To say Alessandro Zanardi likes to go fast is a huge understatement. And Zanardi will be out to prove just how fast he can go when the road cycling events at the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games start on Sept. 5 at Brands Hatch.
Eleven years after losing his legs, Zanardi has his eyes, and heart, set on another championship. He is focused on being a gold medalist at the Paralympic Games. And he has a very distinct advantage. Alessandro Zanardi knows the course as well, if not better than, anyone. He has raced around Brands Hatch many times… at 200 miles per hour during his Formula 1 days.
“The last time I was here, I was going about five times faster,” says the 45-year-old Italian team member. “But I sill love this circuit.”
Racing has been a way of life for the Italian athlete and the need for speed started in his early teens, when started karting. In 1988, he made his professional racing debut in Formula 3 and was champion two years later. Zanardi moved to Formula 3000 and finished second in the championship in his first year. His achievements on the race track didn’t go unnoticed and was soon called upon by the Minardi Formula 1 team as a replacement driver for the injured Christian Fittipaldi.
Zanardi signed a contract to race with the Lotus F1 team for the 1993 season, but was involved in a serious crash in Belgium that would keep him out of racing for the rest of 1993 and the start of 1994. When he returned to Formula 1, the Lotus was unreliable and the team ceased operations at the end of the season. With no interest from other F1 teams, Zanardi spent 1995 driving in sports car racing.
The 1996 racing season began with hope in North America. No longer Alessandro Zanardi, but simply Alex Zanardi, he quickly became one of the favourite drivers on the Champ Car circuit. He was rookie of the year in his first season and followed that up with Champ-Car championships in 1997 and 1998.
One of racing’s highlights came on the final race of the 1996 season at Laguna Seca, where Zanardi pulled off a high-risk pass on the track’s infamous Corkscrew to overtake Bryan Herta and go on to win the race. That maneuver is still known by many racing fans as The Pass. After the win, Zanardi pulled off a series of tight-loops in front of the main grandstand, leaving doughnut-shaped tire markings on the track and filling the air with smoke from the burned rubber, much to the delight of the spectators. The celebratory ritual is today used by many racing car drivers after a win.
The Williams racing team came calling in 1999 and Zanardi headed back to Formula 1. The second stint in F1 was short lived with the driver and team owner Frank Williams agreeing to sever their relationship.
The driver’s open-wheel racing career ended in Germany in 2001. Back in Champ-Car racing, Zanardi was in a horrific crash. He had lost nearly three-quarters of his blood volume and his legs were amputated at the knees.
“What saved my life was the clean break,” he recalls. “I could have easily died right there from the impact.”
Since then, Zanardi continued to race touring cars, both with hand operated throttle and brakes and with cars specially modified to allow him to control them with his prosthetic feet. He made one further venture into Formula 1 in 2006. BMW had him test a F1 car modified with hand controls. Zanardi quipped after the test session, “Of course, I know that I won’t get a contract with the Formula 1 team, however having the chance to drive an F1 racer again is just incredible.”
But you can’t keep a man who has racing speeding through his veins away from competition for very long. In 2007, he finished fourth in the handcycle division of the New York City Marathon and competed at the Para-Cycling Road World Championships in 2009. He won the Venice Marathon, in the disabled category, in 2009 and followed that up with a win at the Rome City Marathon the following year. In 2011, Zanardi started his fourth New York City Marathon and won the handcycling class.
Through it all, last few years, Zanardi never lost his focus… to participate in the road cycling events at the 2012 Summer Paralympics.
Zanardi recalls his thoughts after waking from his coma after the accident in Germany. “The first thing I asked myself was ‘How am I going to do all the things I want to do with no legs?’”
It’s apparent that Alessandro Zanardi has not dwelled on that question for very long or very often.