If there’s a man in motorsport, or even sport in general, that just takes the biggest hits imaginable and fights to keep coming back, it’s him Alex Zanardi. Most injuries in sport can be repaired, but Zanardi suffered injuries so bad that they changed his life. Rather than curl up and wonder why the world hates him, the Italian once told GRR Losing his legs in an IndyCar crash was the best thing that ever happened to him.
In 2001 Zanardi was a fugitive from Formula 1. A return to the world championship after years at the helm of CART had not been a happy one. Zanardi struggled with Williams in his 1999 season and left the team after qualifying 16thth in his last race. Williams indeed paid leaving Zanardi around $4 million.
He would sit out the 2000 season before returning to CART in 2001. He had little success over the course of the season but did score a few podiums and appeared to be regaining some form heading into a race on Germany’s massive Lausitzring oval.
The race was initially controversial as it took place just four days after 9/11 and most teams didn’t really want to race. But races they did. And while Zanardi started from the back he made good progress. Late in the race he left the pits when he lost control of his car, rushed across the track and was hit with a T-bone by Alex Tagliani. Both of Zanardi’s legs were removed (not later amputated) in the incident and he lost about three quarters of his blood volume.
That didn’t stop Zanardi. He designed custom legs after being dissatisfied with standard prosthetics before returning to the cockpit, now with hand controls. He would race in tin hoods for the rest of his career, winning five WTCC races before moving into GT racing where he would compete with BMW at Blancpain in 2014 and eventually finish the 24 Hours of Daytona. In 2003 he returned to the Lausitzring and completed the last 13 laps in a modified IndyCar, which he failed to do in 2001.
This is already an exceptionally long entry, but it deserves more. Zanardi didn’t just come back to compete in motorsport. He went on to become one of the greatest handbikers in the history of the sport. He is a twelve-time world champion and four-time Paralympic champion.
Unfortunately, his story includes another accident involving a truck in training for more handcycling. His recovery from that violent incident continues, but we still hope that one day we will see him again in Goodwood. Keep fighting Alex.
Vatanen image by Adamson, Zanardi image courtesy of BMW and other images courtesy of Motorsport Images