Alessandro the Great

Phil Llewellin
Martyn Goddard
Alessandro 2 200

He remembered a very special moment with his young son, Niccolo: "We went to the beach to throw stones into the water. That day was a milestone in my rehabilitation-the first time the two of us had been out together since the accident."

His wife played a key role when the medics announced that their patient would survive but were not sure how well he would be after such a traumatic ordeal. "Another woman might have said, 'Darling, I love you, but what are we going to do?' when I came out of the coma. But not Daniela. She knew I would want to drive, so a BMW with manual controls was waiting for me the day I arrived home in Monaco, seven weeks after the accident."

Zanardi knew he could shift gears and work a hand throttle at the Lausitzring, but he wondered about operating a 750-horsepower single-seater's unassisted brakes. The experts were still scratching their heads when he and his brother-in-law visited a kart track in Italy.

The brother-in-law was slow enough to attract a lot of good-natured flak. Challenged to do better, Zanardi had his prosthetic feet strapped to the pedals with plastic tie wraps.

"The idea was to prove a point by doing a lap. So I go out and am amazed. I have pretty good sensitivity and spend half an hour going like hell. Back home, I called the engineer on the project, who wasn't making any progress. I said I thought I could operate the brakes with my leg. He said it was impossible but suggested I get into a racing car and use data-acquisition equipment to see how much pedal pressure I could generate. I asked him to hold on for a minute, because I had data-acquisition stuff right there. I went to the bathroom, stood the scales against the wall, sat down with my back to the bath, pushed hard . . . then asked if 200 pounds would be enough. That was plenty, he said."

The next stop was England, where the team made sure that Zanardi and his prosthetic legs were compatible with a specially modified Reynard-Ford-Cosworth. His face lit up as he recalled how good it felt to accelerate so smoothly while shifting with the gear lever and the hand-operated clutch. "It was as if I'd been in the car the previous day. In fact, everything seemed so normal that it almost got me as I approached the end of the proving ground's straight at something like 200 mph. Then and only then"-he made frantic downshifting noises-"did I hope the brakes would work. I did another run but was suddenly driving a three-wheeler when the rear suspension broke. That was a scary moment."

Back at the Lausitzring, he made it clear that he wasn't going to do thirteen parade laps. He was going to push hard, to prove a point, but he needed a little practice. No problem, they said. How many laps would he do? Forty or fifty, Zanardi answered. "But I came in and said, 'That's it. I'm already where I want to be,' after my fourth flying lap.

"That test was even better than the thirteen laps, because it proved I could do it, but the actual run was fantastic. A situation like that touches people because the driver looks so vulnerable. Vulnerability inspires pity followed by sharing the driver's pride in what he's doing. But there's nothing to pity. I don't feel inferior to other people, despite losing my legs. I just need a different way to arrive at the same point. What makes the difference is up here," he asserted, tapping his head. "It doesn't matter if the controls are operated by hand or foot, because up here is where it all comes from."

Those laps geared Zanardi up to drive a BMW 320i at Monza, Italy, in the last round of 2003's European Touring Car Championship. He was very nervous-jousting in a sedan was a completely new experience after racing nothing but single-seaters, from karts to Formula 1 and those triumphant CART seasons. Having only two days to practice made Monza more of a challenge than the Lausitzring.

The BMW was damaged in a first-corner, first-lap accident, but the race was run in two parts, and he was able to start the second leg from the back of the grid. After finishing seventh, he told a reporter, "Taking part isn't enough. I believe I'm good enough to win with a competitive car."

Daniela's name drifted back into the conversation: "She knows what driving means to me, and she knows that some activities are far more and far less dangerous than motor racing. We are philosophical, because my accident involved a great deal of bad luck. The fact that everybody talks about it tells you how unusual it was. That sort of bad luck is unlikely to happen again."

Zanardi finished his coffee, looked out over the wind-whipped harbor, and talked about his beloved boat with its twin 800-horsepower Caterpillar engines. Then he reached for his walking sticks, smiled, and said, "I will be driving a BMW in this year's European Touring Car Championship. If you survive being struck by lightning, you don't avoid the risk of being struck again by spending the rest of your life at home."

2 of 2

New Car Research

our instagram

get Automobile Magazine

Subscribe to the magazine and save up to 84% off the newsstand price


new cars

Read Related Articles