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The story of Alex Zanardi: An Iron man with plastic legs and a courageous heart

Gaurab Sinha
ANALYST
6.60K   //    30 Dec 2014, 19:02 IST
Alex Zanardi

A Formula 1 driver, a two-time CART series winner, an innovator, an athlete, a gold-medal winner at the Paralympics, but above all, a man with a true champion’s attitude. He is a great character, who can talk for ages, and he is a person who has never understood what quitting is. Many sportsmen and women fall short of even getting close to the things which Alessandro Zanardi has achieved in his long sporting career.

Such is the long list of his accomplishments. He started his career as a racing driver, but an on-track accident, because of which he lost both of his legs, changed his life forever. But, this didn’t stop him from being competitive, and most importantly, didn’t stop him to live. This “extraordinary human-being” has an exceptional story, where he has fought to stand up on his legs, all over again.

The dream of becoming a Race-Car driver

Alex Zanardi was born in the culture-rich Italian city of Bologna. He was part of a modest family and his father was a plumber by trade. With a childhood dream of “racing for Ferrari”, Zanardi started with karts at the age of 13.

The kart was built by the Italian on his own, with the wheels obtained from a dustbin and pipes borrowed from his father’s profession. He even welded the materials himself using a blow-torch and some fence wires. Even at that age, it was certain that he was an innovator in-making and a person who would work hard to achieve what he desires. His professional racing career started in the year 1988, when he made his debut in the Italian Formula 3 Championship. After that in 1991, he went on to compete at the International Formula 3000 series, where he finished 2nd in the championship competing against the likes of Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Damon Hill, Allan McNish, and touring car stalwart, Alain Menu.

The instant F1 call up

Due to his stellar performances in Formula 3000, Zanardi was handed a Formula 1 seat straight away by Footwork Team for testing purposes. And, then Team Jordan signed him for the final three races of the 1991 F1 season. Such were the credentials of the Italian; the F1 teams wanted a piece of Zanardi as soon he had finished in the lower formulas. But, sadly, Zanardi could never make his mark at the pinnacle of the motorsports.

Apart from his short stint at Jordan in 1991 and then for Minardi as a replacement driver in 1992, he spent the 1993 and the 1994 season at the legendary Lotus team. Hopes were high, but as Formula 1 is all about being in the right car at the right moment, things did not pan out.

The fighting spirit was always there from the beginning

Zanardi only managed a single point in his short stay at Formula 1, but he was instrumental in rectifying the active-suspension system on the Lotus cars. This was of course no surprise as the Italian always had the knack in the engineering-side of things. During the 1993 season, he was involved at an off-the-track bicycle accident which had left him with several broken bones in his left foot right before the German Grand Prix.

He still raced that weekend, and was surprisingly competitive despite the condition of his leg. Ultimately his 1993 season ended ahead of time because of the injuries he encountered due a heavy crash at the notorious Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. Despite missing the early races of the 1994 season, Zanardi, after fully-recovering from the horrific crash, came back with fresh hopes and with an eye to turn a corner. This is was a huge testament of the Italian’s willpower and determination.  But, again Lotus failed to provide him with a half-decent car, and a pointless season (both figuratively and factually) was endured by Zanardi.

The successful transition to North-America and a brief return to F1

With the Lotus team going belly-up before the new season, Zanardi was unable to secure a race seat for 1995 F1 season. Hence, moving on from Europe was the decision he took, and after doing some sports car running, the Italian’s next destination was the 1996 CART series with the Chip-Ganassi Racing team in the United States. This is where Zanardi showed the real racer in him as he took 2 titles (1997 and 1998) in three years for the team.

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At the final race of the 1996 season, the Italian famously overtook race-leader Bryan Herta on the final lap at the legendary Cockscrew corner of the Laguna-Seca circuit, where overtaking is deemed impossible. The maneuver, which is known as “The Pass” in the motorsports fraternity, has been hailed as “one of the greatest overtaking moves” of all time. A move to Formula 1 materialized again, as Sir Frank Williams called Zanardi to drive for his team in the 1999 season. But, as fate would have it, a series of wrong decisions by the team, mechanical failures, bad luck and driver error, meant that the season ended in frustration, and again with zero points, for Zanardi. Soon, the Williams team and the Italian parted ways, maybe Formula 1 and Zanardi were not a match made in heaven.

The race that changed the life of Alessandro Zanardi

Zanardi once again returned to CART, this time it was for the Mo-Nunn Team for the 2001 season. The year proved handful for the former champion, and for most races Zanardi struggled with his new car. The series entered Germany to start its European-leg in September, and little did anyone known what drastic changes it would bring to this happy Italian’s life.

The race, held at the Lausitzring, Germany, was nearly cancelled because of the events of September 11 had just occurred four days ago. But, as fate would have it, the race went ahead as a mark of respect to the victims of the terror-attacks. Zanardi, who till then had a lackluster year, was finally getting onto grips with his new car. In the race, Zanardi was leading with a handful of laps to go; and finally the long-awaited win was coming closer and closer.

But, the life of Zanardi changed when he was called in for his last pit-stop. As he exited the pit lane after a clean stop, still in the lead with 13-laps to go, disaster came knocking. Whilst trying to rejoin the racing-lane, Zanardi spun right upon the path of fellow racer Patrick Carpentier. Even though, Carpentier somehow managed to circumvent Zanardi, Alex Tagliani, who was right behind Carpentier and unsighted, could not avoid the incoming, and the out of control, Italian. At the time of the impact, Tagliani was travelling at a speed of more than 310 Kmph, and hence was unable to slide past Zanardi.

Zanardi’s car was in pieces and his life was in danger. Fans and race-officials feared the worst for him. He was straight away taken to a hospital in Berlin by a helicopter whilst receiving emergency medical treatment en-route. The life of Zanardi was saved because of the extraordinary skills portrayed by the on track and hospital doctors in Germany. But, both the legs of the champion had to be amputated.

One of his leg was cut at the knee level, while the other just above it. He had lost nearly 70% of his blood and his heart stopped several times after the impact, but on time and accurate medical help had saved his life. Of course, few more surgeries followed to completely clear off the wounds in order to close it and start the path of healing.

The aftermath, the recovery process and the determination to race again:

The Mo-Nunn team called Zanardi's survival a "miracle" and well-wishers from all over the motorsports world hoped for a fast recovery for the former-champion. The Italian was fitted with two prosthetic limbs and with it began his challenging recovery and rehabilitation course. Because of the limitation of the new legs, Zanardi decided, and then successfully, designed his own personal custom-legs.

The Italian was back to engineering, and this time; it was for a very personal reason. His custom-designed limbs allowed him to have better flexibility and more stiffness in his legs. And, yes, a return to car-racing was his main aim.  One can say, he could have just stopped there and could have just seen out the remainder of his life on a wheelchair. Because, in his own words; he had enough money to put a pot of macaroni on the burner every-day. But, the fighter in him wanted to race again, wanted to feel the adrenaline pump up and wanted to be competitive. Surely, he endured many pain-full nights, which only he could describe, but he continued his hard rehab training-regime to meet all the physical demands of motor-racing.

Meanwhile, as he was getting healthier, as a goodwill-gesture, CART had invited Zanardi to wave the chequered flag at a race in Toronto, Canada. And, by 2003, less than 20 months after his crash, the Italian again was back at Lausitzring.

This time he was at the race-track not to wave a flag or to make an emotional speech about his accident, but he was there to do what he did the best; to race. With or without legs, it didn’t matter to Zanardi, after 20 months of hard work and training, he was fit enough (both physically and mentally), and fast enough, to master a race-car at the track where he nearly lost his life.

He completed the remaining 13 laps of the race that had changed his life in a race-car which had its throttle and brakes paddles specially fitted to the steering-wheel. Zanardi never-even thought about just ceremoniously completing the laps, he was determined from the word go to test his speed and his will-power. Such was his pace; he easily touched speeds in excess of 300 Kmph and the times he set were fast enough for him to make-up his mind about returning to full-time racing.

After the run, Zanardi told the media: “I didn’t feel like I was out of the car for one-and-a-half years”. So, sticking true to his determination and with more training and hard work; in 2003, Zanardi chose to do touring cars. And, with the help of BMW, a slightly modified 320i was created for him. He ran at the final race of the World Touring Car Championship (WTCC) season at Italy and finished an impressive 7th.

He soon signed a contract with BMW to regularly race in the series from 2004 onwards. Here, he showcased impressive pace all throughout his touring-car career and notched up 5 race wins and 5 podiums in his 6 full seasons. In 2006, BMW-Sauber F1 team invited Zanardi to drive their Formula-1 car; the steering-wheel of car was modified in order to accommodate the accelerator and the brake paddle. "I'm really, really happy," he told the media after the drive. Zanardi, 40 at that time, also commented on his not so successful F1 career “I think I could have done much better in F1, not because teams never gave me a reliable, fast car but because I didn't push myself as hard as I could have."

Becoming an Olympic medal winning Hand-cyclist and a Triathlonist:

Zanardi was reaching mid-40s, and his competitive spirit was itching to find a new venture in life. “I am out to prove that there are no obstacles for the disabled”: he once famously replied, when he was asked about his motives. It was during a WTCC program that he accidently came across a paracycling event. A paracycle, or more commonly known as hand-cycles, has two fixed-rear wheels and one front wheel by which a person can steer the cycle. From there began his new chapter in life. His first race with a hand-cycle was in 2007 at the New York marathon. He finished an impressive fourth, but he modestly said later on: “there were only three elite-riders in race”.

This achievement was nevertheless remarkable because of the fact that he had only trained with a hand-cycle for 4 weeks. Hence, it was natural that people were expecting him to compete at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics. But, he was human after-all and he felt he had to honor his WTCC commitments first. But, he later revealed that riding that cycle gave him more inspiration.

And, he felt it was a great way to get back in perfect body shape. Thus, soon the occasional riding moments became an obsession, a zest to achieve greatness in this field too. As soon as he announced his retirement from WTCC in 2009, Zanardi only had one thing in his mind; to achieve success as a hand-cyclist. At first he started with small events, but then he trained harder and started competing at international tournaments.

He had an advantage, because of his racing experience; he knew more about aero-dynamics and other technicalities of racing than anyone else around. He also had a hand in designing his own hand-cycle. His eagerness to always develop and engineer his machines also played a huge part in his success.

Finally by 2011, he not only had won the New York Marathon, but also finished second at the World Championships. This meant he was now fully prepared and raring to compete at the 2012 London Paralympics. And, so he did; he came, saw, and he conquered. He won two individual gold medals, at time-trail H4 and H4 road-race events, and one team silver medal for Italy at the relay event.

Ironically, the races were held at the famous Brand Hatch race-circuit in the United Kingdom, where Zanardi had previously driven race-cars. This amazing feat was recognized by the International Paralympics Committee as the “moment of the year”. Later on, as a prize for winning the gold-medal, the race-car, on which he made “The Pass” in 1996, was gifted to Zanardi by the Chip-Ganassi Racing Team.  

A year later, he also won the gold-medal at the World Championships in Canada. This year, at the age of 47, Zanardi once achieved something impossible, as he competed in the famous Ironman World Championship. This is an event which is entered by people who are at the epitome of their life’s fitness levels and are proven athletes in the triathlon circuits. It consists of 3.8 kms of swimming, 179 kms of cycling and finishes with a 42 kms marathon run.

Zanardi, even though he was using wet suit for the swimming part, a hand-cycle for the cycling section and an Olympic-style wheelchair for the running part, finished, a more than impressive, 272nd in the overall-rankings. He was 19th in his age category-bracket. And thus, Zanardi truly became an “Ironman” thanks to his willingness to convert an impossible feat and into a possibility. After the event, Zanardi expressed his feelings: “It was amazing. I was always close to crying. I am not an emotional guy for these types of things, but this was very special."

What the future holds for this extraordinary man:

A father, a godfather, a husband, a racer, a champion, a kind hearted person, and most importantly, a fighter, Zanardi leads a life larger than many other “normal” human would. He is an inspiration to those disabled people who want fulfill all their dreams and sincerely believe; impossible is nothing. Currently 48, Zanardi was back to motor-racing again in 2014 at the Blancpain GT Sprint Series with a BMW Z4 GT3. He was also appointed as a global brand ambassador for BMW and this year he, once again, won 2 gold medals at Paralympics Championships.

He has expressed his desire to re-enter the Ironman challenge, and better his current time of 9hrs, 47mins and 14secs. And, has full intentions to defend his Paralympics crown at the upcoming 2016 event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But, he sadly admits that doing both, motor-racing and hand-cycling simultaneously, will be difficult. “I will certainly have to stop again, and park the car.”: the champion told Maxim when he was asked about his future plans. Hopefully, he may be able to manage get the best of both worlds again, with his near super-human abilities, managing time shouldn’t be that big a problem! But, yes, devoting time for two different training-programs might be the huge challenge.

And, when asked about his intentions of retiring from motor-racing, he gives a very balanced, but a truthful answer, that he will retire once he thinks he is not competitive enough. Time will tell whether he gets to fulfill his dream of both; racing competitively and also getting to defend his gold medal at the Paralympics. In fact, even if he decides to quit every form of sports all-together and call it a day, no one will blame this extraordinary human-being. And, upon leading a life of retirement, Zanardi said: “Even after I retire from both motorsports and paracycling, I will search for an exciting project that will fit into that time of my life. It may well be picking up a fishing rod; who knows?”

One thing is for sure; this sarcastically natured Italian will go on and achieve even more attainments in the coming days. Let’s just be patient-enough with the man who tries on new legs every now and then!

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