Keep On Smiling, Alex

Zanardi, 2009
As Father De Rea looked on from outside the helicopter, Terry Trammel tightened the belt around Alex Zanardi’s severed left leg. Dabbing his finger in holy oil, De Rea read Alex his last rites. The make-shift tourniquet kept slipping as medics struggled to stem the incessant bleeding. A fading pulse and plummeting haemoglobin count painted a dire picture for not only an adored racing driver, but a devoted husband and loving father.

Very few people have the kind of impact on motorsport that Alessandro Zanardi has achieved. The charm of the Italian exudes from the pores as much as the sweat that tells the story of a hard-fought race does. But Zanardi’s impact runs deeper than the usual tale of a gritty driver whose determination ultimately led to a near-death accident. Instead, it was the recovery and return to all that Alex loved that touched the souls of those who know of the moment Zanardi climbed inside a BMW Sauber C24-B and pointed to the sky.

That fateful day back in 2001 at the EuroSpeedway in Lausitz is far from the beginning of this man’s voyage into the hearts of motorsport fans, for Zanardi has previous with wooing the crowds, enjoying the time spent racing cars and passing this satisfaction on to all around with a smile and a wave. Alex’s story begins, for the sake of this article, in 1991; the commencement of his Formula One career.

Following a nigh-on perfect debut season in Formula 3000, where Zanardi won his first race and one other en route to second in the championship, Alex was invited to race in Formula One for the newly promoted Jordan team. Taking over Roberto Moreno’s seat at the Irish squad, Zanardi performed moderately well, finishing two of the three races he competed in, although failing to score any points.

For his second season at the top of the motor sporting ladder though, Zanardi had to settle for occasional drives at Minardi. The Italian combination of driver and car failed to qualify for two races, and for the one grand prix that Alex did manage to get into, only one lap was completed before the gear box gave up. As frustrating at it was, Zanardi persevered and hounded the team bosses up and down the pitlane for a chance to really prove himself. After such a fantastic debut in the feeder series to Formula One, it seemed as though Alex’s chances of progressing were being met with immovable obstacles.

Zanardi, 1992

A chance to test for Benetton in the winter of 1992 – 1993 did not generate a drive, and Zanardi’s only hope for the ’93 campaign was with the struggling Lotus team. Partnered with Johnny Herbert, a driver who himself had overcome a serious leg injury, Zanardi would score just one point at the second round of the championship in Brazil. It was meant to be Zanardi’s first full season in Formula One, and a chance to show others what he could do with a car over the course of a year. Alex worked tirelessly at developing the team’s active suspension system and quickly became the life and soul of a team that was in financial trouble.

However, a full years racing it wasn’t. Zanardi crashed at the Belgian Grand Prix partway through the season and was withdrawn from the race. Heading through the Eau Rouge corner, Zanardi’s hydraulic shock absorbers leaked and sent the car into the barriers at high speed. The following Ayrton Senna followed Zanardi over to the right-hand barrier, although the Brazilian had more time to slow his McLaren and avoid impact. Zanardi spent the rest of the year recuperating from his accident.

Alex hoped for a return in 1994, but Pedro Lamy was sitting in Zanardi’s car, still substituting for the Italian. After the fourth round of the championship at Monaco, Lotus headed to Silverstone to test, and Lamy suffered a high speed accident and broke both his legs. Zanardi was called upon to reclaim his position at the squad.

Unfortunately, the Lotus team’s finances were getting worse and little money could be spent on developing the car. It was hopelessly unreliable and of the ten races Alex participated in, he could only get to the chequered flag on five occasions. By the end of the year, the team had gone into administration.

Being left high and dry, Alex took part in a few sports car races in 1995. But with little attention from Formula One, Alex looked to America to further his motorsport career, and although the move would prove to be very successful, it would also be in the CART series that Zanardi would come very close to dying. Right now though, we are still at the beginning of Alex’s career, and there was much success to be enjoyed first.

For 1996, Zanardi had managed to secure a drive with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team’s race engineer, Mo Nunn, had advised against signing an Italian driver, and although Zanardi was sometimes a little wild in the cockpit, the team had been convinced of the calming nature of Daniela, Alex’s wife and former boss from his Formula 3 days.

Friend of Alex and former Formula One driver Massimiliano Papis once said of the relationship:

He believed in racing with a lot of passion. Daniela believed in racing with a lot of rationality. She added reason to his passion. Massimiliano Papis.

Nunn’s fear of volatile Italian drivers was soon quelled. Zanardi had been reborn in the CART series. Alex took pole position in only his second race, the maiden win came at the ninth in Portland. This would be repeated in Ohio and at the final round in California, held at the Laguna Seca circuit.

It was while racing at Laguna Seca that year that Zanardi would go down in CART history. The Italian was running second behind Brian Herta as the pair climbed the hill towards the infamous Corkscrew corner. Very few people have attempted a pass at the Corkscrew; the track closes up and the corner is already tricky enough to get through on a regular racing line.

The word ‘never’ doesn’t seem to feature in Alex’s vocabulary though, and the Chip Ganassi pilot went for it. Ducking under Herta, Zanardi was going far too fast to make the sequence of corners. Instead, Alex straightened the wheel as best he could and braced himself. The car bumped over the grass and kerbs, narrowly missed the barrier and landed on the tarmac on the other side of the corner. Still in the lead, Alex continued to the chequered that was being waved that lap.

Perhaps unlike modern Formula One, Alex’s move was applauded. The win remained and to this day, it is simply called The Pass. Although in future seasons, such a move would be outlawed; the grass not being considered a part of the race track.

The following two years would bring Zanardi two CART titles from twelve individual victories. Alex’s popularity among the fans grew and the smile that always seemed to adorn Zanardi’s face almost became a trademark. Towards the end of 1998, Frank Williams got in contact with Alex and offered the Italian a drive in one his Formula One cars. Williams had recently had much success with Jacques Villeneuve, a former CART Indycar champion who had gone on to take 1997 Formula One title with Williams.

Zanardi, 1999

The chance to return to the sport he adored was too much, and Zanardi promptly signed a three year deal with Williams. Unfortunately, with the Williams team starting to decline in performance and a few errors on Alex’s own behalf led to difficult year. The FW21 was unreliable, and when it did work, Alex was often outpaced by his team mate, Ralf Schumacher. The relationship with the team started to sour and at the end of the year, Frank Williams signed Jenson Button as a replacement for Zanardi.

Alex took a year out of motor racing, choosing instead to spend time with his new family in Monaco. However, like many racing drivers, time spent out of the cockpit only made Zanardi restless, and soon enough he was plotting a return to CART. By this time, Mo Nunn had formed his own team, and the Briton signed Alex based on his previous form in ’96, ’97 and ’98.

It wasn’t a great comeback though. Alex retired more times than he finished, and the best result he could achieve was fourth. Then, just as the performance of the car and driver started to gel, everything became very quickly unraveled.

On 15th September, 2001, Alex was competing in the hastily renamed American Memorial 500 race at the very fast EuroSpeedway in Lausitz, Germany. The race was re-titled in honour of those who perished just four days earlier in Lower Manhattan, New York City. Little did anyone know at the time that motorsport was about to see it’s own horrific event. If the clocks were wound back just a few years, it is almost certain that Zanardi would have lost his life.

While leading the race from Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani, Zanardi left the pitlane to rejoin the track. Leaning his Reynard car around to the left, hugging the inside line and preparing to rejoin the circuit closing in on his right, Alex was aware that second place driver Carpentier was closing in fast. Ever determined to improve himself though, Alex increasingly applied the throttle with his right foot. The car released its grip of the inside line and slipped over to the right. With increasing release, the car bumped over the shallow grass divider, designating what is pitlane, and what is full blown racing territory.

Alex’s Reynard joined the race track not under complete control. The car turned broad side on and Carpentier swerved violently to the top of the corner to avoid the much slower Zanardi. As Patrick darted out of the way, the ensuing accident suddenly became very, very clear to those watching. The movement of Carpentier’s Reynard allowed Alex Tagliani to be sighted. Tagliani was closely following Patrick, and his view of what was in front of him suddenly, violently, changed.

Instead of focusing on the rear wing a Forsythe car, Tagliani was now looking at a Mo Nunn liveried Reynard, broad side on, driver in cockpit and closing at a speed of around 200mph.

There was no time. There was little reaction. There was no point in even trying. Not even the quickest of the quick could have avoided it. Tagliani snapped the wheel to the left, and it undoubtedly helped experts would later say. But what happened was going to happen and would have always happened, no matter how many times you try and rewind time and replay the accident. There was nothing anybody could do.

Tagliani’s car struck Zanardi’s car between the front wheel and the mid-section. Tagliani continued forward. Alex’s Reynard was torn in two. His legs went one way, his upper body the other. The right leg was severed at the knee, the left at the thigh. Shrapnel flew around everywhere, the front of the car had disintegrated and spread over a wide area on the track.

The quick response of the marshals and medics, Terry Trammel included, saved Alex’s life. They stabalised him as best they could and rushed him to hospital. It took about 60 minutes from impact to arriving at Berlin, at which point doctors worked tirelessly to stem the bleeding and transfuse blood into Alex. The violence of the accident meant there was nothing that could have been done to rectify the damage. The initial surgery lasted for three hours. Zanardi lost both his legs and 75% of his blood.

One thing Zanardi never lost though, the most important thing, was his spirit. After coming out of the induced coma following his surgery, some say the first thing Alex did before anything else, was smile at his wife. Lying in a bed and suffering the kind of trauma that itself alone would kill the souls of most others, Alex smiled.

Determination, they say, is what keeps the world spinning. Perhaps it is love, perhaps it is money. But to some, it is determination that help one to achieve these two other things, so perhaps it is perseverance that keeps us all on terra-firma. If that is the case, I think it is safe to say that Zanardi could probably keep the world spinning all by himself.

Zanardi, 2007

  • Just six weeks after his accident, Alex left the hospital that cared for him after the accident.
  • Just eight weeks after his accident, Alex was driving a BMW with hand controls.

Zanardi was released from the hospital on 31st October, only six weeks after the crash, and within a fortnight he had learnt how to drive his BMW with hand controls. He was tooling along an Italian motorway when Max Papis called him on his mobile. ‘What are you doing?’ Papis asked. ‘About 240 kilometres an hour,’ Zanardi said. Zanardi The Brave, by William Nack – The Observer.

  • Less than twelve months after his accident, Alex was walking on prosthetic limbs and joking with interviewers.
  • Just twenty months after his accident, Alex returned to Germany and the EuroSpeedway to complete the lost laps of the race. Zanardi topped out at 195mph.
  • Just twenty-four months after his accident, Zanardi was racing – yes, racing – in the European Touring Car Championship, piloting a modified BMW 320i.
  • Just four years after his accident, Alex was invited to attend a test session with the Williams-BMW Formula One team, and to drive their car. Unfortunately, Alex forgot to confirm the appointment and the test didn’t happen.
  • Just five years after his accident, Alex remembered to check his diary in the morning, and Formula One beckoned once again, this time with the BMW Sauber team.
  • Just six years after his accident, and following a witty remark meant as a joke, Alex found himself competing in the New York marathon on a handbike. Zanardi finished in a more than respectable fourth in his category.

Zanardi, 2006

On that day in 2006, while sitting patiently inside the cockpit of a BMW C24-B, Alex pointed towards the sky, indicating to the engineers to start tapping away on their laptops. The engine was turned over and roared into life. As the Italian driver and Swiss car were beckoned forward from the confines of the garage into the open dangers of the pitlane, it was clear what was happening.

It wasn’t about the fact that a man with no legs was controlling one of the world’s most complex cars. It wasn’t about the fact that it was probably the greatest Formula One car Alex has ever driven. It wasn’t about results, or even performance.

It was about the smile that everyone knew was being spread from cheek to cheek inside the helmet that hid Alex’s face from view. Nobody saw it, but we all know it was there. Just as it was before, and just as it always will be.

Keep on smiling, Alex.

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Image © Allsport (Williams) and BMW AG.

Originally written by Oliver White for BlogF1 and published on 15th March, 2009.