Alessandro Zanardi

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Last updated: 31-October-2007


Before Formula One Formula One, I Between Formula One

Formula One, II After Formula One

Before F1

A real motorsports champion - here we focus on the stories rather than the results, especially in F1

Many drivers are universally admired for their sublime racing skills. Far fewer are actually universally liked as a person. Far fewer still are admired and liked the world over for qualities that transcend their achievements on the track, qualities like humanity, honesty, determination. Undoubtedly, Alessandro Leone Zanardi is one of them. As the great Mario Andretti once said: "You want to talk about champions; Alex Zanardi, now there's a real champion."

Long-time readers of this website will recall that we had already prepared a profile for Zanardi in the early days of F1 Rejects. That is, before his tragic Lausitzring accident in September 2001, after which we removed his page from the site. Six years on, it seems fitting to rewrite Alex's story afresh, although by now of course, the facts of that story have been told and retold in any number of magazines, websites and books. It would be pointless to add another overly-detailed blow-by-blow account of his career.

Instead, we prefer to focus on anecdotes, on interesting incidents that have shaped Zanardi the racer, and Zanardi the man - from his rise through karts and junior categories to his first stint in F1, from the glorious conquest of the CART scene in North America to the mystery of his failed return to Europe in 1999, from the horror of Lausitz to his heroic return to the track. And, although they were the least successful chapters of his career, we prefer to give special detailed emphasis to his time in Formula One.


Starts in karting, building his first kart himself, soon moves to Avenir class of Italian 100cc

Alessandro's career was, in a way, forged from tragedy at the outset. He was the son of Anna and Dino, a plumber. In 1979 his sister Cristina, an up-and-coming swimmer, was killed in a car accident. Naturally, his parents sought to keep him occupied away from public roads as much as possible. One day, Zanardi took interest in a friend working on a kart in his home town of Castel Maggiore, and his parents had found the diversion that they had been seeking for their son.

Indeed, Zanardi immersed himself in his newfound passion. He built his own first kart, using wheels from a dustbin and pipes from his father's line of work. In 1980 and 1981, he began competing in local races, but at first it was a humble effort. Dino was his only mechanic, and for the first year he ran on only the one set of tyres. It was not until 1982, when Zanardi entered the Italian 100cc karting championship in the Nazionale class and came 3rd in the overall standings that his career really began in earnest.

Over the next few years he worked his way through the myriad of karting events in Italy. He moved up to the top Avenir class of the Italian 100cc championship, he took part in the 'Club Azzurro' trial events which determined the best young Italian kartists to send to international events, he competed in the regional cup (the Coppa delle Regioni) for both Campania and his native Emilia, and he even raced for San Marino in the European teams championship to maximise his time behind the wheel.


Showdown at Gothenburg: Alex vs Orsini ends in tears

For by 1985 he was nearing 19, and comparatively old to still be in karts if he harboured ambitions of climbing higher up the motor racing ladder. He needed results to catapult him further, and that year he finally took out the Italian title, repeating the performance the following year. He won the Hong Kong GP in 1985 and 1988, and in 1987 he also won the European 135cc championship, scoring five wins in five races, a record that is still to be equalled.

But, despite coming into success, no one could accuse Zanardi of doing things easy or having things all his own way. The final of the 1987 European 100cc championship at Gothenburg was a case in point. Bringing together the best kartists from throughout the continent, an entry list of over 100 was whittled down through a series of heats and a pre-final before the final. By lap three of the final, two Italians, Zanardi and Massimiliano Orsini, had taken the lead and began pulling away from the field.

At the time, the battle that ensued was described as one that would go down in karting history. Zanardi and Orsini traded places and ran side by side through corners, and into the 24th and last lap, the pair had pulled out a 27-second gap over the 3rd-placed driver, but Zanardi had eked out a small advantage. In an act of desperation, Orsini lunged from over twenty metres behind, braked late - if at all - hit his rival, and sent them both spinning out.

1987 saw Zanardi take out the Italian 100cc Karting Championship for the second year in succession.
1987 saw Zanardi take out the Italian 100cc Karting Championship for the second year in succession. Picture from


Meets future wife Daniela racing for Erre Tre in Italian F3

But with such a massive lead over their nearest rival, Zanardi attempted to push-start his kart to get to the finish. Orsini's father rushed out onto the track, and began kicking Alessandro in the back. The foul play had its intended effect. Zanardi failed to finish, and the European title was handed to that driver who had been left in the Italians' wake: one Michael Schumacher. Alessandro lodged a protest with the Italian federation, only to be persuaded to drop it in the interests of not causing too much trouble.

And so eight years of karting had begun to instil in Alessandro the virtues of fighting spirit and determination. He needed even more of that when he finally progressed to Italian F3 in 1988, approaching the age of 22, only it find it much harder to adapt to. His first season only yielded one solitary 5th place, before an improved second year in 1989 saw two poles, a 2nd and two 3rds, despite being hampered by a mid-season switch to unleaded fuel which reduced the power output of his Toyota engine.

His team manager in the Erre Tre Racing for Italy team that season had been a lady by the name of Daniela - who would later become his wife in October 1996 and the foundation behind his future success. As future rival and fellow F1 driver Massimiliano Papis would attest: "She was so good for Alex. He believed in racing with a lot of passion. Daniela believed in racing with a lot of rationality. She added reason to his passion." With Daniela's support, the results began flowing in.


Alessandro proves he has the goods, and nets a full-season drive in F3000

A switch to the RC Motorsport team run by Ernesto Catella in 1990 finally netted two wins, two 2nds and two 3rds, and 2nd place in the Italian F3 championship just three points adrift of the champion, Roberto Colciago. Add to that victory in the European Cup event at Le Mans, pole in the prestigious Monaco F3 race in front of the F1 fraternity, and 7th at Macau, and Zanardi had finally established himself beyond the world of karting. With no time to waste, Alessandro was straight into F3000 in 1991.

Actually, Zanardi had made his F3000 debut towards the end of 1989, but that had been a one-off late-season run at Dijon in which he had floundered towards the back of the field. 1991 would be a full-season effort, although question marks lingered. Alessandro would have the latest Reynard 91D at his disposal, but his Il Barone Rampante team was new to the category. Would both driver and team be able to cope? The answer proved to be an emphatic yes, as 1991 turned out to be a watershed year in Zanardi's career.

Victory in the opening round of F3000 at Vallelunga set the tone for Alessandro's 1991 season.
Victory in the opening round of F3000 at Vallelunga set the tone for Alessandro's 1991 season. Picture from


Takes wins at Vallelunga and Mugello, but reliability hands title to Fittipaldi

A front-row start and victory in the opening round at Vallelunga set the tone for the season. From there, in the remaining nine rounds, Zanardi was never lower than 4th on the grid, and only off the front-row three times. His poles at Pau and Brands Hatch were particularly astounding; on the tight French street circuit he was over 0.7s clear of the field, and at Brands he had a 0.66s advantage over Marco Apicella. He also added to his Vallelunga victory with a second win from pole at Mugello.

There were also four 2nds, but four other DNFs cost him dearly. His three mechanical failures, at Pau, Enna and Le Mans, all struck whilst he was in the lead. Zanardi's main rival, Christian Fittipaldi, only suffered two retirements all season, and that was enough for the Brazilian to clinch the title by five points. As a consolation, Zanardi won the Casco d'Oro Tricolore award from Autosprint magazine as the best Italian driver of the year, but before the year was out he had secured an even bigger prize.

Formula One, part I

Gachot and Moreno's misfortune is Zanardi's ticket into F1

1991 had also been a watershed year for Eddie Jordan, as his fledgling F1 team made waves in their debut season. Gary Anderson's 191 chassis, which many considered the best-handling car on the grid, and undoubtedly the best-looking, had become a regular points-scorer in the hands of Andrea de Cesaris and Bertrand Gachot. Gachot had even set the fastest lap of the race in the Hungarian GP, only to be imprisoned shortly afterwards as a result of an altercation with a London taxi driver.

Famously, Jordan gave Michael Schumacher his F1 debut at Spa as Gachot's substitute, but after the German's stunning performance he was snaffled immediately by the Benetton team, which gave Jordan Roberto Moreno in return. But an experienced, established driver like Moreno was not Jordan's vision for the future; after two races Eddie sidelined the Brazilian and decided to give another young talent an opportunity. He decided to call upon an Italian who was taking the F3000 championship by storm.

Zanardi had in fact already had his first taste of F1 machinery in mid-1991 when he tested a Footwork at Paul Ricard, but racing for Jordan was a different proposition altogether. Alessandro was at Le Mans for the F3000 round there when Jordan tried to contact him. The story goes that initially Eddie could not locate him, and had to resort to the circuit loudspeaker to attract his attention. Once found, the deal was done and Zanardi would race for Jordan in the last three GPs of the year.

Zanardi had his first taste of F1 at a Footwork test in mid-1991 at Paul Ricard.
Zanardi had his first taste of F1 at a Footwork test in mid-1991 at Paul Ricard. Picture from


First two races confirm he deserves his place on the grid

The first of those was the Spanish GP at Barcelona, which played into Zanardi's hands because it was a new circuit for everyone. Nevertheless, Alessandro had never tested the car before the weekend. But he quickly acclimatised, and qualified a safe 20th, only three spots and 0.7s behind de Cesaris. In the race, he grew stronger and stronger as it progressed, and despite a brief tangle with Gianni Morbidelli's Minardi, he finished a lap down in 9th, and 8th in the fastest lap standings just behind Ayrton Senna!

In retrospect, it had been a superb debut if not a spectacular one. Zanardi's father Dino had been there too, to witness his son's first Grand Prix, unbeknown to Alessandro for fear of distracting him throughout the weekend. But on his slowing-down lap after the race, Zanardi caught sight of a man halfway up a pole waving to him and realised it was his father, who was the person by his side when his career began in karts ten years earlier. It was a lovely moment for the Zanardi family after years of hard work.

But that was just the beginning. Suzuka was the opposite of Barcelona, an established circuit on the calendar where experience told. Yet Zanardi was 8th fastest in first free practice, and in first qualifying was an astounding 7th, behind the McLarens, Williams and Ferraris only. He was almost 0.7s ahead of Schumacher, over a second faster than local hero Satoru Nakajima, and over 1.3s quicker than de Cesaris. Though he finally slipped to 13th on the grid, behind Schumacher and de Cesaris, he had made his point.


Torrential downpour takes Alessandro out of his comfort zone - and halts race early

6th in the pre-race warm-up boded well for a strong race, and sure enough Zanardi was quickly up to 8th and on Schumacher's tail in the early stages when his Jordan's gearbox failed after seven laps. So it was onwards to Adelaide for the final GP of the season, and the last race that the young Italian was assured of. It was here that he made his first mistake of note in an F1 car, when he leapt over the kerbs at the chicane at the start of the lap in free practice, and damaged his front wing.

That was only a minor distraction. Zanardi ended up qualifying 16th on a 1min 17.362s lap, just 0.3s shy of de Cesaris. But in free practice he had done a lap of 1min 15.6s; had he repeated that in qualifying he would have qualified 8th, splitting the Ferraris. But come race day he faced a new challenge - rain. A street circuit, insufficient drainage, and torrential showers made for some of the worst conditions ever seen in a Grand Prix, so much so that the race was halted permanently on the 16th lap.

The results were declared at the end of lap 14, being the last fully-completed lap, and that classified Zanardi in 9th. That was creditable enough for a man who had had no F1 experience in such conditions. But after lap 14, before the race was red-flagged, both Nigel Mansell and Gerhard Berger had spun out, and in effect Alessandro had climbed to 7th. Even more amazingly, he was 5th in the fastest lap standings, behind only Berger, Senna, Nelson Piquet and Mansell, and ahead of Schumacher.

Alex was sensational in 1st qualifying at Suzuka, placing 7th. He was making his mark in F1.
Alex was sensational in 1st qualifying at Suzuka, placing 7th. He was making his mark in F1. Picture from F1


Off-season negotiations a hassle as first Gugelmin then de Cesaris snaffle up his drives

There was not the same fanfare surrounding Zanardi as there was around Schumacher, but Jordan knew he had another precocious talent on his hands. Eddie wanted to keep Zanardi on for 1992, and Alessandro carried out winter testing for the team, but what he needed more than anything else was money. Despite his team's impressive performance throughout 1991, sponsorship was tight, and Jordan had expended much of his personal resources in the effort.

Sponsorship and backing was the one thing Zanardi did not have, and had never had to carry him through the junior formulae; he had made it on talent alone. This moment would prove to be yet another obstacle, another challenge in a story laced with many challenges to overcome. For 1992, Jordan had already signed Stefano Modena and taken on Yamaha engines - because they came free. At the eleventh hour, Mauricio Gugelmin offered $8 million in sponsorship money. It was an irresistible amount.

So, despite promises during the off-season, Alessandro was out of an F1 drive. But another noted talent-scout had noticed him and picked him up at once: one Ken Tyrrell. Tyrrell even entered Zanardi to drive at the season-opening South African GP and signed a pre-contract with him. But the veteran team owner was in exactly the same financial plight as Jordan. In the days leading up to Kyalami, de Cesaris found additional backing and, heartbreakingly, Zanardi was gazumped again, this time by his former team-mate.


Flav offers Zanardi test role at Benetton; works on active suspension

By this late stage, all the race seats in all the major categories had been filled, and it appeared as though the Italian's career had ground to a sudden halt. But a third F1 team boss came calling. Flavio Briatore, who by snatching Schumacher from Jordan had opened the way for Zanardi to make his F1 debut, gave him the opportunity to be Benetton's official test driver. It was an invitation that Alessandro could not refuse, although for a while it seemed as though he had inherited a title rather than a role.

Early on, Briatore handed the main testing duties to Schumacher and Martin Brundle, Benetton's race drivers, as the new B192 chassis was developed. Zanardi was still being left on the sidelines. But Alessandro gradually began to get his turns behind the wheel, as Benetton sought to develop an active suspension system to combat the gadgetry that was helping Williams to steamroller the opposition. By midseason, the Benetton with its active suspension was arguably the next best car in the field, ahead of the McLaren.

But also by midseason, Zanardi found himself with an opportunity to return to racing action, ironically at the expense of the man who had beaten him to the F3000 title the previous year. Christian Fittipaldi was in his F1 debut season driving for Minardi, when he crashed in practice for the French GP, fractured his fifth vertebra and was ruled out for two months. Minardi considered the likes of F3000 stars Andrea Montermini and Emanuele Naspetti as replacements, but neither had had F1 racing experience.

Flavio Briatore gave Alessandro an opportunity as Benetton tester, but it was a race drive Zanardi was after.
Flavio Briatore gave Alessandro an opportunity as Benetton tester, but it was a race drive Zanardi was after.


Ever-so-brief sojourn hampered by mechanical gremlins and little track time

Instead they called on Zanardi, but even then it was hardly an ideal scenario for Alessandro. With only a week between the French and British GPs, he never got the chance to learn the Minardi M192 chassis with its tricky Lamborghini V12 engine, which was hardly the most competitive package to begin with at any rate. In first qualifying at Silverstone he was only 27th quickest, 0.08s slower than Damon Hill in the struggling Brabham, and needing to improve on Saturday if he was to get onto the grid.

But as Zanardi's luck would have it, rain fell on Saturday qualifying, Alessandro did not even venture out onto the track, and resigned himself to recording a DNQ. Matters improved in Germany, where the Italian qualified 24th, just behind Gugelmin's Jordan but ahead of new team-mate Morbidelli and also Gachot in the similarly-powered Venturi Larrousse. A decent number of laps under racing conditions would have done Zanardi a world of good, but instead the gearbox failed after just a single tour.

Hungary closed off this short, sorry chapter in similar fashion. In first qualifying, Zanardi was 24th, once again ahead of Morbidelli. But problems on Saturday meant that Alessandro did not even set a time in second qualifying. Instead, he had to watch as his rivals gradually surpassed his effort, leaving him only 29th quickest on combined times and failing to make the grid, although Morbidelli joined him on the sidelines. After that, Fittipaldi returned and Zanardi's brief Minardi tenure was over.


Decision time: either the prospect of bright future at Benetton or a current race drive

The brief flirtation with Minardi had not only been bitterly unsuccessful, it had been easy to overlook and had not helped Zanardi's chances of getting back into an F1 race drive. As the year wore on, he continued testing duties for Benetton, although even that was hampered by a bout of pneumonia which kept him out of the cockpit for a period of time, but which incidentally gave Perry McCarthy the chance to have a test with Benetton. The chances of landing a race seat for 1993, however, were appearing remote.

In Zanardi's own words, at the end of the year Briatore offered him "a terrific project for the two following years", although that did not include a race drive for 1993 because Riccardo Patrese had been signed to replace the outgoing Brundle. But during the off-season, Benetton asked him to complete a full race simulation at Paul Ricard, and Zanardi's time proved to be even faster than Schumacher's. Lotus team boss Peter Collins took note.

Collins was looking for someone to replace Mika Hakkinen as Johnny Herbert's team-mate at Lotus in 1993, preferably someone with active suspension experience, as Lotus were in the process of developing their own system. Zanardi thus seemed a perfect fit, and Collins offered him the ride. Alessandro was at a crossroads - either accept a background role with a large team with potential prospects in the future, or take an immediate race drive with a lesser team. Keen for racing action, he chose Lotus.

Pinch-hitting for Christian Fittipaldi at Minardi, Zanardi had little time in the car over three races.
Pinch-hitting for Christian Fittipaldi at Minardi, Zanardi had little time in the car over three races. Picture © Schlegelmilch.


Takes it to Damon Hill, before grabbing a brilliant points finish in Brazil

It was to prove to be two seasons in which the flashes of brilliance and talent were more often than not hidden in and outweighed by the setbacks and mishaps. Despite their ambitions to keep up with the latest technologies, Lotus were also beginning to run tight on finances, and before the 1993 season began in South Africa, Zanardi had had no more than brief runs in the 107B chassis at Snetterton and Silverstone. However, at Kyalami he was only 0.1s off Herbert as the Lotuses qualified 16th and 17th.

In the race, he found himself up to 12th and battling against Hill, who was making his debut for Williams but who had spun on the first lap and was mired in the midfield. Four times Zanardi ducked past, but on each occasion the superior power of the Renault engine, compared to the Ford HB V8 in the Lotus, meant that Hill was able to retake him. But on lap 17, Alessandro ran out of patience, attempted an ambitious dive down the inside at the hairpin, and ended up shoving both himself and Damon into the gravel.

"The mistake was more mine than his," Zanardi said afterwards, "but I was losing my tyres behind him and I knew I was much quicker if only I could get by." Confident words from a man who was competing against the fastest car in the field, but honest words from someone able to admit to his own errors. But it had not been the best way to begin his career with his new team, yet he more than made up for it in Brazil where Lotus celebrated a double points finish, with Herbert 4th and Zanardi 6th.


Confidence grows; starts a midfield charge at Imola and gets to 5th...

Herbert took the plaudits by pressuring Schumacher for the final podium place right to the finish, but in many ways Zanardi's drive had been the more heroic. After a mid-race shower and safety car period, a car ahead of Alessandro kicked up a stone which hit and injured his left shoulder, forcing him to drive for most of the last 20 laps one-handed, supporting his neck with his other hand. Still, he was 8th in the fastest lap standings and brought the car home for his first - and only, as it turned out - championship point.

At Donington for the European GP, as Herbert finished 4th again most people overlooked the fact that Zanardi had recovered from a Friday practice crash to place 4th in the fastest lap standings on race day, and would probably have once again joined his team-mate in the points had he not pitted four times in the changeable conditions for tyres. Alessandro's confidence and exuberance was growing race by race, and to help matters the following round was on more familiar territory at Imola.

However, a troubled qualifying left him 20th on the grid, but having found a set-up sweet spot in race trim, as the race developed he found his tyres and brakes in much better condition than his rivals. From the middle of the race onwards Zanardi began an irrepressible charge up the field, his fastest lap just 0.2s slower than the best that Senna's McLaren managed and once more 4th in the fastest lap standings. Towards the end of the race, he was up to 5th, and pressuring JJ Lehto's Sauber for 4th.

Battling with Damon Hill at Kyalami ended in tears - more Zanardi's fault according to him!
Battling with Damon Hill at Kyalami ended in tears - more Zanardi's fault according to him!


Points go begging, with an off-track excursion and a blown Ford

Alessandro was in a hurry to pass the Finn; if he cleared the Sauber there was a chance he could catch and pass Brundle's Ligier for the final podium spot. But when Lehto braked slightly early for the final chicane, Zanardi was caught by surprise, put two wheels on the damp grass, and spun into the wall. Determined to continue, he rejoined the track, only for his damaged rear suspension to catch fire and for his rear left wheel to fall off, forcing him to retire. It had been a massive missed opportunity.

Undaunted, the Spanish GP turned out to be a similar story, and almost as dramatic. From 15th on the grid, he was running a steady 6th five laps from the finish, and looking set to score another point, when his Ford engine suddenly detonated, just as the battle for 2nd between Senna and Schumacher came up to lap him. The slowing Lotus hugged the inside of the last corner, forcing Schumacher out onto the marbles and off the track, and securing 2nd place for Senna. Yet more points had gone begging.

Zanardi's eventful season continued at Monaco, where he crashed in Thursday practice, and once more put himself behind the eight-ball by only starting 20th. But another fine race drive saw him again charge up the leaderboard, passing a number of cars on the tight confines of the Principality circuit, even barging past Herbert at Loews hairpin and brushing the armco along the way, finishing 7th. He was denied a point when Brundle slipped past Zanardi as he was being lapped by Hill's Williams.

Hear James Hunt announce the consequences of Alex's engine explosion at Barcelona.

"And Schumacher off ... Possibly on oil from Zanardi's Lotus, and it's all drama here! Well, far too much excitement."

(MP3 format, 336k, 21 secs)


Active suspension not proving that active; he still can't out-qualify Herbert

Undoubtedly Alessandro had been in a purple patch in the opening six rounds, especially in race trim although his qualifying pace had left something to be desired. In fact, he had yet to out-qualify Herbert, and in Monte Carlo he had been a full second slower. Though his raw combativeness and racer's instinct on Sunday afternoons was abundantly clear, he had been thwarted by bad luck, too many practice dramas, and the fact that lowly grid positions had left him with too much to do on race day.

But from here his 1993 began a downward spiral, especially as Lotus pushed the envelope with its active suspension, and as that system failed Zanardi far too often. After another accident in practice due to a mechanical failure, Canada proved to be Alessandro's most uncompetitive outing of the year to date. In France, although Zanardi out-qualified Herbert for the only time all season, his weekend was wrecked by endless active suspension dramas, the last of which put him out of the race on lap four.

Silverstone continued the trend. After yet another accident in free practice, he remarked: "You know, in Italy there is a film about a guy who is very unlucky; even when he is eloping with his lover in his little Fiat 500 station wagon, there are these clouds that follow him. I had these clouds at Copse this morning!" The result was a compromised qualifying session that saw him over a second behind Herbert, and another active suspension failure in the race as he approached the ultra-fast Bridge corner.

Alex scored his first World Championship point at Brazil, taking a fine 6th. It should have been the first of many!
Alex scored his first World Championship point at Brazil, taking a fine 6th. It should have been the first of many!


Becomes yet another victim of Eau Rouge, with massive accident almost claiming Senna also

As if his own hard charging and the Lotus' unreliability was not making life difficult enough for him, between the British and German GPs he suffered an even more bizarre mishap whilst riding a bicycle in Bologna. An elderly motorist collided with him, knocking him off his bike, and to compound matters the driver then reversed his car - right over Alessandro's left foot, breaking several bones. With the distraction of racing with his foot in a cast, it was no surprise when Zanardi spun out midway through the German GP.

Another few spins in practice and qualifying in Hungary, another lowly grid position, and a gearbox failure in the race meant that Zanardi's season was rapidly losing momentum. However, that all paled into insignificance on Friday morning at Spa for the Belgian GP. On his second flying lap, the 107B's active suspension failed again, at the worst possible moment: in the middle of Eau Rouge. The Lotus twitched over a bump, and speared head-first into the wall on the left side of the track at over 150mph.

The impact sent Zanardi spinning wildly up the hill into the gravel trap on the approach to Raidillon, where the tub came to rest with Alessandro motionless inside. With debris littering the track, Michael Andretti in the McLaren was the first man on the scene, pulling up to nearly a complete halt on the racing line. Then Senna arrived at full speed; unable to stop in time, he pitched his car into a spin heading straight for the stricken Lotus, only to pull up inches away from hitting the wreck.


Given the excuse, Lotus draft in Lamy, who ultimately stays in the drive

Zanardi was unconscious, and the paddock feared the worst. But amazingly, he survived without major injury, not even to his legs which had borne the brunt of the head-on impact, except for a concussion. And while it ruled him out for the rest of the weekend, it also presented Lotus with an opening. As the team felt the pressure of the worldwide economic recession, they had the option of continuing with Zanardi who was soon fit enough to drive again, or finding a substitute who could bring some sponsorship dollars.

In Pedro Lamy, Collins chose the latter, and Alessandro was back onto the sidelines for the rest of the season, despite being physically able to drive. In fact, so attractive was the Portuguese driver's cash that Lotus retained him for 1994, when the team would also have the benefit of Mugen Honda engines. Zanardi was quickly turning into a forgotten man. But out of loyalty (or perhaps a bad conscience), Collins retained Alessandro as Lotus' test driver. In truth, the Italian had few other options.

One of Zanardi's supporters, though, was Lotus technical director Peter Wright. As he would say in later years: "Of all the drivers I have worked with, Zanardi was the most able - and willing - to get involved with the development of the car. With his technical background, he quickly grasped the concept behind test programmes and was able to carry them out to precise instructions. His feedback was detailed and thorough, and engineers were sometimes stretched to note it all down ..."

Eau Rouge claims another victim - although Zanardi survived this smash without major injury.
Eau Rouge claims another victim - although Zanardi survived this smash without major injury.


Reclaims his drive after Lamy's dreadful accident in F1's horror period of early 1994

So there was more to Zanardi than just the aggressive racer, and in early 1994, it seemed as though luck may have begun to shine on him, unfortunately at Lamy's expense. At a Silverstone test session Zanardi completed 397 laps over three days without drama before handing the car to Lamy. On Pedro's second lap, the rear wing collapsed, and the ensuing accident broke both of Lamy's legs shortly after the tragic accidents that had befallen Senna, Roland Ratzenberger and Karl Wendlinger.

Zanardi was thrust back into the race seat, but that luck was short-lived. Lotus was an increasingly unhappy place to be. The Mugen Honda V10 was heavy, the new 109 chassis was late, and there was only one of them available for Herbert. Zanardi had to make do with the revised 107C, and in his return race in Spain he only qualified 23rd, incurring a pit-lane speeding infringement fine for his troubles. Although he brought the oversteering car home in 9th, the signs were not promising.

Parts were breaking on the Lotus with alarming regularity. In Canada, a battery lead broke on Friday, the diffuser fell apart on Saturday, and the engine failed on Sunday after Zanardi had been given a ten-second stop-go penalty for allegedly passing Lehto's Benetton under yellows, although he claimed he was merely defending his position from the Finn. For the French GP, he finally got his hands on a 109, but it had only been shaken down at Snetterton the week before.

Hear Murray Walker and Dr. Jonathan Palmer discuss why Alex couldn't see his engine on fire - plus the added bonus piece of information that Damon Hill was somewhere under Murray! What he was doing there, we'll never know...

"He's got this solid sheet of flame behind him ... Damon Hill is underneath me, as you watch 'Sandro Zanardi in blissful ignorance."

(MP3 format, 820k, 52 secs)


New 109 chassis proves a problem child, as does the Mugen V10

Teething problems were to be expected, indeed throughout practice Alessandro could not string together several laps without visits to the pits. In the race, the Mugen motor caught fire after 20 laps, only for Zanardi to press on for a third of a lap at unabated speed, unaware of the inferno behind him. It was a similar story at Silverstone, where another engine failure sidelined him after only four laps after the team could not decide whether to start him in the trouble-plagued 109 or the spare 107C chassis.

Then in Germany he was taken out in one of the start-line incidents by de Cesaris, before copping a suspended one race ban for failing to attend a stewards' meeting after the race, having left the track after his collision. When the car was finally reliable enough to last a race distance in Hungary, it did so running on only nine cylinders all race. Then Zanardi was substituted altogether in Belgium, where local pay-driver Philippe Adams offered much-needed funds that Lotus could not afford to turn down.

Qualifying at Monza, though, provided one final highlight for Lotus in its death throes. The stiff 109 chassis was perfectly suited to the high-speed nature of the track, and with a new-specification engine Herbert qualified a magnificent 4th. With the older engine, Zanardi started a season-best 13th, but was several tenths quicker on a final flying lap when he got caught out by a soft brake pedal. Those extra tenths could have put him as high as 6th or 7th on the grid.

At Magny Cours, Alessandro leaps to avoid any danger surrounding his new 109, with its recently exploded Mugen engine.
At Magny Cours, Alessandro leaps to avoid any danger surrounding his new 109, with its recently exploded Mugen engine.


Lotus slowly goes down the tube, taking Zanardi's F1 prospects with it

But, symbolically, the race quickly turned into a disaster for the team, with Herbert taken out at the first start and forced to switch to the spare car without the new engine, whilst Zanardi was hit from behind on the first lap of the restart, which slew him into Morbidelli's Footwork and put both out of the race. Lotus was placed into administration after the Italian GP, and for the next round in Portugal, Alessandro found himself temporarily ousted again after Adams bought himself a second drive.

From here it was a matter of going through the motions and seeing out the rest of the season, as Zanardi became the lead driver in the team after Herbert defected to Ligier (and then to Benetton), and was replaced firstly by Eric Bernard and then by Mika Salo. Alessandro finished 16th at Jerez where the Lotus proved hopelessly uncompetitive, before two highly creditable qualifying efforts in Japan and Australia, the Italian starting 17th at Suzuka and 14th in Adelaide.

Zanardi put in a brave but unheralded effort to race the 109 in the treacherously wet conditions in Japan with a broken diffuser, and he signed off on Lotus' proud history in F1 with his retirement from electrical and throttle failure in Australia. But the team was never going to survive into 1995, and Alessandro's bold showings in the early part of 1993 were now a distant memory. He had thrown in his lot with Lotus in order to get a race seat, but in two years his F1 career had sunk along with the team.

Between F1

Crosses the Atlantic to find America a hard nut to crack

In short, the determination and the ability were there, but there had also been too many incidents, and frankly what Zanardi did not have were sponsorship dollars behind him, and results on the board. F1 team bosses bypassed him, and for 1995 he was out in the cold. He had a Porsche Supercup outing at Imola, and Reynard's commercial director, Rick Gorne, who remembered him from his F3000 days, took him to America to meet several CART team managers, now that Reynard was gaining a foothold in that series.

But, for a while, that proved fruitless. "I came to America thinking I could easily find a ride because I had Formula One experience," Zanardi recalls, "but I couldn't find anybody who would sit down with me and hear what I had to say. Nobody knew me in America. It was difficult." So for the rest of the year, he managed only two other race outings in the BPR Global GT sportscar series, driving a GT3-class Lotus Esprit Sport 300 with Alex Portman.

Even then he was able to shine. At the Donington round, a four-hour race, Zanardi and Portman were over a lap in front of their class rivals with eight minutes to go when the differential failed. At Silverstone though, in rainy conditions they blitzed their GT3 opposition and finished in a sensational 4th overall, within 12 seconds of the cars in 2nd and 3rd, except that they were GT1 machines with hundreds more horsepower. It was satisfying, but it was not where Zanardi wanted to be.


Becomes Rookie of the Year in CART; takes three wins for third overall

But then, a lifeline. Gorne brought him back to the States and got him into a test session at Homestead, where Chip Ganassi was evaluating drivers for his second seat alongside Jimmy Vasser for the 1996 CART season. Ganassi's chief engineer, Mo Nunn, who had formerly run the Ensign team in F1, was less than impressed. He thought that Italian drivers were too hot-blooded to succeed on a regular basis. However, Ganassi overruled him and handed Zanardi the drive for the following year.

On October 23 1995, Zanardi's 29th birthday, he signed the contract with Ganassi and the next three seasons, as they say, is history. He took his first pole in his Reynard Honda in only his second outing at Rio, and after a lean run his season burst into life with a dominant pole and victory at Portland. From there he recorded eight straight front-row starts for six poles altogether for the year, and two other wins at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca as well as three other podiums, and four fastest laps all up.

He led for a mammoth 610 laps (destroying the record previously held by Mansell), 134 of them on the Michigan Superspeedway where he was denied victory by the failure of a $2 part, and scored more points in the second half of the season than anyone else. Whilst Vasser took the title, next up Zanardi tied with Michael Andretti on 132 points, with the American taking the runner-up position on a count-back. But Zanardi had done more than enough to secure the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award.

Zanardi leaves Bryan Herta in his wake with a legendary passing move to take a storming victory at Laguna Seca in 1996.
Zanardi leaves Bryan Herta in his wake with a legendary passing move to take a storming victory at Laguna Seca in 1996. Picture from


Zanardi becomes a CART megastar with two dominant titles, breaking records galore

That was just the beginning. Two poles in the first two races of 1997 made it six consecutive poles and eleven consecutive front-row starts, both CART records. Although he only took two more poles after that, he scored five wins at Long Beach, Cleveland, and a hat-trick at Michigan, Mid-Ohio and Elkhart Lake, plus two other podiums and four 4ths, leading 338 laps in total as he stormed home to championship victory with 195 points over Gil de Ferran's 162, clinching his first international title since 1987.

The steamroller continued into 1998, where Zanardi's racing prowess came to the fore. Despite not a single pole, out of 19 events he finished on the podium 15 times, taking seven victories including a rival-breaking four-on-the-trot in midseason, again breaking all existing CART records. With a gigantic 285 points, he was 116 clear of team-mate Vasser in second place, and in the space of three years he had become the most dominating force CART had ever witnessed, while that series was in its heyday.

In three years and 51 races, he scored 28 podiums. But these were all mere statistics; what they don't tell you were the dramatic stories of some of his victories. In many ways, the impetus behind Zanardi's great American adventure came not from his first two wins, virtual flag-to-flag dominations at Portland and Mid-Ohio in 1996, but from his last-gasp win in the final race at Laguna Seca. On the last lap, he was tucked behind leader Bryan Herta as they approached the infamous Corkscrew corner, with half a lap to go.

Hear Paul Page and F1 Reject Danny Sullivan calling Zanardi's famous last lap desperado move at Laguna Seca in 1996.

"Here he goes - and he gets him! Can he get him back? Can he hang on? ... Alex Zanardi with a brilliant move ... unbelievable!"

(MP3 format, 556k, 35 secs)


Famously squeezes past Bryan Herta at the Laguna Seca corkscrew

Most would have settled for 2nd at this point, but from nowhere Zanardi lunged down the inside and slid past a bewildered Herta. Running out of road on corner exit, the Italian took to the asphalt fringe on the other side of the kerb, skimmed over a gravel trap, and emerged out the other side still in front, holding him off to the chequered flag. Sure, it had hardly been a clean move, but it was daring, it was dramatic, it was unexpected, it was true racer's instinct. In American circles it became known, simply, as The Pass.

As Ganassi would say in hindsight, "It was a pivotal point in Zanardi's career, a pivotal point for CART. To say that it was energising is an understatement." It gave Zanardi the confidence to know that he could pull off the near-impossible. For example, what the bare facts of his 1997 season above also don't reveal is that, after nine rounds with only eight remaining, Zanardi only had 69 points, and his Honda motor appeared to be outgunned by the Mercedes Benz powerplant.

At Cleveland for round ten, he had led from the start, only to be assessed two separate penalties. He was ordered to the back of the field for pitting while the lane was closed, and given a stop-go for a blend line violation. To all but Zanardi himself, it looked like a lost cause. But a combination of well-timed caution periods, retirements for his rivals, and a brilliant charge in which he set a fastest lap 0.9s quicker than anyone else, saw him rise up the field and snatch the lead from de Ferran with a handful of laps to go.

Zanardi at Cleveland in 1997, en route to another trademark
Zanardi at Cleveland in 1997, en route to another trademark "burn from the stern".


Burn from the stern becomes the Zanardi modus operandi

It had been a burn from the stern of the highest order, but it still only left him 5th in the standings, 16 points behind. Yet it gave him, Ganassi and Honda the momentum they needed, and in the next six races Zanardi finished no lower than 4th, including that hat-trick of wins. He had sealed the title before the last race at Fontana Superspeedway, and could even afford to sit that race out after a jarring practice crash. And that latter-season run had all started with one never-say-die performance in Cleveland.

It got even better at Long Beach the following year, as Zanardi pushed back the boundaries of what was possible even further. He had been 0.495s off pole in qualifying, but that was enough to drop him to 11th on the grid. On lap 28 of the 105-lap affair, a tangle at the hairpin caused a traffic jam. Zanardi was one of those held up, and in the concertina effect he had damaged his front suspension. He pitted for repairs under yellow, and his crew bent the steering arm back into shape and sent him on his way.

Zanardi was now a lap down, and his steering was still not quite right. But as fortune would have it, a tyre failure and an accident for Andretti put the Ganassi car back onto the lead lap, and clever strategy ensured that Zanardi made his final stop for fuel much earlier than anyone else. Despite some furious driving, on lap 83 he was still down in 11th; ten laps later, he had only climbed to 9th. But a spate of splash-and-dash fuel stops meant that by lap 99, he was up to 3rd.

Hear Ben Edwards and Jeremy Shaw cover Zanardi's burn from the stern victory at Long Beach in 1998.

"Zanardi is biding his time, now where is he going to go for it? He's going to go at turn 3! What a place to go for it - WOW! He's got past ... Zanardi's done it again, he's gone from the back to the front. An unbelievable drive from the reigning Champion."

(MP3 format, 1.7mb, 1min 52secs)


Alessandro becomes Alex, The Pineapple, The Roadrunner, Latka and a fan favourite

Only Dario Franchitti and Herta stood between Zanardi and an improbable victory. On lap 100 he dived past Franchitti, and began hunting down Herta in a repeat of Laguna Seca 1996. On the second last lap, he surprised the American again at an unlikely spot, scything down the inside at turn three. It had been another triumph of sheer will and determination. The crowd was sent into delirium; after crossing the line, Zanardi unbuckled his belts and drove the warm-down lap half out of the car, punching the air.

That amazing Long Beach win from a lap down ignited his record-breaking 1998 season. Some rounds he inexorably dominated, like Detroit and Surfers Paradise. Others he had to win by fending off a faster rival, as at St Louis with Andretti. Others he snatched in late race moves, like in Toronto where he passed Andretti on the third-last lap. Others, where an opponent had his measure, he just kept racking up the podium finishes, like at Rio, Nazareth, Michigan, Laguna Seca and Houston.

But not only had Zanardi become CART's hardest racer, but he had also become its most popular entertainer, the fans' favourite. Alessandro became anglicised to Alex, and he took on several nicknames. He was the Roadrunner. He was the Pineapple. He asked his engineer Nunn, with whom he developed a near-telepathic relationship, so many prickly questions about the car during his first season in 1996 that Nunn gave him that name and it stuck; he even painted it on his helmet and it became his trademark.

One of his best ever victories came at Long Beach in 1998, where Zanardi won the race after being a lap down at one stage.
One of his best ever victories came at Long Beach in 1998, where Zanardi won the race after being a lap down at one stage. Picture © Bob Heathcote.


Celebrates his race wins with donuts

And of course he was Mr Donuts. After that last-to-first win in Cleveland in 1997, in his joy he stopped his car after the race and began performing donuts, sending the fans wild; it became his traditional victory celebration. He brought his cappuccino maker to races and taught people which types of milk to use. He made fresh pasta on David Letterman's talk show. He made amusing television ads for Honda. It was little wonder that he won the PPG Colourful Character Award in 1997.

The press loved him too, and nicknamed him 'Latka' after the character in the comedy series Taxi. As journalist Robin Miller recalls: "Alex's press conferences were hysterical. He'd talk forever. It always seemed as if there was no place he'd rather be than right where he was. He captured everybody's imagination. It was so refreshing to hear Latka explain how he had raced from 28th to 1st and won. His joy was infectious. He had become, by '98, the spirit of CART."

Hear Derek Daly and Neil Crompton go berserk at the Gold Coast in 1997 over a clash between Zanardi and Paul Tracy, triggered by the involvement of backmarker Arnd Meier.

"Arnd Meier has no business being there ... here's Zanardi, he's in trouble! He touches wheel to wheel! Ohhhhhhhhh!"

(MP3 format, 1.5mb, 1min 36 secs)


With nothing more to prove in America, time for unfinished business...

So here was Zanardi the total package. Not only a demon racing driver who had found success after numerous character-building years, but a man of endearing personality and genuine humanity and optimism. No doubt the years of hard graft had taught him to enjoy the good times to the fullest. He found time for other forms of motor racing too; he competed in the Rally of Monza towards the end of 1996, and in 1997 he accepted an invitation to take part in the IROC series. In standard and equal stock cars, Zanardi struggled in the unfamiliar machinery, but it mattered little.

By the end of 1998, he was a household name in America, and in Europe too, where many a team boss were realising what they had overlooked. As Alessandro freely admits, his three years in America had been "very, very constructive for my race driving career." And at the age of 32, he also had time on his side, when Europe came calling and invited him to take care of some unfinished business in Formula One.

Formula One, part II

HHF and JV out, Alex in for rebuilding year before BMW

In the middle of 1998, Williams was enduring its first winless season for ten years, especially since engine partner Renault had withdrawn from F1 and the team was having to make do with leftover engines. Reigning World Champion Jacques Villeneuve was increasingly likely to join the new BAR squad for 1999, and Williams' relationship with Heinz-Harald Frentzen was simply not working. Sir Frank Williams assessed his driver options - and liked what he saw across the Atlantic.

In fact, Zanardi himself had made contact with Williams at the end of 1997, to let the team know that he was happy to talk if ever Williams was searching for a driver. At one stage, Ferrari had also sounded him out as a potential team-mate for Michael Schumacher. But, in July 1998, it was Williams that approached Alessandro in earnest, and a three-year deal was signed for Zanardi to be the team's lead driver, for the team's rebuilding year in 1999 and for 2000 and 2001, when BMW power would arrive.

"[Frank] was mainly looking for a racer, for a guy who never gives up, someone who always tries to improve his position," Zanardi explained. "Frank was also looking for a guy who is strong on the technical stuff, who can help develop a good, competitive race car. He has come to me because in this era, they certainly have huge help from computers - but it still takes the driver to tell the engineers the direction to go in. It is so important to be able to improve the car."


Joins Ralf, who surprisingly sets the pace in off-season testing

But, having become a superstar in America, why did he want to leave that behind? "I wanted something else," he said. "You may love honey, but if you have honey every day, then you start to want something salty. I came to the point in my career where the offer was there and it was a very good one. I don't have so many years left in my career. I want to do it now." And by that he did not mean simply competing in F1 again; his sights, and Williams', were definitely on a return to race wins, and then championship glory.

Zanardi began testing for Williams even before 1998 was out, working with that year's FW20 chassis alongside test driver Juan-Pablo Montoya, who was due to take Alessandro's place at Ganassi in 1999. Then the FW21 model for 1999 came along, coupled to the Supertec V10 engine which was little more than a variant on the 1997 Renault powerplant. Both Zanardi and Ralf Schumacher, whom Williams signed from Jordan in exchange for Frentzen, set to work over the off-season.

But alarm bells started ringing almost immediately. News began to spread that Zanardi was not proving to be as quick as many had hoped, whereas young gun Schumacher was making the pace contrary to expectations. In truth, one look at the Italian's record would have revealed that out-and-out pace was not his forte; he had been routinely out-qualified by Herbert at Lotus, and he had taken no poles during his dominant 1998 season. But Zanardi had a more fundamental reason for his struggles.

There were high hopes at season's start for Ralf Schumacher and Alex.
There were high hopes at season's start for Ralf Schumacher and Alex. Picture from Zanardi Unofficial Web Site.


Culture shock: Alex confronted with a major handling difference

Formula One regulations had changed remarkably after 1997. Gone were big slick tyres and wide-bodied machines, replaced by narrow-track chassis and grooved tyres designed to reduce grip - and the formula has not changed since. Zanardi found the new generation of F1 cars a culture shock. "It's really frustrating," he told Nigel Roebuck of Autosport, "because these cars are completely different to what I was driving in 1994, when I was last in F1."

"When I first competed in CART," he continued, "the cars were heavier than the ones I'd been driving in F1, but basically they had the same character. Now, coming back to F1 I find the cars totally changed. They're tricky, and they require a different driving style. My instinct is to carry speed into, and through, the corner, but you can't really do that with these cars; what you must do is brake really late, turn in somehow, and then get on the power as soon as you can."

He explained it a different way: "I hit the curves with a lot of speed, that's my problem. The current tyres don't skid as easily into the curves but they build up a lot of power in the direction of the wheels. So you have to hit the brakes hard, firing the car into the curve, and then - bang! Hit the gas again. I prefer to drive more like Alain Prost: gentle, but always at the very limit. The way they are now, I hate these cars. With these cars I can't do all the things I'm used to doing."


Teammate takes a podium in Oz, while Alex crashes out

Here was Zanardi's analytical ability coming to the fore, and he had a point. The fact that his most famous passing moves in CART involved lunging and muscling past a rival should not be mistaken for a violent driving style. Alessandro's was an aggressive mentality allied to a classical style behind the wheel. It was one thing for younger drivers to unlearn a few years' experience to adapt to the new-style F1 car; it was another thing altogether for Zanardi to unlearn instincts that he had honed over more than a decade.

But, before the 1999 season began, Zanardi knew that the challenge was his to overcome. "I guess it's a matter of getting used to new sensations," he told Roebuck, "and it'll take me a bit of time to set my new limits. Right now I'm flat out - I'm driving the best that I can - and I'm not fast enough. I'm working on it, and I'm sure that my limit will move up. I hope so, anyway - and so does Frank!" Not for the first time in his career, Alessandro had a mountain to climb.

It did not start well at the Australian GP. Although he was 9th quickest in first free practice, limited track time due to niggling reliability issues, and traffic on his qualifying runs meant that he qualified a lowly 15th, over three seconds away from pole and over 0.8s slower than Ralf in 8th. Although he was a promising 6th quickest in the pre-race warm-up, on lap 21 of his comeback race, having run no higher than 13th, he crashed. Ralf finished on the podium in 3rd.

Australia was not the return to F1 he was after - qualify 15th and crashing on lap 21.
Australia was not the return to F1 he was after - qualify 15th and crashing on lap 21. Picture © Herb Edgecomb.


Tries to pick up Herbert's point; picks up Herbert's oil instead

At this stage, the team were sympathetic and supportive. Senior operations engineer James Robinson said: "Alex was just really unlucky. He needs track time at the moment, and he didn't get enough. If we had a problem this weekend, it just seemed to end up on his car." Patrick Head added: "Alex had a very troubled weekend and I am sure it will be a lot better in Brazil." But, given Ralf's superb performance which was a prelude to a brilliant season, the pressure on Zanardi to deliver was rising rapidly.

Things did not improve in Brazil. Again, Alessandro's track time was limited, partly by an engine problem on Saturday. Again, he only qualified 16th, the same gap away from pole and from Ralf. The differential failed in the race before the engine blew, plus over the weekend he incurred a $5,000 fine for pit lane speeding. Ralf came 4th; the frustration was building without respite. "There is obviously something out there seeing how many problems it can throw my way," Zanardi lamented.

Then, at Imola, where he had starred six years ago in the Lotus, an upturn in fortune - almost. Zanardi started 10th, just one spot and less than 0.4s shy of his team-mate, and this time it was Ralf's turn to fail to finish when his Supertec engine detonated. Despite an electronic gremlin, Zanardi was running a steady 7th in the dying stages when Herbert, his old team-mate, blew his engine in the Stewart. A championship point beckoned; but Alessandro hit Herbert's oil at the Villeneuve chicane, and spun into the gravel.

Hear Murray Walker at the Canadian GP question Mark Blundell about Alex's performances, considering he had just come off second best with the lowly Minardi of Badoer.

"Zanardi and Badoer battling for that position - Badoer holding it while Zanardi goes off ... Am I being unfair if I say he's been disappointing?"

(MP3 format, 664kb, 42 secs)


More failures, crashes, penalties while Ralf takes more points

Zanardi out-qualified Ralf for the first time at Monaco, by over half a second no less, but the dramas continued on race day. The Italian's seat broke early in the race, and he spent most of the afternoon being flung around in the cockpit. At least he recorded his first finish for Williams, in 8th and last, two laps down, but it was little consolation. A quarter of the way into the season, he had not qualified any higher than 10th nor scored a point, and his inherent competitiveness was yet to shine through.

The stuttering season continued into Spain, where despite being 5th quickest in first free practice, set-up problems in qualifying left him down in 17th, despite being only 0.4s behind Ralf who was up in 10th. It was a similar story in the race; Zanardi's gearbox seized pulling away from a pit stop, and Ralf scored two more points in 5th. More gearbox problems and then brake problems in Canada limited his running on Friday to three laps in the morning, and 15 minutes in the afternoon.

Still, he managed to out-qualify Ralf for the second time all season, but only by 0.05s. But his race was yet again incident filled. Whilst running 8th, he went off into the gravel trap at the hairpin early on, dropped to last, and hardly recovered. He lost further time when he left the pits on a red light during a safety car period and was given a stop-go penalty. He then had a further excursion whilst trying in vain to overtake Luca Badoer's Minardi for position, and eventually crashed out of the race altogether. Ralf took 4th.

Zanardi retires at Interlagos. This would be an experience oft repeated during the season. He recorded 11 DNFs to his teammate's 4.
Zanardi retires at Interlagos. This would be an experience oft repeated during the season. He recorded 11 DNFs to his teammate's 4.


Radio fails, and Zanardi runs out of fuel - a metaphor for the season

After the team misread conditions in the wet qualifying for the French GP, the Williams cars started 15th and 16th, Zanardi ahead, but on the equally wet race day, Alessandro aquaplaned out of the race, and Ralf came home 4th yet again. At Williams' home race at Silverstone, Zanardi only managed to qualify 13th, almost 0.8s slower than Ralf, and whilst the German finished on the podium, Zanardi also made it to the chequered flag, but in 11th and 50 seconds behind his team-mate.

That was the first half of the season over. Ralf was on 19 points and 6th overall, impressing both the team and onlookers with not only his speed, but also his ability to consistently bring the car home in the points on Sundays. Long ago the team started gravitating towards him as its lead driver. Zanardi was yet to break his duck, and though he had been beset by mechanical issues far more than Ralf, he did not look like asserting himself. Either he was still not used to the car, or he was letting the car dictate his form.

And there was no respite on the horizon. Qualifying almost 0.6s slower than Ralf in Austria meant the difference between 8th and 14th on the grid. In the early stages of the race, Zanardi's radio failed, and around lap 33 his team began hanging out pit boards calling him in to pit. But Alessandro was tucked up behind Pedro Diniz's Sauber and looking for a way past. Twice he missed seeing the board; the third time around he finally noticed it, but it was too late. Halfway round the lap, he ran out of fuel.

Hear James Allen make a rare worthwhile interruption of Murray Walker and Martin Brundle from the pitlane to discuss the reason Alex had slowed to a halt in Austria.

"This has turned out to be a terrible return to Formula 1, 1999, for Alex Zanardi ... I think he's run out of fuel! ... There are already rumours that Alex Zanardi's time at Williams is limited ... if that is the case, it will certainly compound it!"

(MP3 format, 864kb, 55 secs)


Steel brakes and left-foot braking help things marginally, but the car still falls apart

In Germany, Zanardi blamed a track position miscalculation for only qualifying 14th again, and incurred another pit lane speeding fine for his troubles. Then in the race, he suffered a differential failure which eventually affected the engine and brakes and forced him to retire, whilst Ralf cruised to yet another 4th place. Regardless of the differential problems though, the impressions were lasting: Alessandro had spent another Sunday afternoon battling the Arrows and Minardis at the back of the field.

Zanardi needed answers quickly to at least regain some respectability before the season finished. For Hungary, he reverted to left-foot braking, and from Austria onwards he had even dabbled with steel brakes instead of carbon ones, having been used to the sensation of steel stoppers in CART. It made little difference; although he out-qualified Ralf by 0.021s, they were mired in 15th and 16th, and yet another differential failure put Alessandro out after 10 laps, having had one off-road excursion in the meantime.

Thoughts began turning to 2000, when Williams would team up with BMW. If Ralf could achieve results with a Supertec that was 50-60 horsepower down on the best, then the Williams-BMW combination had the potential to be extremely competitive. It needed two drivers who could maximise that promise, and at this point Zanardi was hardly fulfilling his end of the bargain. Rumours circulated that his three-year contract would be terminated; some even suggested he would be replaced before the season was over.

Alex in action in Hungary. There he reverted to left-foot braking to try and regain his edge. It made only a marginal difference.
Alex in action in Hungary. There he reverted to left-foot braking to try and regain his edge. It made only a marginal difference. Picture from Motorsports


Team screws up fuel strategy, leaving Alex a splash and dash for 8th

Alessandro's response, in a brief glimpse of the determination that had served him well over the years, was to put in his two finest performances of the 1999 season in Belgium and Italy. In Belgium he qualified a much-improved 8th, and off the line he overtook Rubens Barrichello's Stewart and rounded Damon Hill's Jordan around the outside of La Source, moving up to 6th. With others making their pit stops, Zanardi was up as high as 4th before he also came in to take on fuel.

Ralf had pitted one lap earlier, and he had stopped for over 11 seconds. It was an obvious one-stop strategy. Zanardi, however, only stopped for 9.2 seconds. He re-emerged behind his team-mate, and they ran a comfortable 5th and 6th. But did Alessandro have enough fuel to make it to the finish? The team had erred in terms of how much fuel to put in his tank, when in fact he too was on a one-stop plan. The inevitable splash and dash fuel stop dropped him back to 8th and out of the points.

It had been Zanardi's steadiest weekend since his return, and he arrived at Monza for the Italian GP in a feisty mood, but with his usual honesty intact: "Frank Williams and Patrick Head did not buy, at an expensive price, what they thought they would get out of me after they saw what I did in the States. If there is any responsibility from my side I am prepared to take it, but I think Patrick and Frank knew what had happened in the team to suddenly slow my learning process."

Hear Darrell Eastlake and Alan Jones discuss another Zanardi off-road excursion.

"As one of the Williams goes off, Zanardi, I tell you what - he should have a Victa lawn-mowing business, he's cut a few lawns around the world."

(MP3 format, 304kb, 19 secs)


Plonks himself 4th on the grid in Italy, runs 3rd until the inevitable breakage

But now, having had that solid run in Belgium under his belt, and with an improved car that was more to his liking, he hit the ground running in Monza. 3rd and 4th in the first two free practice sessions boded well for qualifying. When it mattered, Zanardi was exactly one second slower than pole-sitter Hakkinen, but he was on the second row of the grid in 4th, one place ahead of Ralf. It was Williams' best qualifying position since Villeneuve had started on the front row at Monza twelve months earlier.

Throughout the season, Zanardi's good humour and charming personality had made him many friends within the Williams team, even if his results had not done anything to endear him, and Patrick Head could not hide his pleasure at Alessandro's achievement. "I have to take my hat off to Alex," he enthused, "because he's found that time in himself - it isn't anything we've done to help him." If the FW21 stayed reliable, Zanardi's first points since Brazil 1993 were a genuine possibility.

A blistering getaway saw him catapult around David Coulthard's McLaren and Frentzen's Jordan up into an immediate 2nd place, but Frentzen repassed him into the Roggia chicane. Zanardi held his own in 3rd, but almost immediately his ill-fortune struck. On the third lap, the floor of his Williams came loose, and became scraping the ground under braking. He bravely matched lap times with those behind him for a while, but progressively he slowed and was unable to keep the pace.

Alex in Belgium, the beginning of a massive turnaround in form, which saw him run as high as 4th at Spa and 3rd at Monza.
Alex in Belgium, the beginning of a massive turnaround in form, which saw him run as high as 4th at Spa and 3rd at Monza. Picture © Teemu Mottonen.


Back to the pre-Belgium Alex at the Nurburgring

He firstly waved Ralf past, and then was overtaken by Barrichello and Mika Salo in the Ferrari. Zanardi was now down to 6th, which became 5th when Hakkinen spun out. Alessandro made his only fuel stop comparatively early, and rejoined the race to see what he could salvage. But by pitting earlier than his rivals, it allowed Coulthard and Eddie Irvine to leapfrog him, and when all the stops were completed, he was 7th and out of the points, which was where he stayed for the rest of the race.

Ralf was 2nd, and was now up to 30 points. There was no doubt that, had his floor not worked loose, Zanardi had the speed and the confidence on the day to hold off his team-mate and finish 2nd himself. But it now seemed as though he was destined to finish the year without any particular result of note, and perhaps Alessandro resigned himself to that fate. For the Zanardi that turned up at the Nurburgring for the European GP was the pre-Belgium version.

From his best qualifying effort of the year in Monza, he plummeted to his worst at the Nurburgring, starting 18th while Ralf was up in 4th. Zanardi blamed traffic, claiming that Villeneuve and Salo had held him up and cost him a second, but even then that would have only put him around 12th. Although he made another good start, he found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time when Alexander Wurz clipped Diniz into a series of barrel-rolls at the first chicane, and Zanardi had to run off the track in avoidance.

Listen to excerpts of Murray Walker and Martin Brundle commentating during the Italian GP at Monza, covering his great start, early pace and disappointing retirement.

"What an absolute joy it is to see Alex Zanardi at last being able to show how good a driver he is .... he's in 3rd position - by far the highest he's ever been in Formula 1 including his Lotus years."

(MP3 format, 2.6mb, 2min 49 secs)


Can't salvage pride in the final two races, finishing a pointless season

That put Zanardi down to last, and from there he had to mount a recovery. But, as the year had shown, he was no longer able to carve through the field as he had down in Cleveland in 1997, or at Long Beach in 1998. Here, he attempted to pass Ricardo Zonta's BAR at the last corner as the Brazilian tried to take Pedro de la Rosa's Arrows. Zanardi cleared the BAR, but could not slow in time to miss tagging the Arrows. They both spun, but whereas the Spaniard got going, Zanardi had stalled his engine.

Two races to go for Zanardi to salvage some pride out of 1999, but there was to be no heroic last stand. Alessandro started the Malaysian GP in 16th, having been over 1.3 seconds slower Ralf in qualifying. He suffered a damaged rim in a first lap collision when he was hit from behind, and the unscheduled pit stop ruined any chance of a decent result. A late-race off which caused him to pit another extra time to clear his radiators relegated him to an eventual 10th place, a lap down.

And there was no final redemption in Japan. Zanardi qualified a lowly 16th again, and, to epitomise his entire season, after another great start that had seen him rise as high as 9th, his pit lane speed limiter switched on after the hairpin, and as Alessandro tried to switch it off, the engine went into neutral and shut off. Zanardi was out on the first lap, and his 1999 was over without scoring a single point. By finishing 5th, Ralf had finished the season with 35, and was a fabulous 6th in the championship.

Zanardi looks on forlornly at Suzuka after his last ever F1 Grand Prix ends on lap 1 with an engine gremlin.
Zanardi looks on forlornly at Suzuka after his last ever F1 Grand Prix ends on lap 1 with an engine gremlin.


Amicable split sees Jenson take over Williams drive

Zanardi's position at Williams, and in F1 in general, was now virtually untenable. Williams could not risk continuing with him into 2000 and 2001. After BAR's equally pointless season in 1999, there were rumours that Villeneuve could rejoin. Olivier Panis and Jos Verstappen were on the market. Williams were also fond of Tom Kristensen and BMW's test driver Jorg Muller was another alternative. There was also the prospect of buying Montoya out of his CART contract a year in advance.

The point was that Zanardi and Williams had no alternative but an amicable split. And amicable it was, for there had been few drivers as well liked personally within Williams - a team not renowned for its relationships with its drivers - or in the paddock generally. So, at the rumoured cost of $4 million in severance pay, the Italian and the English team went their separate ways. And in the end, Williams went with none of the drivers mentioned above, but chose a rookie by the name of Jenson Button for season 2000.

In the cold light of day, what had gone so miserably wrong? Why had the racer and personality without equal in CART become such a tired, powerless shadow almost overnight? Reliability certainly played a major part. Ralf recorded only four DNFs all season, and only one of those was a mechanical failure. Zanardi failed to finish a mammoth 11 times from 16 races, with five mechanical mishaps and many more in practice and qualifying. When he needed the track time, he simply did not get it.


What had gone wrong? It wasn't a lack of honesty!

1999-style F1 never suited him; the tyres, the FW21's aerodynamic package and set-up characteristics, and the shorter braking distances compared to CART meant that Zanardi had little opportunity to show his late-braking prowess. And, quite simply, the constant unreliability and these other factors seemed to take a mental toll on him. Out of the freer atmosphere in CART and in the more sterile environment of F1, his personality and combativeness never transcended the car's deficiencies or his misgivings about the car.

But, to give him credit, Zanardi's appraisal of his disastrous F1 comeback on his own website is nothing but frank and candid: "After three very intense years I am mentally tired, I am spoiled by the habit of having at my disposal an amazing car and, maybe, I do not spend the due effort to start things up properly. I [am happy] to line myself up [with] others' thoughts ... because it is easy and in this way I blow the trust of those men [who] with great determination went to search [for] me in the United States."

"Moreover, I have to give him merit for this, Ralf Schumacher is as fast as he is unpleasant and all the team's enthusiasm around me slowly fades away." And so, what was meant to be a glorious return and a chance to prove the talent and ability that had been largely overlooked in his first stint in F1, had been a nightmare. To give Autosport's Roebuck the last word: "Personally, I thought Alex Zanardi was one of the nicest people I've known in racing, and I hated to see what he was going through that year."

After F1

An indefinite sabbatical doesn't last for too long

In fact, 1999 had been such a let-down professionally and personally, by the end of it Zanardi felt "disgusted by racing" and decided to walk away from the sport indefinitely, to see if his former motivation would return. Racing had made him rich and famous, but he had other things to keep him occupied. He went skiing, he bought a boat to indulge his enjoyment of fishing, he flew model airplanes, and above all, he became a doting father - Daniela had given birth to their son Niccolo on 7 September, 1998.

By July, though, he was back behind the wheel, but only temporarily and as a favour to his friend and former engineer Mo Nunn, who had left Ganassi and was now running his own CART operation. In 2000 he had been fielding Tony Kanaan, but after the Brazilian injured himself, Nunn asked if Zanardi could help test the Reynard Mercedes. Alessandro drove 246 laps at Sebring, and after a year trying to get his head around the skittish Williams F1 car, revelled in being able to drive a car with much more mechanical grip.

But it was not enough to tempt him to substitute for Kanaan in the next round at Toronto. Physically, his condition was not up to the rigours of a race weekend. Besides, his heart was still not quite there. If he really wanted to race, he did not need to wait until Kanaan got injured. "I would have gone to Morris and said, 'I need to drive, please hire some people and let's go racing.'" In the end, a second go at the Rally of Monza late in the year in a Subaru Impreza WRC2000 was the only competition he had all year.


Teams up with Mo Nunn, this time as team boss, not technical director

The appetite was being whetted. Numerous teams offered him a full-time return to CART in 2001 - Team Kool Green, Newman Haas, even Ganassi, but Zanardi turned them all down. In the end, it was Nunn who lured him back, as Honda offered his team a financial package to run a second car provided that Alessandro drove it. Pioneer jumped on board as the car's major sponsor, and on paper all the ingredients were there for the Italian to recreate his old magic: Zanardi, Nunn, Reynard, Honda.

Except that Zanardi very quickly realised that something major had indeed changed since he last worked with Nunn in 1998. Mo was no longer his engineer; he was now the boss. His interest was first and foremost in running the team, and not in giving Alessandro technical support. The comparatively new and inexperienced crew were still taking time to gel, and in particular found it difficult to help Zanardi arrive at good qualifying set-ups.

It made for a very average start of the 2001 CART season, with Zanardi hardly cracking the top 20 on the grid, and even when things were going well, again luck seemed to desert him. He had qualified 6th in Texas before the race was called off for safety reasons. He finished 7th at Motegi but would have been higher but for a late stop for fuel. He was up as high as 2nd in Cleveland before a puncture dropped him to 13th. He was in contention in Chicago until a caution period ruined his strategy.

Zanardi back behind the wheel in mid-2000 at an invitational test for Mo Nunn's new CART team. It would lead to a full-time drive in 2001.
Zanardi back behind the wheel in mid-2000 at an invitational test for Mo Nunn's new CART team. It would lead to a full-time drive in 2001.


Starts the season slowly, but by the European rounds things start to gel

By far his best result of the season came in Toronto, where he started a lowly 24th. But after solving set-up issues with his crew, he drove a storming race, and but for a delayed pit stop may well have won yet another burn from the stern victory. He ended up 4th, but less than five seconds behind Michael Andretti, the winner. But, after several more disappointing tail-ending performances, Zanardi and the team arrived back in Europe for the rounds at Lausitzring and Rockingham, confident a turnaround was imminent.

However, the week of the Lausitzring race began ominously. The September 11 attacks cast a pall around the globe, and especially amongst the American-based CART community. Then, inclement weather washed out qualifying, and grid positions were determined by championship position. After a largely lamentable season to date, Zanardi only started 22nd as a result. But the Mo Nunn Racing cars were working on the German oval; Kanaan and Zanardi topped the race morning warm-up times.

And so it proved in the race, as Alessandro found himself in his element, charging through the field. By lap 124, he had caught Kanaan for the lead and passed him, waving goodbye to his team-mate in the process. The Brazilian remembers, "I looked over and thought, 'It's the old Alex. He's back.'" On lap 142, Zanardi made his final fuel stop with 13 laps to go. He came out looking set to resume the lead, when he put wheels on the damp grass, slid, and spun to a halt on the track, side-on to oncoming traffic...


The Lausitzring sees both a tragedy and a miracle

It is troubling to recount the gruesome details of what happened next as Alex Tagliani swerved, not fast enough to avoid the impact, but fast enough to avoid an even more tragic outcome. With Zanardi's legs effectively blown off, the quick response by Dr Terry Trammel and his team of heroes saved Alessandro's life as they somehow stopped the haemorrhaging of blood with seconds to spare. The Italian had lost 75% of his blood; the CART chaplain had delivered the last rites.

CART's director of medical affairs, Dr Steve Olvey, ordered Zanardi be flown to the Krankenhaus Berlin-Marzahn, but by the time Alessandro arrived in the capital, it was an hour after the accident, he had gone into cardiac arrest and his heart stopped three times, he had a litre of blood in his body, and within ten minutes would have passed away. But rapid blood transfusions and a three-hour emergency surgery to clean the wounds and amputate up to both thighs brought Zanardi back from the brink of death.

After being kept in a medically-induced coma for three days, Zanardi's condition stabilised. His vital signs returned to normal, and mercifully he had no lasting kidney and brain damage. More importantly, as they had done in the past when there had been less trying obstacles, Alessandro and Daniela came to terms with the loss of his legs with a steely determination, an unyielding gratitude that he was simply alive, and an immediate resolution that he would one day walk again. The recovery had begun.

The fateful day: track doctors work feverishly to save Zanardi's life following his horrific accident.
The fateful day: track doctors work feverishly to save Zanardi's life following his horrific accident. Picture from F1


Recovery is long and tough, but Alex's comeback appears to have never been in doubt

Six weeks and 15 operations to clean out all the carbon fibre splinters later, Zanardi left hospital, and the slow, painful process of learning to walk again on his new prosthetic legs begun, with the help of is personal trainer Claudio Panizzi at the rehabilitation centre in Budrio just nine miles from his home town of Castel Maggiore. As he reflected, "[The prosthetic legs] do not have blood, but they hurt a lot, they are cold like metal, but they make me sweat ... they allow me to move forward but they make me fall."

Getting back into a car was also part of his therapy. Within two weeks of discharge from hospital, he had learnt to drive a road-going BMW with hand controls. His tenacity had not diminished; he even talked about returning to racing someday: "Maybe in three months the desire to go back to racing will grow inside me so much that I'll work very hard towards it. It will be bloody difficult, but life is a fight, and I am always fighting. I never say never."

By December, three months after the accident, he had made an appearance at the Autosprint Casco d'Oro awards where emotionally but symbolically he got up from his wheelchair and stood up tall before the audience. His career had been one of often overcoming adversity, but this was the greatest adversity of all. Zanardi became a hero the world over for his attitude, his optimism, his courage, his determination to rise above what had happened and to seek to resume a normal life. And rightly so.


Scene is set for a stirring return to Germany to finish the 13 laps

To Alessandro, the future was still laden with opportunity. "Right now my main priority is to enjoy my family and be with them. My never-say-never attitude has helped me a lot. That's why after a short period after the accident, I'm capable of doing almost everything on my own. For me, just the fact to be alive is sufficient motivation to want to improve my life quality. My son, my wife, my family are big positives. I am a happy guy even without legs."

By 2002, Zanardi was able to walk on his own, he was able to put Niccolo on his shoulders, he even returned to America to act as Grand Marshal at the Toronto CART round, waving the green and chequered flags, and reuniting himself with friends and fans, with the crew who had saved his life, and with Tagliani who felt so guilty (unnecessarily) about what had occurred. And, far as CART was concerned, now that Alessandro had regained his strength, he now felt he had unfinished business.

Zanardi approached CART CEO Chris Pook about completing those last 13 laps at the Lausitzring, and things were set in motion for the run to take place. A car was specially built by Eric Bachelart's Mi-Jack Conquest team, with Lee Dykstra and Adam Schaechter developing hand clutch and throttle controls, and a brake system that Alessandro could operate by moving his hip and thigh, after the Italian discovered he could exert enough force through his torso after socially trying out a kart.

An heroic return to the Lausitzring in 2003 sees Alex complete the 13 unfinished laps from 2001.
An heroic return to the Lausitzring in 2003 sees Alex complete the 13 unfinished laps from 2001. Picture from Motorsports


Best lap good for 5th on the grid; releases book and eyes racing again

And so he returned to the Lausitzring in May 2003, less than 20 months after the accident. He had some practice laps on the Friday, and that was emotional enough, but it was nothing compared to the scene on race day when he finished those last 13 laps in front of almost 70,000 fans, with his good friend Vasser waving the chequered flag. And not at dawdling speeds either; Zanardi's best lap of 38.487 seconds was at an average of 194.275 mph, and would have been good enough for 5th on the grid that day!

In completing the run, he became the first man to pilot a major single seater by way of hand controls, and his time and speed was submitted to the Guinness Book of Records as an official closed circuit record for a disabled athlete. He then served as Grand Marshal for the day, altering the traditional starter's command by saying the words, "Friends, start your engines," in a gesture of the goodwill that he felt towards the CART (now Champ Car) community, and vice versa.

In June 2003 he released his autobiography My Sweetest Victory in Italian, which was subsequently translated into English and German, and which won a silver medal in the 2005 International Automotive Media Awards in the autobiography category. But the run at the Lausitzring, plus an outing at a karting event in Monaco earlier in the year at the invitation of a friend, which attracted the attention of numerous French and Italian television stations begged the question: was a competition comeback on the cards?

Hear Derek Daly interview Alex after completing his 13 laps at the Lausitzring.

"It's also an opportunity to thank the fans, very very important, without them I wouldn't have had a career at all, and the doctors ... because thanks to them, I have another life."

(MP3 format, 2mb, 2min 11secs)


Modified BMW 320i sees Zanardi back behind the wheel in the ETCC

The idea certainly appealed to Zanardi, and speculation mounted in the European summer after Roberto Trevisan, the technical director of the European Touring Car Championship team run by Roberto Ravaglia, offered Alessandro a test in one of their BMW 320is modified with hand controls. After a tentative first test at Misano, at a second test he was right on the pace, and the decision was made to give Zanardi an opportunity to make his competitive comeback at the ETCC round in Monza.

Some 30,000 spectators watched as Zanardi qualified 11th, only to be caught up in a first lap collision in the first race. But in the second race, he climbed up to 7th which, considering it was his race return and his first ever race in a touring car, and the fact he was using hand controls, was an amazing effort. He then rounded off his emotional year back in the Americas, captaining a team also consisting of Vasser, Michel Jourdain Jr and Oriol Servia to 4th place in the traditional star-studded Sao Paulo 500km kart race.

It came as little surprise when Zanardi was signed by the works BMW Team Italy-Spain (formerly Ravaglia Motorsport) for a full season assault on the 2004 ETCC. But a full year was a different proposition to a one-off appearance, and it turned out to be a learning year for Alessandro. In ten rounds and 20 races he scored a respectable eight top-ten finishes, and in placing 15th in the championship he earned himself a prestigious Laureus Sports Award for 'Comeback of the Year' in early 2005.

At the helm of a modified BMW 320i, Alex makes his compeitive comeback at the ETCC round at Monza in 2003. He received a hero's welcome and finished 7th.
At the helm of a modified BMW 320i, Alex makes his compeitive comeback at the ETCC round at Monza in 2003. He received a hero's welcome and finished 7th.


Wins Italian title, before capturing WTCC victory: time for donuts!

But for a personality like Zanardi's it was never going to be enough to simply compete again, as magnificent as that already was. Now he wanted to start winning, and to give him as much race time as possible, he was also entered into the Italian Superturismo championship in 2005, as well as in the World Touring Car Championship (which the ETCC had become). It worked a treat; against respectable opposition in the Italian title, Zanardi got the winning feeling back and walked off with the crown.

The revitalised confidence paid dividends. At the Imola WTCC round, he was running 3rd on the last lap of the second race when he was punted by Augusto Farfus which dropped him to 6th. Then, at Oschersleben, close to the Lausitzring and a few weeks shy of four years since his accident, he finished 8th in the first race thanks to a more responsive throttle system, which put him on pole for the second race. Despite severe pressure from Jorg Muller and Andy Priaulx, Zanardi held on for a famous victory.

It was his first win in an international race since his CART victory on the Gold Coast in 1998, and he celebrated in traditional style by performing donuts on the main straight. "I told myself I couldn't afford any errors," he said. "I sprang as if a slingshot catapulted me forwards. The others attacked me and I resisted. I liked myself very much. I was perfect, like in the old times." Even Muller was pleased in defeat: "I'm happy just to be part of the most historic race in the WTCC, seeing Alex win."


A busy year with the Euro Cup, Mini Challenge and Mille Miglia

From there, Zanardi had a strong finish to the year, taking a 6th and a 3rd in Istanbul, an 8th and a 5th in Valencia, and a 5th in the second race at Macau. He finished the season 10th overall with 35 points. He also competed in the European Cup event at Vallelunga, bringing together the best from several domestic championships, taking pole and winning the first race, but only finishing 7th in the second after a clash with Luca Rangoni to place 3rd overall.

2005 was a busy year for Alessandro elsewhere as well. He was invited to the Mini Challenge World Final at Misano, where a celebrity race was held for the likes of Zanardi and his boss Ravaglia, fellow ex-F1 drivers Marc Surer, Christian Danner and Paolo Barilla (whose pasta company has also been a long-time sponsor of Alessandro's), and rally legend Rauno Aaltonen. Zanardi beat them all in typically robust fashion, passing Alexander Burgstaller with an aggressive move at the last corner.

"Alessandro pulled it off with such skill that I had no chance," Burgstaller said afterwards. And finally, with a close connection now to BMW, Zanardi even participated in the famous Mille Miglia during the year, now as much an historic demonstration and tribute as it is a genuinely competitive event. Zanardi was entered in a 1957-specification BMW 507 alongside Marco Saltalamacchia, finishing 131st before taking part again the following year when he came 174th.

Alex celebrates his first international race victory since 1998, at the World Touring Car Championship round at Oschersleben in 2005.
Alex celebrates his first international race victory since 1998, at the World Touring Car Championship round at Oschersleben in 2005. Picture from FIA


Istanbul race a highlight of an otherwise passable season

Zanardi's main focus continued to be in the WTCC in 2006, although he did take part in the first four rounds (and eight races) of the Italian championship again, winning the first race at Monza and Magny-Cours, and taking a double-victory at Mugello. But in the World Championship, it turned out to be something of a win-or-bust season, the tone being set in the second race at Monza, where he ran in 2nd behind Farfus before the damage from a "clumsy attack" (in his own words) put him out of the race.

There was a 3rd in the second race in Curitiba after yet another terrific charge through the field, as well as a competitive 2nd in the first race at Brno. But by far the highlight was victory in the first race in Istanbul, where he took the lead at the first corner and was never headed. In some ways, this was an even greater victory than in Oschersleben the previous year, because that victory had been due in no small part to a reverse grid. This win was earned on sheer speed and domination over his rivals.

"My first win in Oschersleben was unbeatable in terms of emotions," he commented. "However, my legs have not grown back so it is still hard to win, therefore this moment is also very special for me." But there were no more podiums for the rest of the season as Alessandro wound up 11th overall, and there would be more disappointment in the European Cup event at Estoril, where once again he took pole, but in wet conditions on race day finished 4th in the first race but retired in the second to claim 7th overall.


Opportunity arises to get back into an F1 car, this time with BMW

In late November, though, the BMW connection led to yet another unique opportunity, as Dr Mario Theissen invited Zanardi to test an F1 car at Valencia, becoming the first amputee to drive a modern Grand Prix car. BMW modified a 2005-spec Sauber C24 chassis for the occasion, with the layout of the controls requiring Alessandro to steer with one hand around the corners and accelerate with the other. After fifteen laps in total, Zanardi recorded a best time of 1 minute 21.63s, a respectable 13 seconds off the F1 lap record.

The concept of an F1 machine has not changed since his torrid 1999 season, when he had found grooved tyres and a narrow track chassis so hard to adapt to, but time seems to have mellowed his views. "I must say that I felt good with the car," Zanardi said. "It was docile from the beginning. I asked it to please do certain things and it obliged." He later mused, "I say I would do respectably in GPs too." Although at the age of 40 he won't get a chance to prove it, with his determination one dare not disbelieve him.

And so in 2007 Zanardi continues in the WTCC, although it has been a rough season for the BMW Team Italy-Spain driver. A 3rd in the first race at Brno has been his only podium, and while he has set two fastest laps, he has also been involved in two multi-car first corner incidents, one at Valencia and one at Oschersleben. In fact, he was adjudged (he says unfairly) for triggering the Oschersleben collision, and at the time of writing had been handed a ten-place grid penalty for each of the next four rounds!

A chance to re-visit F1 - thanks to BMW, Zanardi demos a modified 2005 Sauber at Valencia in 2006, to even further prove his inspiring recovery.
A chance to re-visit F1 - thanks to BMW, Zanardi demos a modified 2005 Sauber at Valencia in 2006, to even further prove his inspiring recovery. Picture from


A return to Champ Cars on the cards?

But what does it matter? The point is that Zanardi is racing as an equal, and being treated as an equal, as if his disability doesn't exist. That in itself is a tribute to the man. Also at the time of writing, there was talk that Vasser wanted to give Alessandro a Champ Car test, and that the Italian's former team-mate was keen for him to even contemplate making yet another full-time return to that series. The incredible Zanardi story may have further inspirational chapters to unfold just yet.

As if it has not been an amazing enough story already. Alessandro Zanardi has had to face more obstacles, more challenges, more misfortune, more adversities than most mere mortals will in an entire lifetime - both before, but especially after that fateful day at the Lausitzring. But the fact that he has navigated through all of them, with determination, with courage, with passion, with humour, and with a positive attitude makes him an example not only to other sportspeople, but to all human beings.

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