It is not enough, it seems, that they should be preternaturally quick, or win multiple championships in their chosen disciplines. For drivers to really get under our skin, into our hearts and, dare I say it, into the Motor Sport Hall of Fame, they must show us something of themselves too. An inner strength, a will not just to win but also to prevail even against apparently insurmountable odds. And I don’t suppose there has or will ever be a nominee who has shown us more of that courage, that indomitable human spirit than Alessandro Zanardi.
And while it is fair at least to observe that Alex might not be have been put forward as a potential inductee but for that terrible accident at the Lausitzring in 2001 and the indefatigable positivity he showed thereafter, and while others might observe that the greatest achievements of his sporting career came without a steering wheel in his hands, now that we have the true measure of the man he is no less deserving for that.
F1 debut for Jordan began a disappointing run in grand prix racing
His career started like that of many talented drivers: learning his trade in karts before strong but not stellar performances in F3 and F3000 led to his break in F1 where 44 starts with four different teams yielded just a single World Championship point. But in truth he only got three races for Jordan – itself in its debut season – in 1991 and three more for the always struggling Minardi team in 1992, subbing for an injured Christian Fittipaldi. He then joined Lotus in 1993, scored that single point in Brazil, had a huge accident in qualifying at Spa and missed the rest of the season. He returned in 1994 but Team Lotus was in its death throes and the season passed pointless for all.
But in American CART racing where he next sought his fortune, he was a different man: Rookie of the Year in 1996, back to back champion in 1997 and ’98. Backed by such solid form a return top F1 team was on the cards, but Williams was out of form in 1999 and Zanardi rarely a match for team-mate Ralf Schumacher and his three year contract was terminated at the season’s end. He returned to America in 2000, signed for Mo Nunn to drive in 2001 and by the Lausitzring round seemed finally to be getting on top of a difficult season: at the time of his accident he was leading the race.
1997 brought the first of two back-to-back CART titles for Zanardi
I don’t suppose another driver ever recovered from such fearful injuries not only to drive but win again, as Alex would driving for BMW in the World Touring Car Championship. But that’s not why he’s here: it’s not even that he went on to win Paralympic golds in both London (at Brands Hatch in fact) and Rio riding a hand bike. He’s here because despite enduring the unimaginable he never complained, never felt sorry for himself and never stopped smiling. He said he felt lucky: he had his wife, his son and he was alive. He would find a way to make life work, and he did.
And he was still doing just that when fate dealt him another terrible blow in June this year when his bike hit a truck. As I write this Alex is out of intensive care but faces another long and uncertain recovery. But we have seen and heard enough about this man to know that if anyone can find a way forward, Alex can. In ways far more important than results will ever show, Alex Zanardi has proven himself to be not just a fine racing driver, but rather more importantly a simply extraordinary human being.