Former racing car driver and current Paralympic gold paracyclist Alessandro Zanardi’s curiosity put him back to winning ways. MARISKA MORRIS finds out more from the BMW ambassador
Alessandro Zanardi steps into the boardroom. He uses crutches to walk on his two prosthetic legs, but you barely notice them. The handsome 50-year old Italian radiates warmth as he smiles broadly in greeting. He is in South Africa to compete in the World Paracycling Championship.
Before he was introduced to paracycling in 2007 (later becoming a champion paracyclist), he was a racing car driver. It was at the 2001 American Memorial CART race in Germany that his life changed. On September 15, Zanardi climbed into his car and sped off on the EuroSpeedway Lausitz. On lap 143, he pulled into the pitstop for his final scheduled stop. On leaving the pit, he lost control of his vehicle and spun over the grass that divides the pit lane from the race track.
His car was torn apart as fellow driver Alex Tagliani t-boned it. Both were rushed to hospital. Tagliani had no severe injuries, but Zanardi was hospitalised with a fractured pelvis and concussion, and both his legs had to be amputated. But, instead of feeling depressed when he regained consciousness eight days later, he found himself feeling curious.
“I was happy to be alive. I knew that I had overcome the greatest obstacle I could have faced,” he says. Family members told him that while everyone was crying over him, his wife, Daniela, approached BMW about building him an adapted car.
“When I got home, I realised there was nothing I could do on my own besides changing the TV channel. To have a vehicle and a yard where I could practise driving was very important to me. I also remember the first trip that we took with my son. I was driving my family!” he recalls.
Zanardi returned to racing full-time in 2004, competing for BMW. In 2005, he won the World Touring Car Championship. While he would go on to win another three championships, the first brought many challenges.
The championship grants weight reductions to certain vehicles. Zanardi notes: “The cars are very different. BMW, for example, builds cars that have a very strong sportive input. These cars are [designed to be turned] into a racing car. The championship tries to compensate for the difference in performance.”
That year, Zanardi felt the weight reductions were getting out of hand. He jokingly noted that he was different to other drivers and should get a weight reduction. The technical board in charge of weight reductions took him seriously and granted him a five-kilogram allowance.
Prior to the race, he was in conversation with his fellow racer Gabriele Tarquini. Tarquini felt the weight reduction was unfair as Zanardi, with the help of BMW, found a way to compete at the same level as the other drivers.
“He was basically saying that they shouldn’t grant me those five kilograms because I’m not at a disadvantage. I was suggesting they shouldn’t give me the five kilograms as it takes weight reduction to the extreme where they grant reductions to different drivers instead of different cars,” he notes.
Following his win, Zanardi’s engine was inspected to ensure he won fairly. Tarquini agreed with the decision and found it difficult to believe Zanardi won fairly.
“Two days before, he was saying that I shouldn’t get the five kilograms because I have overcome my problems and now he was saying that with my problems I cannot dominate the race,” Zanardi comments.
Although he believes that there are still obstacles for racing car drivers with a disability, the situation is not as it was when he returned to racing.
In 2009, he retired from racing. He was introduced to paracycling by a friend, fellow Paralympic gold medallist and Italian paracyclist Vittorio Podestà. Zanardi’s curiosity was sparked when he saw Podestà’s handcycle. He notes: “The technicality of the vehicle is something that interested me from the very beginning. Also, it is a relatively new sport, so there is still lots that can be done to improve the performance. In fact, this is probably what allowed me to stay relevant in spite of my age. These days I can’t beat my opponents just through strength and resistance. I have to be smarter than they are,” he adds.
Zanardi won his first two gold medals in the 2012 London Paralympic Games at the age of 46 and won another two at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games.
“What I learned in motorsports made a big difference in my performance as well as knowing the right materials to use, where to get it and when to knock at the door of a good friend, like the engineers at BMW Munich.”
The BMW engineers don’t build his handcycles, but help him develop parts. Zanardi believes people should remain curious about what other people have to offer.
“Think about Stephen Hawking, who can move only one eye. The entire world owes him a great deal of gratitude. We all have talents for which legs are not necessarily required. Yet, it is so easy to lose your interest in what someone has to offer,” Zanardi notes.
While he remains an inspiration for many people, he doesn’t see himself as a role model.
“Anyone of us can be a role model for others and help others by just doing things in the best possible way. I can only do my stuff to the best of my ability and if, indirectly, I also help others, wow, that touches my heart,” he concludes.