Alex Zanardi: The Douglas Bader of F1

As indomitable as the Second World War fighter pilot who fought on despite losing both his legs, the champion racing driver whose car was sliced in two in a terrible crash is back on track. By David Tremayne
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"I was a bit too big for the cockpit of this car," Alex Zanardi said yesterday in Valencia as he tried a Formula One car for the first time since 1999. "So we cut something off my legs and made me a little bit shorter. I told the guys it was a much faster job than adjusting the pedals."

Such sangfroid is typical of Zanardi, a champion racing driver who has faced death. Five years ago, he was waking from a medically-induced coma in a Berlin hospital. In a horrifying accident at the Lausitzring EuroSpeedway in Germany on 15 September 2001, his stalled race car had been pierced in the cockpit at 200mph by the vehicle of Alex Tagliani.

The doctors left it to his wife, Daniela, to break the news to her husband that he had lost both legs. "It was something I had already figured out for myself," Zanardi says. "I was still heavily medicated but I knew before she told me.

"There was a doctor with her, just in case I reacted badly. He told me I was not going die, and that was all that really mattered to me. So when Daniela broke the news, I only asked one question: 'Is it true, I'm really not going to die?'"

In three of the preceding five years Zanardi had been the Schumacher of America's Cart Champ Car series, electrifying spectators and exasperating officials in equal measure; now both legs had instantly been severed, above the knees.

On the track, rescuers had slipped and slithered in the mixture of blood and racing fluids. Zanardi reached the clinic with 10 minutes to spare. Now here he was, awake, defying the odds, already beginning his extraordinary comeback.

Not quite two years after the accident he went back to the Lausitzring, intent on driving an identical Reynard Ford to the one which he had spun while rejoining the race in the lead. Zanardi was ready to finish the uncompleted 13 laps of his 2001 race. As spectators and team crews wept in admiration, he reeled the laps off with metronomic consistency, and at speeds which would have qualified him fifth for that year's race.

"It was just fantastic," he recalls. "Obviously it was something that I'd been doing all my racing career. But in the preceding year and a half I'd never even got close to drive a proper racing car. So just for that reason it was great again to feel the speed, to feel the downforce. Most of all, what made it particularly enjoyable was the love of all the people in the Cart community, and certainly the fans.

"I was really surprised how rapidly it came back to me. I was really surprised. It felt like I was doing the same thing the day before and the day before that. I didn't feel like I was out of the car for one and a half years. Especially if you consider that in this one and a half years, all I'd been doing was adjusting my prosthetic legs and spending time with my son Niccolo, and the fastest thing I'd driven was my road car."

Though a man of deep passion, Zanardi is also a pragmatist. And he admitted to conflicting feelings when that run finally ended. "I was kind of disappointed that it was over. But, nevertheless, I have great memories from racing. And certainly from a sporting point of view, this was not the highlight of my life.

"This was something that was very emotional for the people that saw me taken away in the helicopter, leaving a big trace of blood. It looks like a miracle. But for me, it's not a miracle."

While fighting back to mobility, he involved himself in the administration of the Alex Zanardi Foundation, which he set up to manage the donations and money that flowed his way in the wake of the accident. A large portion of it financed the final phase of construction for a school for poor children in Madagascar.

Then, almost matter-of-factly, he went back to racing, driving touring cars for BMW. He won races in 2005, and again this year. "You know," he says, with another laugh, "in some ways I am stronger than the other drivers. If I should break my leg, all I need is a 4mm spanner and it will be repaired in no time!"

After finishing runner-up in his rookie season in Cart in 1996, Zanardi blitzed the 1997 and 1998 titles before bouncing back into F1, which he had left in unhappy circumstances after driving for Team Lotus in 1993 and 1994.

His 1999 season with Williams was a nightmare, leading to his ill-starred return to Cart. But when BMW invited him to try a specially converted F1 car in Valencia this weekend, Zanardi, who still skis and can backflip into a swimming pool, didn't hesitate.

"It was fantastic," he said after driving the car for the first time on Thursday. "When you've had as long a career as me you know how to control these emotions, but this was the pure joy."

Like wartime fighter ace Douglas Bader, Zanardi became an even bigger man after losing his legs. Yet he insists, "I have seen too many small children in the clinics, coping far better than I did with my problems, to believe I am anything special.

"A man loses his legs, people expect that he will just go home and change the channels on the TV with the remote control. I have shown that this guy can come back after that accident and have the same life. That is the great thing."