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Zanardi: The man whose name is a synonym for “hero”

As a Paralympian, Alex Zanardi became a household name and an inspiration to millions. But his indomitable spirit and speed in a racecar had already made him a hero, writes David Malsher-Lopez.

Zanardi: The man whose name is a synonym for “hero”

In a motorsport season wracked, wrecked and rebuilt – often on the fly – by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, fans came to expect the worst. When the greatest racer of his generation Sir Stirling Moss, died in April, it was deeply sad, a punch to the gut of everyone who adores the sport as we do, but it wasn’t shocking.

The calamity that befell Alex Zanardi two months later, on the other hand, left us reeling – and wincing when we appreciated the severity of his injuries. After he and the CART Indy car team felled the Grim Reaper back in September 2001, we subconsciously thought he was indestructible.

Well, thankfully, the latest news suggests maybe he is! And while we’ve grown used to the attention that this 54-year-old now garners in spheres other than motorsport, it’s worth recapping why those of us already in the racing ‘bubble’ already considered him a hero.

Bologna-born Zanardi started racing a self-built kart in 1979, the same year his sister Cristina died in a streetcar accident. Naturally his parents became overprotective, but equally they saw that nothing could stop him from pursuing his dream, and they learned to have faith in what rapidly proved to be a considerable talent. That, along with hard work saw him rise from karts to reach Italian Formula 3 in 1988. After showing promise and strong results, overachieving in an underpowered car, he graduated to Formula 3000 in 1991 with the Il Barone Rampante team.

Zanardi took pole in the F3000 race at Pau, but retired. The season saw him finish first or second every time he finished.

Zanardi took pole in the F3000 race at Pau, but retired. The season saw him finish first or second every time he finished.

Photo by: Sutton Images

A season-long battle with Christian Fittipaldi saw the Italian play a starring role – two wins, four runner-up finishes – but he came up slightly short in the points table at year’s end. However, by then he had become a Formula 1 driver. The fallout from the unsavory late-season Benetton/Jordan dispute over Michael Schumacher’s services, involved Roberto Moreno being cast aside by both teams, and Eddie Jordan drafting Zanardi into his squad for the final three F1 rounds. Zanardi scored two top-10 finishes (not worth points in those days) but was left on the sidelines for ’92, three more starts coming only as sub for the injured Fittipaldi at Minardi.

However, for 1993 Zanardi was signed full-time by Team Lotus, in the hallowed squad’s penultimate season of Grand Prix racing. Alongside the more experienced Johnny Herbert, Alex not only scored his first point – sixth place in Interlagos – he also proved himself a hard fighter in wheel-to-wheel battles. However, a huge shunt during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps left him with neck injuries that curtailed his season.

He returned to action for the team in 1994 to sub for the injured Pedro Lamy – the man who had subbed for him after the Spa crash – but Lotus’s parlous financial state later obliged team management to drop him for a couple of events in order to run the well-funded Philippe Adams. The team submerged at season’s end.

Zanardi made a good impression in his early F1 drives with Jordan late in 1991.

Zanardi made a good impression in his early F1 drives with Jordan late in 1991.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

With no more opportunities in F1, Zanardi killed time with some sportscar racing in ’95 but turned his attention to the U.S. open-wheel scene. Chip Ganassi, whose team had landed its first two CART Indy car wins in 1994, needed a partner for Jimmy Vasser in ’96 and duly signed the 29-year-old Italian.

The timing was perfect for an ambitious driver whose career had in recent years become a patchwork of high promise and thwarted potential. Chip Ganassi Racing, which in the off-season had switched from Ford to Honda engines and from Goodyear to Firestone tires, now entered a golden era. Vasser won the ’96 championship, while his ever-improving rookie teammate earned three wins, six pole positions and third in the championship.

Zanardi, Johnny Herbert, designer Chris Murphy and team manager Peter Collins all helped Team Lotus to perform well, even in the legendary squad's twilight years.

Zanardi, Johnny Herbert, designer Chris Murphy and team manager Peter Collins all helped Team Lotus to perform well, even in the legendary squad's twilight years.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Zanardi’s technique meshed beautifully with cars that provided a great amount of ‘feel’ to drivers as they tried to put 900hp to the ground. He proved he could monster the car in flamboyant manner or apply smooth inputs with great self-restraint. Whatever was required to extract the most from the tires, the car, the track and the moment, he would do it. As one of his most prominent fans, Mario Andretti explained it thus: “Alex was superb if everything was perfect, but even better if everything wasn’t.”

Zanardi’s natural aggression in competition raised the hackles of some drivers throughout his three seasons at Ganassi, but he took his lumps from both them and the stewards, and would firmly rebuff criticism whenever he felt wronged. Over the course of time he earned their respect. Alex also formed a lifelong bond with his teammate Vasser and a hugely productive relationship with his chief engineer, the former Ensign F1 team owner Mo Nunn.

As well as being appreciated by fans for his friendliness and approachability off-track, the in-cockpit aggression that needled his rivals was regarded by trackside and TV spectators as an admirable and exciting trait: he was simply irrepressible. This was never better demonstrated than in his famous pass on Bryan Herta to grab the lead on the last lap of the ’96 season finale at Laguna Seca, or his storm from the back of the field at Long Beach in 1998 to snatch an unlikely victory. Far more often than not across the ’97 and ’98 seasons, he was the man to beat – and no one could do it consistently enough to stop him racking up two straight championships and 12 more wins.

As Zanardi fought for his life this summer past, one of his strongest rivals from the late 1990s, Dario Franchitti, tweeted: “He has defied the odds his whole life, always done the seemingly impossible. When we raced against each other, I realized there was never a point in any race that in his mind he was beaten.”

Yet despite loving the varied skillset required to be a successful Indy car driver and thoroughly enjoying Chip Ganassi’s ever responsive team environment, Alex couldn’t resist the call from Williams Formula 1 team to head back over the Atlantic for 1999… but it was not without a backward glance. In his brilliant 2004 autobiography, My Sweetest Victory, Zanardi wrote: “After my family and my parents, I am most grateful to Chip and wish that I had told him how much he impacted on my life. Needless to say, I went to drive my last race for him with a heavy heart.”

Zanardi's three seasons racing a Chip Ganassi Racing Reynard-Honda produced 15 wins and two championships.

Zanardi's three seasons racing a Chip Ganassi Racing Reynard-Honda produced 15 wins and two championships.

Photo by: Sutton Images

Throughout 1999, he doubtless continued to look wistfully at images of the beautiful Target-colored Ganassi Reynard-Honda he had left in the hands of his replacement, Juan Pablo Montoya. The Colombian rookie went on to nail the team’s fourth straight title. Zanardi failed even to score a point on his F1 return. The contrast was starker even than the Nigel Mansell/Michael Andretti transatlantic ‘swap’ of six years earlier.

Williams was going through a lull with the Renault-based Supertec engine in ’99, and Zanardi’s car had frequent reliability issues that hurt his chances of honing his car’s handling characteristics to best suit him. As a result, that season he was rarely on the qualifying pace of teammate Ralf Schumacher.

Alex admitted he loathed the grooved tires being used in F1 in that era, for they allowed hardly any time to work on setup before they went off. He also confessed that he wasted too much test and practice time – and too many tires – trying to adapt the Williams FW21 to his driving style, rather than adjusting his own modus operandi to fit with the optimal setup of the car.

But there were additional complications. Zanardi felt the team lost faith in him very early in the season, and blamed himself for not standing his ground on technical matters at the time when team owner Sir Frank Williams and chief engineer Patrick Head still regarded his opinion as having some merit.

Whatever the myriad colors and forms that comprised the full picture, the facts are that Zanardi would often start races mid-grid whereas teammate R. Schumacher would regularly be a yapping, snapping underdog on the heels of Ferrari and McLaren. Then, whenever the Italian seemed set for a confidence-building breakthrough result, his car would falter or fail, or something would go wrong in a pitstop. After a dispiriting season – one he described as “soul-destroying” – Zanardi and the team split.

Back in Formula 1 briefly, 1999 became a year to forget for Zanardi.

Back in Formula 1 briefly, 1999 became a year to forget for Zanardi.

Photo by: Sutton Images

Given this huge setback, Zanardi was more than happy to take a sabbatical in 2000, enjoying life in Europe once more with his beautiful wife Daniela and their two-year-old son Niccolo. This domestic bliss meant he dithered over – or spurned – offers from some of the bigger Indy car teams (including Newman/Haas Racing and Ganassi) that were trying to lure him back to the U.S. Yet following irritation-laced persuasion from dear friend Vasser, Zanardi would give himself a mental reboot and decide that no, he didn’t want to be a retired racecar driver aged only 34 – but now there were few attractive options left open to him.

However, his old engineer Mo Nunn had left Ganassi to set up his own team, and some big sponsors and Honda backing persuaded Zanardi that this team was on the fast-track, and a deal was struck for 2001. Yet Alex swiftly discovered he hadn’t appreciated the size of the challenge, for while the team’s funding wasn’t a problem, its relative newness as a unit was definitely a hindrance. Mo Nunn Racing had only started in 2000, and ’01 was the first year in which it had run two cars. Zanardi was also at first bewildered and then frustrated by what he perceived as Nunn’s loss of interest in engineering in order to focus on team ownership.

In truth, Alex himself was also struggling to recapture his form in a type of car that he hadn’t raced in well over two years, and he was often shown up by teammate, the rising star and future Indy Racing League champion Tony Kanaan. Yet at midseason, despite still struggling in qualifying, Zanardi was clearly making progress with his raceday setups. Indeed, he was highly unfortunate not to land podium finishes at both Cleveland and Toronto.

The return to Indy cars in 2001 wasn't an immediate success but Alex was inching closer to the sharp end of the grid throughout the season.

The return to Indy cars in 2001 wasn't an immediate success but Alex was inching closer to the sharp end of the grid throughout the season.

Photo by: Championship Auto Racing Teams

Ironically, he was enjoying his most competitive oval showing of the season at Lausitzring, Germany, when he spun out of the pitlane after making his final stop. As his car slid broadside across the track, the cockpit area was impaled by Alex Tagliani’s Forsythe Racing entry traveling at over 200mph. The impact tore off Zanardi’s legs and only masterful work by the CART Safety Team prevented the severe blood loss from costing the Italian his life.

“For a few seconds, the accident didn’t seem that bad,” Alex wrote. “If the car hadn’t split in two, I would have had to have absorbed all the energy from the impact, and I hardly felt a thing – my helmet didn’t even have a dent. I must have realized something though when I looked in front of me and saw no front to the car… and no legs. Before fainting, I must have realized something. From time to time, if I really try hard – I don’t know if it’s my imagination or disjointed memories – but some images come to the surface in my mind. Maybe one day the whole event will come back to me. I’m not afraid of it though, because all the damage has already been done.”

Lausitzring, Sept. 15, 2001. The absence of the front of Zanardi's car tells its own grim tale.

Lausitzring, Sept. 15, 2001. The absence of the front of Zanardi's car tells its own grim tale.

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Following expert work at hospital to seal the wounds, Zanardi’s rehabilitation program saw him fitted with prosthetic limbs. When CART visited Lausitzring in 2003, he ran a demo in an Indy car fitted with hand controls, driving the 13 laps that he failed to complete there two years earlier – and lapped at a speed that would have seen him qualify on the third row of the grid for the following weekend’s race. Aside from reducing all onlookers to tears, especially the CART Safety Team members, the event sparked in Zanardi the thought that a return to the sport might be viable. An outing in a BMW touring car further cemented his resolve.

Joining touring car legend Roberto Ravaglia’s BMW team for the European Touring Car Championship in 2004, Alex drove a heavily adapted BMW 320i, and when that series evolved into the World Touring Car Championship in ’05, Zanardi stayed on. He earned a win in Oschersleben and several more Top 10 finishes that year, and over the next four seasons, he would add a further hat-trick of WTCC triumphs to his résumé.

Having adapted to the hand controls for his BMW touring cars, Alex's brio remained evident.

Having adapted to the hand controls for his BMW touring cars, Alex's brio remained evident.

Photo by: FIA WTCC

By now, however, he was also forging a name for himself in handcycling. Finishing fourth in this division in the 2007 New York City Marathon, he went on to win similar events in Venice and Rome, before returning to NYC in 2011 and nailing victory. Zanardi’s performances were enough to earn a spot in the Italian team for the 2012 Paralympics, and he went on to win Gold Medals in the Road Time Trial H4 and the Road Race, and a Silver Medal in the Road Team Relay, events all held at Brands Hatch. Four years later, in the next Paralympics at Rio, he again nailed two Golds and one Silver.

And in handcycles, the flamboyance in victory remained intact! This is the Paralympics in Rio in 2016.

And in handcycles, the flamboyance in victory remained intact! This is the Paralympics in Rio in 2016.

Photo by: BMW AG

Zanardi hadn’t quit motorsport, competing in the full 2014 Blancpain Sprint Series season in a BMW Z4 and starring in a one-off appearance in DTM, driving a BMW M4 to fifth in the wet at Misano. His return to U.S. racing came in last year’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, sharing one of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-run works BMW M8s with John Edwards, Jesse Krohn and Chaz Mostert. The quartet finished ninth in the GTLM class.

Who knows how long this true ironman (oh yeah, he won Ironman competitions too) would have continued finding success in handcycles without his latest accident, or along which path his inquisitive mind and resolute spirit might still lead him? Whatever, we can be certain this human dynamo will make a success of it, because that’s just how he has always been: audacious and dauntless.

In his foreword to Zanardi’s book – which of course now requires a major update – Mario Andretti wrote: “Alex’s stories are not about this rotten, unfair thing that happened to him. They are about having the power to adapt to change and about scoring a victory over, rather than becoming a victim of, the accident.”

Most reasonable folk would surely agree that even before this godforsaken year, Zanardi and his loved ones had been through enough already. Now he’s spent the last six months fighting back from another life-changing accident, it seems reasonable to put his continued recovery at the top of a motorsport wish-list for 2021. #ForzaAlex indeed.

 

Photo by: FIA WTCC

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About this article

Series DTM , Formula 1 , IndyCar , WTCC
Drivers Alex Zanardi
Teams Williams , Chip Ganassi Racing
Author David Malsher-Lopez
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