Former F1 racer and CART champion Alessandro Zanardi has announced he will make a full-time return to motorsport – after a four-year absence – as a BMW factory driver in the Blancpain Sprint Series, formerly known as the FIA GT Series.
Zanardi took a break from racing after switching focus to wheelchair racing and later hand cycling, winning two gold medals at last year’s Paralympic Games in the latter discipline.
He later made an incredible return to racing in the European and World Touring Car Championships in a factory BMW from 2005-9, which was modified with special hand controls so he could race. He claimed four race wins during his time in the WTCC.
The same controls will be fitted to his new ROAL Motorsport-run car, which he will race solo in the series’ one-hour races following the FIA signing off on a rules change to allow physically challenged driver (like Zanardi) the chance to compete with able-bodied drivers.
The series’ traditional rules have driver pairs in each car, but the fact that Zanardi will race solo will offer him no advantage because the compulsory pit stop’s tyre changes take much longer than the act of driver swapping.
Zanardi had a one-off test in a DTM BMW M3 at the Nürburgring last year (pictured top), which prompted feverish speculation that he could join the German touring car championship despite denials from both he and BMW.
“When I took to the track in the DTM car at the end of 2012, I immediately got itchy fingers again,” he said.
“Together with BMW, we have looked at various options and I am pleased that it has worked out with my old friends at ROAL Motorsport.”
“I cannot express how delighted I am that one of the greatest heroes in the history of BMW Motorsport is returning to the cockpit of one of our racing cars,” added BMW motorsport boss Jens Marquardt added.
“From both a human and a sporting aspect, Alex is a role model to all of us.”
Zanardi’s programme will comprise six of the seven championship rounds on the 2014 calendar, allowing him to dovetail his motorsport commitments with his preparing to defend his Paralympic titles at 2016’s Games at Rio de Janeiro.