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

News
Howard Marks has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, he has announced
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
Rowan Atkinson at the wheel of his McLaren F1 GTR sports car
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
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?
Independent Dating
and  

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

Career Services

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us