Racing fans knew for a long time that Alex Zanardi had the drive and determination to win world championships: his Champ Car championship victories in 1997 and 1998 were testament enough to that. But few would expect a driver to return from an accident like the one he suffered in September 2001, a horrific crash at the Lausitzring in Germany in which Zanardi lost both his legs.
Auto Express has spoken with Zanardi about his determination to return to motor racing, win an Olympic gold medal, and subsequently return once again to motorsport in the Blancpain endurance series. Unsurprisingly, making the decision to return to motorsport was not one Zanardi took lightly, not was it an initial priority in the recovery years following his accident. The racer describes how initially, he was not even self-sufficient for his basic needs, so jumping back in the car was not even considered.
But with questions and support from friends and journalists, Zanardi soon returned to racing, campaigning a BMW for a full season in the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) in 2004. The BMW was equipped with hand controls--a brake behind the wheel, throttle above it and a clutch lever on the gear shifter. Zanardi and the team quickly realised the limitations of this setup (he describes how he had to take corners with just one palm on the wheel rim sometimes) so he subsequently moved to a foot-operated brake pedal adapted for his prosthetic legs. He returned at a race in Monza, explaining how the process of returning to racing was actually fairly straightforward--but emotional too, when he put on his old race suit and realized that he still looked like a proper racing driver.
Zanardi consistently returned impressive results in the WTCC and in August 2005, took a hugely popular race win, taking further victories in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. During this time though, the Italian racer had also begun to compete in hand-cycling, taking victories in several events. This culminated with a gold medal in the men's road time trial at the London Paralympic Games in 2012--earning him worldwide support far beyond that of the existing racing community. Zanardi is now making a return to motorsport in the form of the Blancpain endurance series--once again racing for BMW, in a GT3-spec BMW Z4. "When I saw the car the first time, I just fell in love with it," he explains.
If there is one mantra we should all live by however, it is that of Zanardi's attitude throughout his return to racing and his hand-cycling success. "What happened to me is behind me--it cannot affect my future unless I take advantage of the experience."