At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Alex Zanardi - racing driver and Paralympian

Crash victim who refused to be beaten

Ex-motor racing champion Alex Zanardi won his first  Paralympic gold medals at the 2012 Games in London
Ex-motor racing champion Alex Zanardi won his first
 Paralympic gold medals at the 2012 Games in London
Alessandro 'Alex’ Zanardi, a title-winning racing driver who lost both legs in an horrific crash but then reinvented himself as a champion Paralympic athlete, was born on this day in 1966 in the small town of Castel Maggiore, just outside Bologna.

Zanardi was twice winner of the CART series - the forerunner of IndyCar championship of which the marquee event is the Indianapolis 500 - and also had five seasons in Formula One.

But in September 2001, after returning to CART following the loss of his contract with the Williams F1 team, Zanardi was competing in the American Memorial race at the at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz track in Germany when he lost control of his car emerging from a pit stop and was struck side-on by the car of the Canadian driver Alex Tagliani.

The nose of Zanardi’s car was completely severed as Tagliani's car slammed into Zanardi's cockpit, just behind the front wheel, and the Italian driver suffered catastrophic injuries. Rapid medical intervention saved his life after he lost almost 75 per cent of his blood volume but both legs had to be amputated, one at the thigh and the other at the knee.

Zanardi driving for the Williams F1 team at the 1999 Canada Grand Prix in Montreal
Zanardi driving for the Williams F1 team at the 1999
Canada Grand Prix in Montreal
For most drivers, it would have been the end of their career yet Zanardi, although he would never compete in open wheel racing again, fought back from his injuries, learned how to use prosthetic legs he designed himself and, within just 19 months of his accident, was back behind the wheel.

Extraordinarily, he first returned to Lausitz in a gesture of defiance, completing the 13 laps that remained of his fateful 2001 race in a car adapted with hand-operated brake and accelerator controls.

But this was to be no belated farewell to his sport. Noting that his lap times were fast enough to have put him fifth on the grid of the 2003 German 500 event that followed his appearance on the track, Zanardi plotted a comeback.

In a touring car modified to allow the use of prosthetic feet, he made his comeback in a competitive race in October 2003 in a European Touring Car Championship race at Monza and finished seventh. The following season Zanardi returned to racing full-time, driving for Roberto Ravaglia's BMW Team Italy-Spain. 

Zanardi in action for the Italian team at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he won two gold medals
Zanardi in action for the Italian team at the 2016 Paralympics
in Rio de Janeiro, where he won two gold medals
The series evolved into the World Touring Car Championship in 2005 and Zanardi was to race for BMW for five seasons. Incredibly, he won four races, his first coming in August 2005 at Oschersleben in Germany, no more than 220km (137 miles) from Lausitz.

If that were not enough proof of his extraordinary and undiminished zest for competition, halfway through his five seasons with BMW, Zanardi took up handcycling, a Paralympic sport in which paraplegic athletes race one another in a kind of high-tech tricycle.

He finished fourth in the handcycle category at the New York Marathon of 2007 after just four weeks of training

In 2009 he won the Venice Marathon in the category for the disabled, riding his wheelchair in 1hr 13 mins 56 secs and the 2010 Rome City Marathon in 1:15.53. In 2011, at his fourth attempt, Zanardi won the New York Marathon in his handcycling class.

Zanardi drove in the World Touring Car Championships for BMW after his crash
Zanardi drove in the World Touring Car
Championships for BMW after his crash
Selected for the Italian team at the 2012 London Paralympics, Zanardi won gold in the men's road time trial H4 by a margin of 27.14 seconds as well as the individual H4 road race, plus a silver medal for Italy in the mixed team relay H1-4.  These events took place at Brands Hatch, a motor racing circuit where Zanardi had previously competed in a car.

Zanardi has won an impressive 10 gold medals at four World Championships and picked up two more golds - in the H5 road time trial and the H2-5 mixed team replay - at the Rio Paralympics in 2016.

He has also become a major force in Ironman events and only last month set a world record for a disabled athlete en route to an amazing fifth place overall at the Ironman Italy Emilia-Romagna.  Taking on 2700 mainly able-bodied athletes, he completed the course - made up of a 3.8km (2.4 miles) sea swim, 180km (112 miles) of handcycling and a 42.2km (26.2 miles) wheelchair marathon - a time of 08:26.06, smashing his own world record, set in Barcelona, by more than half an hour.

His Barcelona time of 08:58.59 had made him the first disabled athlete to complete an Ironman triathlon in less than nine hours.

Born into a working class family in Castel Maggiore, Zanardi began racing go-karts at the age of 13, his father, Dino, having been persuaded it was safer than allowing him to ride a motorcycle on public roads.

He stepped up to Formula Three car racing in 1988 and won his first important title in 1990, moving into F1 the following year. His F1 career was the least successful of all his ventures, yielding just one point from his sole podium finish in 41 starts.

Zanardi, who suffered tragedy as a child when his sister, Cristina, died in a road accident, has been married since 1996 to Daniela. They have a son, Niccolò, who was born three years before his accident. He has co-written two books about his life -  Alex Zanardi: My Story (2004) and Alex Zanardi: My Sweetest Victory (2004).

The Villa Zarri, in Castel Maggiore, is now the home to a distillery producing some of Italy's finest brandy
The Villa Zarri, in Castel Maggiore, is now the home
to a distillery producing some of Italy's finest brandy
Travel tip:

Castel Maggiore, where Zanardi was born, is a municipality of more than 18,000 inhabitants that was formerly known as Castaniolo. Its origins are Roman and it did not become Castel Maggiore until the early 1800s, when workshops opened to make agricultural machinery and tools.  The surrounding countryside is notable for a number of beautiful private villas built for the ancient noble families of the area, including Villa Zarri, now a renowned brandy distillery.

Bologna's Piazza Maggiore with the Basilica San Petronio
Bologna's Piazza Maggiore with the Basilica San Petronio
Travel Tip:

The history of Bologna itself can be traced back to 1,000BC or possibly earlier, with a settlement that was developed into an urban area by the Etruscans, the Celts and the Romans.  The University of Bologna, the oldest in the world, was founded in 1088.  Bologna's city centre, which has undergone substantial restoration since the 1970s, is one of the largest and best preserved historical centres in Italy, characterised by 38km (24 miles) of walkways protected by porticoes.  At the heart of the city is the beautiful Piazza Maggiore, dominated by the Gothic Basilica of San Petronio, the largest brick built church in the world.

More reading:

How Riccardo Patrese became a key figure in the glory years of Williams F1

The brilliance of Mario Andretti, conqueror of F1 and IndyCar

Elio de Angelis - the last of the 'gentleman racers'

Also on this day:

The Feast Day of St John of Capistrano

1457: The Doge of Venice, Francesco Foscari, is thrown out of office


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