Today marks ten years since Alex Zanardi had his life changing accident at the Lausitzring in Germany. In the blink of an eye, one of his finest drives turned to disaster as he exited the pits leading with an unlucky 13 laps left to run. The Reynard Honda Champ Car that had been so kind to him in seasons past, snapped sideways and was collected at nearly 200mph by Alex Tagliani. The ensuing collision cost Zanardi his legs, but it could so easily have taken his life too. Already a hero to many, his fightback to fitness and on to yet more race victories turned him into a legend.
As a teenager in the 1980s Alex was once a very real threat to Michael Schumacher in the karting arena. From there, he built a solid reputation in the junior formulae, eventually making his F1 debut shortly after Schumacher in the same machine as the German – the gloriously green Jordan 191. His raw speed in 1991 was unquestioned and his technical feedback was appreciated; the lack of sponsorship and a spate of damaged cars were not so welcome, so Eddie Jordan’s option on the Italian was not taken up. For 1992, a test role at Benetton beckoned, along with a handful of Grand Prix drives for Minardi. Neither were to amount to much. Schumacher had been impressed by his Italian contemporary during their time at Benetton, once saying that, “you’re an ugly bastard but you sure went fast” after Zanardi bettered the illustrious German’s times.
It was Team Lotus that finally picked up Zanardi’s talents full-time for 1993. Sadly, they were already long past their best, leading Alex looking for speed in the car that was never their to begin with. At Imola he went one step further than even Gilles Villeneuve went; he crashed and then attempted to continue with not only a wheel missing, his car was also engulfed in flames. At this point in his career, Zanardi was on the wrong side of the thin line between madness and genius. His usual, smooth style behind the wheel was often substituted for desperation in those early days, but when Zanardi was given the right equipment he was as good as unstoppable.
The year was already trying, but Alex was to suffer the largest accident of the 1993 Grand Prix season in the most fearsome spot possible – Eau Rouge. His Lotus struck both the inside and outside of the famous corner and he suffered the mother of all concussions. It floored him for weeks, although the Lotus team further extended his absence by drafting in Pedro Lamy and his Portuguese sponsorship. When Zanardi got the seat back after Lamy’s monster test shunt at Silverstone in 1994 the team was focused on Johnny Herbert, providing him with upgrades earlier than whoever sat in the second car. Zanardi maintains that the data shows he would have scored a shocking pole at Monza that year had he been given the new Mugen-Honda engine, though this late-season burst of pace failed to save the Grand Prix fortunes of either the driver or his team. Both were to fade from the Grand Prix world, for a while.
If F1 was cruel to Zanardi then the American scene was kind, albeit with a horrific twist awaiting. After chancing his arm with a visit to the States to press the flesh and do a spot of networking, Alex arrived in the Indycar paddock just as Bryan Herta was sacked at Ganassi. So it was that Chip Ganassi’s Indy operation picked up Zanardi, both parties unsure as to what this new relationship would bring.
The following three years brought 15 victories and two CART titles to the Italian and his new friends at Ganassi. Each win was celebrated with Alex performing donuts in his red Reynard Honda, a signature move that has been much imitated since. Along the way he made many new friends and fans, his ever-present smile winning them over as much as his daring driving.
There are few other racers who can boast of making an overtaking move as ostentatious as the one at Laguna Seca pulled by Zanardi on his Ganassi predecessor Herta as the two rivals went into The Corkscrew on the final lap of an epic encounter.
By the time of these daredevil antics, Alex Zanardi had already become a firm favourite of the Charnock household. Referred to without fail as ‘Our Alex’ (an honour considering one of my best friends is called Alex), Zanardi became our hero. I’d grown up watching Senna, Prost, Mansell and Piquet – so a driver that could laugh, smile and keep the politics out of view yet deliver merciless moves when it mattered was a revelation to me. CART of the 1990s was arguably more entertaining and challenging than Formula One during the same period, so we had total faith that Zanardi had the right stuff, should F1 come calling again.
After his second consecutive title in the States, Formula One did indeed summon Alex back. When Williams signed him for 1999, it seemed like he was getting in on the ground floor of their promising BMW era. Would all the hard slog first time around in F1 be rewarded? Sadly not; Zanardi was given the boot before BMW arrived and he spent 2000 watching from the sidelines as a cherub-faced Jenson Button took over at Williams.
For Alex, 2001 saw Alex head back to the happy hunting ground of CART with Mo Nunn’s new team, although the results were lean for the fledgling squad. That was until the race at Germany’s Eurospeedway Lausitz; the first major single-seater race on a true oval in Europe since before the war and a rare opportunity for the European Indycar contingent to show off in front of their old fans.
Alex fought his way through the field in a noticeably improved car that gave him the confidence he needed to be his brilliant best. With 13 laps left to run Alex left the pits in the lead, lost control and the next thing he knew he was in a hospital bed, his legs gone.
The permanent CART safety team performed miracles to even save his life; there was less than a litre of blood left in him when they made the transfusions that rescued him from the abyss. In typical Zanardi style he jokes that with all that German blood in him they should give him a passport!
Since that dreadful day Alex Zanardi has inspired the world by not just competing but winning at a world-class level. Back in Germany during 2005 he took his first victory in World Touring Cars for BMW, a momentous moment for both Alex and his legions of fans. His symbolic completion of those last 13 laps at the Lausitzring in an Indycar fitted with hand-controls in 2003 was another astounding moment in his recovery, the crowd performing a Mexican wave as the Italian ‘finished’ the 2001 race at speeds in excess of 190mph. He felt that anything slower than genuine front-running pace just wouldn’t have been inspirational enough.
Now Zanardi’s next adventure is the 2012 London Paralympics where he hopes to take a medal in the handcycle competition, a feat he describes as “a dream”. Zanardi has lived a life of dreams – and of nightmares. Motorsport produces the most extreme situations that can really test a person; Alex passes every exam it sets him. “I’m not Superman,” he reminds us, “I am just an optimist who was lucky enough to have a wonderful life, and still have that life.”