Twelve years on to this very day since the accident that almost killed him and changed his life forever, Alex Zanardi is still as chippy and cheerful as he ever was.
Motorsport is littered with stories of inspirational comebacks and bravery in the face of adversity, Niki Lauda immediately springs to mind after the release of Ron Howard’s "Rush" this week.
But if ever there was a story that should be made into a Hollywood blockbuster, then it is surely Zanardi’s.
An early acquaintance with death
Born in Bologna, Italy, Zanardi had to come to terms with the grim reality that cars are dangerous from a very early age when his sister Cristina was killed in an automobile accident in 1979.
At age 13, he began racing karts the very year his sister was killed, building his own chariot using wheels from a dustbin and pipes from his father’s factory.
Following a second-place championship finish in F3000 in 1991, Zanardi gained his big break in F1 with Eddie Jordan’s team and competed in the final three races of the season.
A brief spell with Minardi followed, but it wasn’t until the 1993 and 1994 seasons with Lotus that he enjoyed a consistent run in the sport, albeit in an uncompetitive car—sixth place in the 1993 Brazilian Grand Prix was his best return.
Following the collapse of the Lotus F1 team, Zanardi upped sticks and left for America where he signed for Chip Ganassi Racing for the 1996 Champ Car Series. He made an immediate impact, securing five pole positions and winning three times during his rookie season en route to a tie for second in the championship standings.
Triumph and tragedy in America
Zanardi won back-to-back titles the next two years, and a window back into the world of F1 racing that he desired opened again with Frank Williams offering him a contract.
The team had won the drivers’ and constructors’ titles with Jacques Villeneuve the previous season, but the new Mecachrome-powered car was something of a disaster, and he returned to CART with Mo Nunn in 2001.
The decision proved a defining moment in his life when making ground on his rivals in round 15 at the Lausitzring, Zanardi spun into the path of Alex Tagliani, and his car was severed at the nose.
Zanardi lost both legs in the accident and almost three quarters of his blood volume, but rapid trackside assistance and excellent medical work saved his life.
A remarkable comeback
So began the second chapter of Zanardi’s life, which involved a rigorous rehabilitation program as the Italian was determined to race once more.
Drawing on the interest in design and engineering that led him to build his own kart as a youngster, Zanardi designed and built his own prosthetic limbs as he was dissatisfied with those he had been given. And in 2003, the Italian was back behind the wheel of a racing car, completing the final 13 laps at the race venue that almost killed him using hand operated brake and acceleration controls. In doing so, he lapped the circuit at speeds that would have seen him qualify fifth for the race.
The experience proved to himself both physically and psychologically that he was able to race again, and in 2004 he joined Roberto Ravaglia’s BMW Team Italy-Spain for what would be five fruitful seasons. He won in Germany near the scene of his life-changing accident in his first full year and would go on to win again in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
An Olympic champion
After retiring from competitive racing for the final time, Zanardi decided to pursue his other new passion of handcycle racing.
Having won the Venice, Rome and New York marathons, Zanardi won a place for Team Italy at the 2012 London Paralympics.
It was almost preordained that the determined Zanardi would succeed, and he became a double Paralympic champion, winning gold medal in the men's road time trial H4 and gold in the individual H4 road race.
The next chapter?
After doing so, Zanardi said it had been the “last day of a great adventure,” but that he now had to find something else to do otherwise “life will become a little boring."
And after all Zanardi has been through in an incredible life, it is a good bet that the final chapter has yet to be written. But perhaps it’s up to a Hollywood scriptwriter to pen what has happened up until now. As he reflected last year:
I'm Alex Zanardi, I always have to come up with something at the end of a race - I have a bit of a big head. My great friend Jimmy Vasser called me last night and said if you win a gold medal I'm going to put you in a car for the Indy 500, so I will have to call him back tonight. I only collected a second place, a third-placed finish and to win I had to come back with a hand-cycle. It's an amazing feeling.
I'm really, really happy for the result and I knew that this moment was going to bring a little bit of sadness as well. This is almost the last day of a great adventure and from Monday I will have to find something different, otherwise life will become a little boring. It's at the top of the scale with many other great moments I've been lucky enough to live.