- October 23, 1966
- Italian Gt Championship
The story of the Italian racer Alessandro 'Alex' Zanardi is one of the most incredible life stories in the history of motorsport. To sum up: he was born in 1966, debuted in Formula 1 in 1991, raced and triumphed in the CART World Series in 1997 and 1998 and lost both legs in a horrific crash in 2001. However, he raced again in 2003, won gold medals at 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games in handcycling and is still very active in both car racing and handcycle racing.
Behind this short summary is an incredible story that can inspire not only sportsmen around the world but to also motivate everyone with any physical handicap to not give up and to prove that they are capable of getting top results in any sport.
Formula One debut at 1991 Spanish Grand Prix
Like almost every famous racer, Alex Zanardi also started his racing career with karts, at an early age of 13. In 1988, he joined the Italian Formula 3 series. His first success came in 1990 when he moved up to the 2nd position in the championship standings. In 1991, he moved up to the Formula 3000 series. Winning in his F3000 debut, he scored one more win later and finished 2nd.
Zanardi had his first taste of Formula One during a test session at Paul Ricard where he drove a Footwork. He debuted in F1 at the 1991 Spanish Grand Prix for Team 7Up Jordan and raced two more times in Japan and Australia. In 1992, he raced for Minardi at German Grand Prix (didn't qualify for the races in UK and Hungary), replacing the injured Christian Fittipaldi.
Two championship titles in CART World Series
In 1993, he signed a contract with Team Lotus and drove 11 races (out of 16). His season ended prematurely after he sustained a concussion as a result of a crash during a practice session in Belgium. Because of the injury, he missed the first four races in 1994 and later competed in 10 races.In 1993, Zanardi accumulated one single point for the 6th place at the Brazilian Grand Prix.
The second chapter of Zanardi's career began in October 1995 when he signed a contract with Chip Ganassi Racing to compete in the PPG CART World Series from the season of 1996. He rapidly became one of the most popular drivers; in his rookie season he won three times and finished third in the standings behind Jimmy Vasser and Michael Andretti. In 1997 and 1998, Zanardi was a champion, still driving for Chip Ganassi, with five wins in 1997 and seven wins in 1998.
Unsuccessful return to Formula One
Zanardi's CART success led to his return to F1. Sir Frank Williams visited him in the USA and they signed a three-year contract. But the 1999 season was not so successful and after 16 races (he finished only 6) with no points in his account, Zanardi and Williams decided to terminate the contract. In 2000, Zanardi was a contract-free but he was interested in returning to the CART series. He was a test driver for Mo Nunn Racing and got the seat in the 2001 season.
On September 15th, Zanardi raced in the 2001 American Memorial race at EuroSpeedway in Lausitz, Germany. Zanardi was leading the race 13 laps before the end. After he exited the pits, he lost control and spun. Alex Tagliani couldn't avoid him and a horrific crash occurred. Zanardi's car was destroyed, he lost both legs but a rapid medical intervention saved his life.
Video: Alex Zanardi's horrific crash at Lausitzring
Thirteen ceremonial laps at Lausitzring
During the rehabilitation program, Zanardi designed and built his own prosthetic legs, which allowed him to compare the weight and stiffness of various feet in order to find the ones most suitable for racing.
In 2002, CART honored him by giving him the privilege of waving the checkered flag at the race in Toronto. In 2003, he ceremoniously drove thirteen laps with CART car at the Lausitzring, which is symbolic because he crashed 13 laps before the end. He was driving with the help of a hand-operated brake and accelerator controls.
Back to racing and winning
After a while, Zanardi decided to return to racing. His first attempt was at Monza, where he raced in Roberto Ravaglia's BMW 320i in the European Touring Car Championship. He then realized that he could compete at a high-intensity level, and in 2004, Zanardi drove Roberto Ravaglia's BMW Team Italy-Spain. He finished 14th.
On 24 August 2005, Zanardi won his first WTCC race and finished the season in 10th place in the overall standings. The same year, he became the Italian Super Touring Car champion. He competed for four more seasons, with three more WTCC wins (Istanbul in 2006 and Brno in 2008 and 2009). At the end of the 2009 season, he announced his retirement from the WTCC.
Return to GT racing in 2014
In November 2006, the relentless driver had one more opportunity to get behind the wheel of an F1 car at a testing session for BMW Sauber in Valencia. The car had been specially adapted to have hand controls fitted on the steering wheel. In 2012, he tested a BMW DTM car, completing 32 laps at Nurburgring.
After four years of different sporting activities, Zanardi returned to the car in 2014. Once again, he tied up with Roberto Ravaglia, who now leads ROAL Motorsport. Zanardi got the specially prepared BMW Z4 GT3 and competed in 11 races of the Blancpain Sprint Series. In 2015, he decided to take his passion one step further, with his first 24 hours endurance race - 24 hours of Spa, together with DTM drivers Timo Glock and Bruno Spengler as team-mates.
Three paralympic medals at Brands Hatch
Apart from car racing, Alex Zanardi has also been very successful in handcycling. He started to train in 2007 and his first big achievement was to attain the 4th place at the New York City Marathon. His long-term target was the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
In the meantime, Zanardi won many marathon races and succeeded in qualifying for the Paralympic Games. The Games were a complete success because Zanardi won two gold medals and one silver. Interestingly, the handcycling races were held at the Brands Hatch Circuit, on which Zanardi had previously driven as a car racer.
True hero and inspiration to many
After the Paralympic Games, he continued to compete and achieve medals in Para-cycling Road World Championship and in 2014 he finished Ironman World Championship, long distance triathlon competition at Hawaii. At 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Alex won two more medals (gold and silver)!
The multi-talented Alex has also written two books about his amazing experiences, many documentaries have been made about his incredible life, simply because he is keen to share his joy of life and optimism with other people. So, it is not an exaggeration, but an understatement to say that he is a true hero of modern motorsports and an inspiration to many.
Video : Zanardi's emotional story