Dario Franchitti: ‘Zanardi never knows when he’s beaten’

The Scot knew him as an Indycar rival, then as a friend

“I first became aware of Alex Zanardi when he was on the cover of a karting magazine. He obviously had a good trajectory – but after Formula 1 he just disappeared. He popped up in a GT Lotus briefly and then showed up in America. In those days I was beginning to watch Indycars on television and he was doing a hell of a job. In 1997 I came over and obviously by then he was making headlines.

“He was one of those guys who just didn’t know when he was beaten. At Long Beach in 1998 he was a lap down, Bryan Herta and I were fighting for the win and I didn’t think he was someone to worry about. The next thing I knew he was past me, pushed Bryan out of the way and won the race. Years later he said, ‘I have a question.’ I thought, here we go, what’s this? ‘In Long Beach had you lost your mirrors?’ I replied, ‘It’s funny you should say that, yes I had. How did you know?’ ‘Ah, it was so easy to pass you!’ Bloody Zanardi!

“Back in 1997 I was intimidated to talk to him. But one time he just came up to me and started a conversation. What a nice guy. Then in Detroit we qualified side-by-side and in the race I fired him off into the tyres – completely my fault. Now I was worried! But I went straight up to him to apologise, fearing the worst, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, we all make mistakes.’ He was so cool about it.

“His last street race (or so we thought) was Surfers Paradise in ’98, before he went back to F1, and I remember I so wanted to beat him, which is a mark of what I thought of him. I qualified on pole, but they beat us out of the pits at the first stops. We were so closely matched. It would have meant so much to beat him that day.

“His season that followed in F1 was painful. As a driver you have to adapt, but when I drove that horrible Jaguar a few years later I got some indication of what he went through. The Firestone Indycar tyres, they talked to you and allowed you to hold it on the edge. When I drove those grooved Michelins it was like trying to ride a camel on ice-skates. They inspired no confidence. That year for Alex was horrible to watch; it just wasn’t him.

“He wasn’t always popular with his peers… Anyone at the top of the their game has got to be selfish and you’re gonna bump heads. He was the top dog and there was a bunch of us trying to knock him off. But he had such strength of character and belief. It served him well later on.
I found him great to race wheel-to-wheel with. Sure, he was aggressive and I saw him pull some questionable moves on others, but I never had a problem with him.

“When he had his accident my then-partner Ashley went with his wife Daniela to the hospital. I’d borrowed Colin McRae’s plane for the weekend, and flew to Berlin with [Alex’s team-mate] Tony Kanaan. At this stage we knew he’d lost his legs. But I thought on the way, ‘If he can just get through this first bit, he’ll be able to write his own story.’ That strength of character means he doesn’t understand ‘no’. I always knew he had that drive. He was different, and I mean that in the best way. He looked at life differently from everyone else.

“I don’t mind admitting there was a tear in the eye when he won the Paralympics medals. As for his rivals this time, I wish them luck… Oh, and with the prosthetic legs I’m certain he’s taller than he used to be, too!”