MAURICE HAMILTON

Inspirational Zanardi


There is a satisfying symmetry to Alex Zanardi going for gold in the Paralympics next week by starting off his challenge at Brands Hatch. A race track in Germany came close to killing the Italian and now, 11 years on, the British circuit will mark the next stage in the remarkable recovery and reinvention of a truly outstanding sportsman.

By all medical accounts, Zanardi should never have survived the 200-mph side-on impact that tore off his legs when Alex Tagliani smashed into the stalled Reynard during the CART race on the Lausitzring. After losing three-quarters of his blood and undergoing resuscitation several times, Zanardi was officially a dead man according to a NASA study charting the critical point beyond which a human body cannot survive.

But survive he did, using artificial legs to race karts in 2003 and start his own successful karting company. Not satisfied with that, Alex competed with a specially adapted BMW in the World Touring Car Championship, winning four races.

Seeking new challenges, Zanardi turned to hand bikes and finished fourth in that section of the 2007 New York Marathon. He had been in training for just four weeks - but the long-term vision had been born.

Two years later, he gave up motor racing and focussed on making Italy's hand bike team for the 2012 London Paralympics, laying down his credentials last year by winning the New York Marathon.

Typical of a racer, Zanardi has tapped into his four-wheel experience and contacts to bring a combative technological attack to the manufacture of his own three-wheel bike. Apart from using on-board monitors to download and analyse data, Zanardi has moulded a carbon-fibre seat to fit perfectly around his backside and thighs.

Hand bike racing categories are determined by the extent of the rider's disability. Those unable to move their backs lie in a reclined position and are classified between 'H1' and 'H3'. Zanardi is 'H4' thanks to being able to use his back to lean forward and put his body weight behind pedalling with his powerful arms and shoulders. Turning a crank directly in front of him, Zanardi drives the front wheel while steering.

The hand bike is capable of close to 40 mph during the 15.5km time trial. Having lapped Brands Hatch, territory Zanardi is all-too familiar with (albeit at five times the speed), he and fellow competitors then take to the roads to complete the 64 km race.

Alex is known to race fans on both sides of the Atlantic, having won the Indycar title with Ganassi Racing in 1997 and 1998. Two ventures into Formula 1 have been less successful. His first full season with the impecunious Lotus team in 1993 was never going to be easy. But the struggle with Williams in 1999 came as a surprise.

Watching from the sidelines, I was soon aware that this was not the free spirit I had met at Milwaukee the previous year. At the time of the interview (end of May), there was talk of coming back to F1. It seemed an entirely logical move. Zanardi was quick and confident, the experience preparing him for a return to a tough division of motor sport which he knew all about.

Frank Williams thought much the same when he flew to Detroit specifically to meet Zanardi. The two men got on famously, Frank enjoying Alex's huge sense of fun. Here was a multi-lingual driver who was not only fast but also a marketing man's dream. Two days later, they shook hands on a deal. That was as good as it would get.

Zanardi simply could not come to terms with the latest F1 grooved tyres and the low grip on what was, admittedly, an average car. He made a bad start at his first race in Melbourne, seemed to be forever stuck behind a Minardi until he crashed – and the season went downhill from there. Added to which, Williams was hardly a comforting environment for a driver who was struggling. The three-year contract was terminated by mutual agreement.

After a year without a permanent drive, Zanardi signed for Mo Nunn's CART team in 2001. Ironically, his best race in a poor (by his previous standards) season was at the Lausitzring up until the fateful moment when, having led, he accelerated abruptly while leaving the pits and spun into the path of oncoming cars.

Fate has brought the 45-year-old into a position where he is aiming for a Paralympic gold medal. Even if he does not win next week, Alessandro Zanardi has already achieved so much more as a source of incredible inspiration for everyone, with or without a disability.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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