbox problem when I was already up to sixth place. I could probably have finished that race on the podium and who knows, my racing career could have been completely different. But I have nothing to complain about.”

A brief and unhappy chapter at Minardi in 1992 was followed by a longer, two-year unhappy chapter at Team Lotus as it lurched towards extinction. Had Zanardi returned to Italy and a quiet life in Bologna at this stage, no one would have blamed him and he’d have taken his place as a footnote in motor racing history. As it was, he followed up on leads fed to him by Reynard’s Rick Gorne – and looked west.

Yes, others from Europe had made the Indycar switch before, most notably Nigel Mansell. But it was Zanardi that made it a career choice for young guys looking for an alternative to the impenetrable F1 fortress. He also happened to join the American single-seater scene when it was as good as it had ever been – and, as it turned out, as good as it was ever going to get.

“Driving for Ganassi in 1996 was probably one of the best sporting experiences of my life,” he says – although surely the ‘probably’ is unnecessary. “Not because I was very successful – this of course helps – but at the end of the day, those cars were just fantastic, so enjoyable to drive. It was the combination of power, grip, capability to accelerate and decelerate, cornering speeds… There was a lot available, but you really had to work hard to get it, in order to keep everything in a nice balance. Once you had it, it was fantastic.

“The budget required for a team to operate for one season was about 1/20th of what was needed for F1. Sponsors were fighting to put their logos on the most competitive cars, so it was an era where, as the good Lord would say, there was fish and wine for all. There was no need to fight for anything. That probably allowed more room for human relationships whereas in F1 it’s a consistent fight. When you are running an organisation that needs to be supported with budgets in the region of €500-600m per year, you cannot leave much room for sentimentalism.”

Without pressing him, we’ve segued directly from the most successful period of his motor racing life (see Data Trace, page 80) to the nadir: Williams in 1999.

He’d raced for Eddie Jordan and tested for Flavio Briatore’s Benetton team – now they and others, including Alain Prost and even Jean Todt at Ferrari, wanted to talk to him. Why? Laguna Seca in ’96 and that final-lap pass on Bryan Herta at the Corkscrew (he’d have lost that win today for violating track limits…); Cleveland ’97, when a pit mix-up pushed him down the field and inspired one of the great fightbacks that included 18 fastest laps and a pass for Gil de Ferran’s lead with two laps to go; and Long Beach ’98, featuring yet another signature charge, this time after struggles in qualifying and a bent wishbone from an early race pile-up that a mechanic straightened by hand. He was fifth with five laps to go… and won (see Dario Franchitti’s memories, page 78).

Zanardi was so hot back then. Not everyone loved him – Herta held a grudge, de Ferran, Al Unser Jr and others down the field felt he was too wild and reckless – but the majority of fans adored him, as did the media. He had character, a Latin racer’s heart, bundles of natural charisma… Frank Williams couldn’t resist.

It should have worked. But Williams, in its second season post-Renault and a year before its promising marriage with BMW, was hardly the best environment. Zanardi speaks fondly of F1 in earlier eras – “For sure, I would have loved to race in the 1970s, but I don’t think I would have survived because with the character I have I would have killed myself!” – but Grand Prix cars had changed, even since the end of his Lotus days in ’94, and they were certainly less powerful than the 1000bhp-plus Indycars he’d just walked away from. But it was the grooved Bridgestone tyres that he really struggled to get his head around. He needed to adapt his driving style, but instead chased set-ups to solve his frustrations – and he sensed the team lost faith as early as the fourth race at Imola.

But Zanardi isn’t one for excuses. He takes the failure of ’99 right on the chin.

“If the driver is not good enough he is the one who is taking everybody’s work around [the circuit] on a Sunday afternoon, so you can give him one chance, you can give him another – but then you have to say arrivederci,” he says. “As a driver you have to understand this. I was not surprised that at the end of the year I was called by Frank and he said ‘We have to talk’. For sure his responsibility is to ensure the stability of the organisation he is running, and I failed to deliver what they were expecting. 

“I can’t say Frank Williams was an arsehole, I have to say the exact opposite because he was very supportive of me. One thing he said which touched me sincerely was his big disappointment that he didn’t figure why he couldn’t get out of me the same things Chip Ganassi managed to find. That was what he was in the market to buy! Of course, I have my theory, but it’s part of my past. At the end of the day you can only enjoy a smooth road if you’ve gone through a bumpy one.”

***

Last year Zanardi revelled in racing for BMW in the Spa 24 Hours, joining Bruno Spengler and Timo Glock in a GT3 Z4. He wants to return, but chose to put motor racing on hold this season to focus on one thing: his Paralympics title defence.

“At the end of last year we sat with [BMW motor sport chief] Jens Marquardt and Jorge Kottmeier, who is in charge of marketing and communications, and they asked me what I wanted to do this year. I said ‘Guys, I really have to focus on the Paralympics. I cannot believe I’m going to be having many other opportunities in my life because they only come every four years.’ They said ‘OK, we’ll leave you alone. At the end of the day, you are young… [big smile] We can pick up the conversation afterwards,’ and I hope we will.

“As far as motor sport is concerned, I am too optimistic to believe my career is finished. BMW is making beautiful racing machines and I have a lot of friends in Munich.”

He offers one final nugget, and another glimpse into that incredible psyche that just keeps driving him on.

“I’ve had so many sporting adventures. These days I’m almost 50 and it is normal that you lose some muscular power – but you gain wise-ness! When I was 17 I was very strong, but very stupid! Nevertheless I made it, you know, so somehow that is really the achievement. 

“In this new life of mine, if you can call it that, the moment I felt most proud was when we had a day with the kids at home – not just my son, but his friends and his nephew. My nephew told his dad before going to sleep: ‘Dad, when I get old I want to do two things. One is to drive a Formula 1 car and two is to lose my legs like Uncle Alex!’ When my brother-in-law told me this, it sincerely touched me.”

Zanardi beams, as he has done throughout our conversation. He radiates a joy, a zest for life that saturates anyone lucky enough to meet him. This man has a power way beyond the strength in those ‘guns’ that should crank him to another medal in Rio. He is the most impressive man I’ve ever met.

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