Will Gray

Gray Matter: The inspiration of Zanardi

Former Formula One driver Alex Zanardi goes for a second Olympic medal on Friday, almost 11 years after the horrific crash in which he lost his legs, and his determined route to golden glory is truly inspiring.

Zanardi's F1 story was one of unfulfilled potential. Initially racing slow machinery, he suffered a big crash soon after scoring his first ever point for Lotus and disappeared to ChampCar. When he came back, with Williams, he joined the team when they were far from their prime and they went their separate ways at the end of just one year.

Where he did excel, however, was in US IndyCar racing, where he won the title twice. But then came the devastating crash at the Lausitzring in Germany on September 15, 2001, when he lost both his legs.

When I interviewed him, way back in 2004, it was the most inspiring interview I have ever done.

It was just days before he returned to the racetrack in a specially modified BMW touring car and, when asked about his memories of the accident, he simply joked: "When I watched the videos and saw myself opening my visor after the crash I realised I must have been awake. At that point I must have thought: 'Holy shit! I wonder how are we going to fix this now?'"

The collision — a T-bone crash with Alex Tagliani — caused Zanardi's legs to completely disintegrate, his injuries described by the doctor on course as being similar to those suffered by land mine victims. He lost 70 per cent of his blood and his heart stopped once.

Having escaped death by the narrowest of margins, he recounted to me how his wife Daniella had inspired him to fight on.

"After the crash she said 'He will walk, and knowing him he will do much more' and as soon as I woke up she told me that. I remember falling back to sleep with the information already making my brain work..."

He has certainly lived up to his wife's promise.

Zanardi said he called Tagliani as soon as he could talk because he didn't want him to feel responsible - and humbly suggested: "I am sure it's harder for him than for me."

But after getting a pair of prosthetic legs that he described as being "like a pair of ski boots that didn't fit very well" he quickly got used to it, ignored the pain, and started driving again.

His BMW touring car was fitted with special controls for the throttle and a modified brake pedal that had what appeared like a second shoe attached. Soon enough he was winning again.

Fearless of getting back into the mix, he joked: "Well, I'm actually in a better position than everyone else on the racetrack because if I break one of my legs, I only need a 4mm screw to fix it."

He said the accident had given him a mental flexibility that he did not have before. This new skill enabled him to get used to changes on a car far more quickly than he had done in the past and get up to speed within a lap rather than five.

And that rapid learning mentality is also probably how he managed to get into handcycling so quickly.

He took it up just to stay in shape for his racing, but then realised he was quite good. He took fourth in the 2007 handcycling marathon in New York and two years later gave up racing cars altogether to focus on getting into the Italian Paralympics team.

He made it, and then went on to win gold, ironically at Brands Hatch, where he never reached the top step of the podium in a car. He exudes positivity, and after his victory he said: "I'm a person who has had plenty from life and lady luck keeps on adding stuff..."

The Paralympics have been full of inspirational stories, and Zanardi's is one for motorsport to be proud of. He is a man for any racing driver to look up to for his determination and dedication.

Tomorrow, he will take on the road race, and he's looking to win that too. And you can bet everyone in the Monza F1 paddock, back in Zanardi's beloved Italy, will be cheering him on.