Alex Zanardi: next stop Rio 2016 for the comeback kid who never gave up

Former F1 driver, who lost his legs in a crash 11 years ago, won paracycling gold at London 2012 and tells Robin Scott-Elliot his amazing journey is far from over

He provided the London Paralympics with one of its defining images; a man with no legs, face flushed with joy and paracycle thrust heavenwards by one strong arm. For Alex Zanardi it was the latest chapter in an extraordinary life story and a sporting one that is still not complete.

The Italian turns 50 in the year Rio hosts the next Paralympics yet he intends to be there so buoyed was he by his experiences in London. “I was just very, very happy,” says Zanardi. “I picked up my hand cycle because I just wanted to celebrate. Behind the picture you [can] really tell the measure of the gesture, it is coming from winning such a race, from doing everything I had done in my life and finally ending up in London at the Paralympic Games.”

A former Formula One driver and twice a CART champion in the US, Zanardi lost his legs in a horrendous crash during a race in Germany in 2001. He was fortunate to be alive, let alone spending two sunny days last autumn racing around the Brands Hatch track that had featured in his previous sporting existence.

There was another part to his victory celebration last September, a more immediate one and a more defining one personally. “When I won the road race and stepped out of my cycle I had another ‘Zanardi’ moment. Kissing the asphalt,” says Zanardi, whose exploits in London have seem him shortlisted alongside David Weir for the Laureus World Sports Awards. 

“As soon as I touched the asphalt with my lips it was like touching uncovered wire, you get the electricity. It was something unexpected. The warm asphalt – it set off a lot of images, moments of my life. I saw myself as a little kid doing my first laps in a go-kart, my dad next to me because he was my mechanic. My first race wins, the difficult moments, winning pole position at Brands Hatch in 1991, getting to F1 then losing my ride. Then more difficult moments with my accident, the recovery. All that happened in two seconds. It was an incredible, intense moment. Such an injection of joy, of nostalgia as well. For everything I’ve done in my life, the asphalt has been like an element, a [source of] consistency.”

After the accident – his car, and Zanardi himself, was sliced in two near the end of a CART race in Lausitz in east Germany – the road to recovery was a long one. “It took me 48 days to leave the hospital as I had 16 operations of four hours long,” he said.

Some “dark days” followed as he learnt to walk again but he has returned to motor racing, competing in the world touring car championships, as well as turning to Paracycling. “My heart belongs to motorsport,” he said. An ambitious plan to make the Indy500 this year did not come to fruition. Last month he was given a tour of Ferrari’s Maranello HQ as they prepare for the new season. He is an ardent admirer of Fernando Alonso but respects Sebastian Vettel’s refined ability.

“I wish I had been as good as [Vettel] has been,” says Zanardi. “He’s very humble. There are a lot of guys, myself included, [who] after winning a world championship, would just go around with a bunch of girls, a big gold watch, drinking champagne in discos showing off. But this kid is only interested in winning again. This is what makes him a real champion.

“I believe if Fernando had been a Red Bull team-mate driving the same car he wouldn’t have driven a better championship. But if Seb had been in Fernando’s Ferrari, Seb probably couldn’t have done the same job as Fernando. Alonso’s car was clearly not as competitive but he delivered miracles last year.”

Zanardi’s presence on the asphalt, whether it be in paracycle or adapted car, is a miracle of human achievement, and one that is ongoing. “It’s a long way from now to Rio and at 46, your years are like dog years, they count seven times,” he said. “I hope I can keep up my condition enough to compete and I am optimistic. I say 90 per cent yes for Rio. My passion is intact and training is still a joy. I believe I am still new as an athlete.”

Alex Zanardi is one of the Nominees for the Laureus World Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability Award. The winners will be announced on March 11 at the Laureus Awards Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro. For more information please visit www.laureus.com

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea