27 August 2012

Zanardi returns to Brands Hatch

Italy's Alex Zanardi will line up to race for three separate paralympic cycling golds t Brands Hatch next week (this is where the road cycling events will be held). Unlike other paralympians he has competed here as a racing driver. 

"Last time I was here I was going about five times faster but I still love this circuit," said Zanardi, 45,

Zanardi's comeback is all the more incredible considering doctors never understood how he survived the side-on impact in a Champ Car race at Germany's Lausitz track 11 years ago. Pulling out of a pit stop, Zanardi lost control and stalled on the track, forcing one driver to swerve round him before the Canadian driver Alex Tagliani collided with him at 217mph, hitting Zanardi's Reynard-Honda at its most vulnerable point behind the front wheel – slicing car and driver in two.

"What saved me was the clean break," said Zanardi, whose legs were severed above the knees. "I could have easily died right there from the impact."

After losing three-quarters of his blood and undergoing reanimation seven times, doctors were amazed he was still clinging on to life after being taken by helicopter to a Berlin hospital.

"They compared my injuries to a Nasa study that charts the critical point beyond which a human body cannot survive and told me I was officially a dead man," said Zanardi, a two-times Champ Car racing champion who also drove for the Lotus Formula One team.

The Bologna-born driver was determined to compete again the moment he woke from his coma. "The first thing I asked myself was 'How am I going to do all the things I want to do with no legs?'"

Within nine months Zanardi was racing again, switching to the World Touring Car Championship and racking up wins.  "To drive the BMW 320 I convinced the team to create a special brake pedal that I could use with my prosthetic leg," he said. "Having no legs doesn't mean you can't drive fast and I wasn't going to be happy scoring the odd point, I thought it was possible to win and went for it."

Zanardi used his knowledge of racing car design to build his own prosthetic legs, even producing a special set to allow him to go swimming with his son. "If you take your legs off to swim you enter the pool like a sack of potatoes, so I changed the knee joints to make them corrosion proof and coated the legs with the same natural-looking foam we line racing car fuel tanks with to stop the fuel moving around."

Looking for new challenges, Zanardi discovered hand bikes, where the pedals are turned by hands, not feet, and he took fourth place in the hand bike section of the New York City Marathon in 2007 after training for just four weeks.

Then, in 2009, he retired from car racing with the aim of making Italy's hand bike team for London 2012, last year winning the New York marathon at his fourth attempt, where he narrowly beat Poland's Rafal Wilk, a former speedway racer who lost his legs in an accident.

Relying on his experience as a test driver and calling on the expertise of friends in the car racing business, Zanardi has built his bike from scratch, using the on-board monitors that are now common in the sport to download and analyse data from training sessions.

"It's not much different to Formula One where they are improving the cars constantly," he said. "The difference is every hand biker needs a different bike depending on their residual ability," he said.
Zanardi moulded a carbon-fibre seat to fit perfectly around his rear and what remains of his legs "like a Cinderella shoe", helping him reach sprint speeds of over 37mph in practice ahead of the Paralympics,

Hand bikers will race in one of four categories determined by the extent of their disability. "I am H4, able to use my back so I can lean forward and get my body weight behind the pedalling," Zanardi said. "People who can't move their back will be H1 to H3, and ride in a reclined position. They cannot use their body weight but they do get an aerodynamic advantage which makes them more efficient on the flat."

 "My parents taught me that I could always improve on things," he said. "After my crash I never doubted it would be hard but I would be lying to say this new life has been a surprise to me. I did it because I thought it was possible. "If some people could fly, Usain Bolt would feel disabled," he said. "Doing the best with what I have is the biggest challenge."


susan said...


jams o donnell said...

It is quite a story