Alex Zanardi: from Formula One to Paralympic glory

| 28 Jul 2016

Alex Zanardi shakes hands firmly, smiles a lot and still looks every inch the perfect Italian racing driver. At his first visit to the Goodwood Festival of Speed this year, he couldn’t move more than a few yards without being surrounded by well-wishers and autograph hunters. 

His, of course, has been a remarkable life, from his early career in Formula One and huge Indycar success, to an unsuccessful return to Grand Prix racing, the devastating accident in 2001 in which he lost his legs and Paralympic gold at the London Games. 

Where do you start? In a sense, you don’t really need to. Give Zanardi a subject and he’s away. Take, for example, his introduction to American racing ahead of the 1996 season.

“My first time on an oval was just amazing. Fourth, fifth and sixth were all racing gears, but I couldn’t get up to fifth! It was very hard for me psychologically. I just could not produce enough speed to get up to fifth gear. I thought, ‘Man – I’m useless’. The car was unstable and the perception of speed was amazing.

“Then, Maurice Nunn, who was my race engineer, said, ‘Alex, we’re going to trim the car out – reduce the aerodynamics.’ I said, ‘No, no! Please!’ He said, ‘Believe me – go gently. By producing more speed, you produce more downforce and the car will feel better.’ 

“He was the one in charge so we decided to do it. The car got better and better and better, and by the end of the day I was one of the fastest out there. It felt absolutely normal up to the point where, during one stop, the mechanics sprayed WD40 over the suspension to keep it clean. 

“When I went back out, I noticed that some of it went over my mirror. I wanted to clean it, but I couldn’t reach it with my left hand because the cockpit sides were so high.

“So, because I’m a fox – very intelligent – I reached across with my right arm. I’d forgotten that I was travelling at 400km/h, so when my arm got into the airstream it just got pinned across my visor. I eventually managed to bring it back, but it was really scary…”

By that time, Zanardi had enjoyed a stop-start F1 schedule that started in 1991 with Jordan, and ended two years later after a colossal accident at Spa in a Lotus. His career was reborn when he went to the States. 

“Getting to drive for Chip Ganassi in ’96 was probably one of the best sporting experiences of my life. And not because I was very successful, although of course that helps. Those cars were fantastic – so enjoyable to drive. 

“In those days, we had tyre competition, we had no aerodynamic restrictions, we had an amazing amount of power – past the 1000bhp mark. It was a lot of work behind the wheel to keep everything in a nice balance, but once you got it, it was fantastic. The cars were a lot of fun and we were producing an amazing show.”

Having won consecutive championships in 1997-’98, Zanardi returned to F1 with Williams, but the highly anticipated comeback lasted for only a single, disappointing season. 

“I was not surprised when I was called at the end of the year to speak to Frank. He said we have to talk because for sure his responsibility was to ensure stability for the organisation that he’s running. 

“I failed to deliver what they were expecting, so I can’t say that Frank Williams is an a**ehole. I have to say exactly the opposite, because Frank was very supportive with me and one thing he said touched me sincerely. He said it was a big disappointment for him that he could not figure out why he couldn’t get out of me the same things that Chip Ganassi managed to get. That’s what he was in the market to buy.”

By 2001, Zanardi was back with Mo Nunn in Indycar racing. At the Lausitzring in Germany, he was leading when he lost control coming out of the pitlane and spun up the banking. Alex Tagliani hit him amidships at full speed, and Zanardi lost both of his legs.

“Once I was able to meet people, I had a lot of journalists coming to hospital in Berlin. This was not the first or second question because they were nice, but you could tell that the question they had in mind was: ‘Alex – will you ever step into a race car again?’

“The problem was not psychological – in their view, it was only psychological. I knew 100% that I would solve all the technical issues involved in me, with no legs, finding a way to drive a race car. In my mind, I was the same driver that I was before. No doubt. 

“Very often, I’m asked, ‘Where did you find the strength to react in that way?’ And I don’t think it’s a reaction. I just opened my eyes and I was very happy to be alive. I didn’t have to produce a reaction – I just wanted to get back to the same quality of life I had before. Or at least the best one I could reach.” 

In 2003, Zanardi returned to the Lausitz speedway to ceremonially complete the 13 laps that he hadn’t done in 2001. The fastest of those would have put him fifth on the grid two years earlier.

From 2005-’09, he raced a BMW in the World Touring Car Championship, before turning his attention to handcycling. In the 2012 London Paralympics, he won the time trial and the road race, and claimed a silver medal in the relay.

“In spite of the fact that I was not the most experienced, I managed to discover things that other people ignored. In London, you could see people using 250mm cranks and others with 200mm. Some sat 10mm from the ground; others were high enough for a rabbit to run underneath them. 

“Still, at the end of the day, the performance was very similar, so we were all lacking somewhere. I think I got the best vehicle, and that was part of my success. My racing background helped – my curiosity and all the things that I learned in motorsport, and also my mental set-up. I’ve always been very passionate about that part of my job. Even today, the relationship between the driver and the race engineer is very important.”

Zanardi returned to motorsport last year, sharing a BMW Z4 with Bruno Spengler and Timo Glock at the Spa 24 Hours, but for 2016 he is once more focused on the Paralympics. He heads to Rio as one of the favourites for more gold: “Last year I managed to win the road race and time trial world championship. And the relay. That’s where I think I have the best chance because we are very strong as a team. 

“My main rival is a Dutch kid [Jetze Plat], and I say kid because he’s half my age! If you say, ‘Alex, you have big arms’, then you see me next to him, you say, ‘Alex, I reconsider that’.”

Talk to him about his greatest achievement, however, and recovering from his accident comes second to simply establishing himself as a racing driver.

“It was much tougher when I was 15 and I had to stand in front of adults saying you’re not good enough. I kept believing in myself, but still it was very hard. One day, in a rare day of mental wiseness – because when you are 17, this is very strange – I thanked my old dad for all that he was doing. I said that, since we’ve started this go-kart adventure you never go with your friends for a day fishing or doing something. I just wanted to thank you for it.

“He said, ‘The other night I came home from work very late. I passed the bar in the village and all your friends were nicely dressed, ready to go the disco. So I came by the garage, noticed the light was on, and I found you asleep in your go-kart. I could imagine this kid, working on his go-kart all day long and finally sitting in it, visualising what would come at the weekend, then falling asleep. While you show me this passion, I’ll do my best to support you because it’s worth it.’”

Once Rio has come and gone, Zanardi hopes to once more resume his motorsport career. That passion is clearly very much alive and well.

Thanks to Martin Harrison at BMW UK