One of motorsport’s all-time heroes, Alessandro ‘Alex’ Zanardi, is celebrating his birthday today!
Turning a still very young 46, Alex’s F1 career is most certainly that of a huge talent unfulfilled, but how he has triumphed in the face of tragedy is a truly incredible story.
A prodigy in the junior categories, Alex was a late-season call-up to the Jordan F1 squad in 1991, where he acquitted himself superbly with some storming drives in his first few outings of the season.
Without a drive at the start of 1992, he remained on the sidelines and only appeared on the grid when Christian Fittipaldi injured his neck, which allowed Alex to attempt to get his Minardi onto the grid.
A full-time role with Lotus came up for the 1993 season, and he achieved a point for sixth place in just his second outing for the team at Brazil. Tragically, it would turn out to be his only point scored in F1, for the team’s (and Alex’s) form waivered, which was followed by an almighty accident during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix that put him out for the rest of the season.
Back behind the Lotus saddle in 1994 (but only when Pedro Lamy was injured in testing), Alex tried hard as the outfit floundered under massive debts, occasionally moving aside so the pay drivers could have a go.
No further opportunities in F1 came about in the following year, so he moved to the US and contested the CART series, achieving ‘Rookie of the Year’ honours in 1996 before clinching back-to-back titles in 1997-8 with some storming drives that made him a darling of the American motor-racing scene.
Now hot property once again, he was signed by the Williams team for a return to F1 in 1999, but the project dramatically failed to gel and he was shown the door after just one year.
After a sabbatical, he returned to Champ Cars with Morris Nunn’s little outfit, enduring a horror run of luck until his fortunes seemed to improve with what looked like a race-winning drive at the Lausitzring, until he was T-boned by Alex Tagliani as he exited the pits. The freak accident amputated both his legs, and it was a miracle that he survived the accident at all.
Despite never giving in, it was a tough recovery for Alex, but he was amazingly back in the cockpit just a year later and competed in the European and World Touring Car Championships in a modified BMW. Of course, he would return to the winner’s circle, and he remained a popular figure until he quit the WTCC at the end of the 2009 season.
During this time, he also penned his fantastic autobiography, My Story, which we have reviewed on our website.
Alex then devoted his time to campaigning for better treatment and resource access for accident survivors, in addition to staging his own bid to compete in the London Paralympics in 2012.
He took to the discipline of hand cycling and achieved almost immediate success with a string of wins at major marathon events. To those who knew him best, this was hardly a surprise, for Alex is a man who isn’t afraid to put his mind to anything.
He qualified for the Italian Paralympic team and – with the hand cycling circuit, fittingly, running through the Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit – he claimed two gold medals and one silver, and then promptly said he was now gong to target becoming the first amputee to win the Indianapolis 500.
We wish Alex a very happy birthday today!
[Images via Alex Zanardi, Corbis Images, The Cahier Archive, XPB]