September 15 2001. By this time Alessandro Zanardi was already a two-time CART Champion, emulating series legends like Al Unser, A. J. Foyt and Bobby Rahal, and going one better than icons Mario Andretti, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell. Despite two tumultuous stints in Formula One, Zanardi’s name was firmly written into the history books. Then came lap 142 at the Lausitzring.
So far during the 2001 CART season, Zanardi’s Mo Nunn Racing Reynard-Honda had been well off the pace, a solitary fourth his best result from a bad year. Here in Germany though his setup had been perfect, and he only needed a clean final pit stop to keep his chances for victory alive. But as the Italian sped away from the Mo Nunn pit box, his cold rear tyres suddenly snapped out of line, forcing the car over the grass and onto the 200+kph racing line. Forsythe Racing‘s Patrick Carpentier only just missed Zanardi’s car. Teammate Alex Tagliani did not.
A deathly silence enveloped the circuit. The Mo Nunn Reynard, now missing the entire front half of its chassis, slowly bumped to a halt near the perimeter wall.
Zanardi had to be dead. Nobody could survive an accident that ferocious.
Motorsport is often defined by its darkest days, and while there is rarely a silver lining, that doesn’t mean tragedy is inevitable. Alex Zanardi’s top-flight motorsport career may have ended that day in Germany when paramedics were forced to amputate what remained of his legs to save his life, but the experience only made Zanardi and his contemporaries stronger.
In 2003, on his new prosthetic limbs, Alex returned to the Lausitzring to complete the thirteen laps he’d been unable to two years earlier. In 2005, he entered the World Touring Car Championship in a specially formatted BMW 320. And won in Germany. Now fully retired from motor racing, the Italian – as this video shows – will this year attempt to win gold at the London Paralympics.
The challenge ahead is a difficult one. But then, Alessandro Zanardi is no stranger to adversity.
Shots courtesy of Alex Zanardi.