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NOVEMBER 27, 2006

Zanardi returns to F1

Alex Zanardi returned to F1 at the weekend at the Formula BMW World Final at Valencia when he took the wheel of a BMW Sauber C24B and completed 12 laps of the track. It was his first run in F1 since 1999.

The 40-year-old Italian racer lost both his legs in an horrific accident five years ago when he exited the pitlane at the Lausitzring in his Champ Car and was hit side-on at around 200mph by Alex Tagliani. Zanardi's life was saved by doctors who rushed him to hospital in Berlin by helicopter. He was fitted with two artificial legs and in 2003 returned to the Lausitzring and drove a Champ Car again in a demonstration run. Having done that Alex concluded that he wanted to race fulltime once again and had his first run in a touring car later that year, using a hand throttle and a modified brake pedal. In 2004 he was signed by Roberto Ravaglia's BMW Team Italy-Spain in the FIA European Touring Car Championship and in 2005 he won his first victory - a round of the World Touring Car Championship - since the accident. This year he won the WTCC race in Istanbul, finished second in Brno and third in Curitiba, netting him 11th in the championship. The BMW F1 test was as a recognition of his achievements in the WTCC.

The BMW Sauber was specially adapted with a brake pedal on the right because Zanardi can generate more force with his right limb. His artificial leg was then fixed to the pedal with Velcro. The accelerator and gearchange were both controlled by paddles on the back of the steering wheel, Zanardi using one of Jacques Villeneuve's old steering wheels as the French-Canadian liked to shift gears just with a paddle on the right side of the steering wheel, rather than having the upshift paddle on one side and a downshift on the other.

The biggest problem was fitting Zanardi's upper body into the narrow cockpit as he had developed considerable muscles in his arms as he has to use them much more than other people. This meant that he could not get as much movement as he would have liked. Despite this Alex completed a few laps on Thursday, and within five on Saturday lapped in 1m19.9s. That compared with 2005 Formula BMW World Finals winner Marko Holzer's 1m19.6s and a 1m18.7s recorded by test driver Sebastien Vettel later that day. On Sunday Zanardi got down to 1m19.7s before a throttle problem curtailed the run.

"I am very proud that I am doing this," Zanardi said. "The car was fantastic. Everything is so precise; I was really amazed because usually you need more time to work on all the details of the car. I expected the car to be much rougher."

As an inspiration, Zanardi is a great example and, not surprisingly, has been compared to the famous British fighter pilots Douglas Bader and Colin Hodgkinson who flew fighter aircraft during World War II, despite both having lost their legs in pre-war crashes.

"I have seen too many small children in the clinics, coping far better than I did with my problems, to believe I am anything special," Zanardi said. "A man loses his legs, people expect that he will just go home and change the channels on the TV with the remote control. I have shown that this guy can come back after that accident and have the same life. That is the great thing.

"It was fantastic, the mixture of emotions for me as I left the pit lane," he said. "To me this is a fantastic story, not just for disabled people but for those not stubborn enough to keep moving to overcome adversity. This chance to drive an F1 car says that technology can help humans, but it will always be passive. It can't solve all problems, you have to move your butt yourself."