Alex Zanardi’s Return to Competition as a Double-Amputee After a 2001 Accident Remains 1 of Auto Racing’s Most Amazing Stories

The Formula 1 incident at the Italian Grand Prix in which Max Verstappen collided with Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes moments after the British driver completed a pit stop has parallels to Alex Zanardi’s 2001 misfortune.

Verstappen’s F1 car literally ran up and onto Hamilton’s car, and one of the tires grazed his rival’s head, though a titanium safety bar absorbed most of the blow. Still, the incident came precariously close to becoming as tragic as a wreck nearly 20 years ago to the day that also began with a race-leading driver coming out of the pits.

Alex Zanardi of Italy celebrates finishing  Ironman Italy on Sept. 21, 2019, in Cervia, Italy. | Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for Ironman
Alex Zanardi of Italy celebrates finishing Ironman Italy on Sept. 21, 2019, in Cervia, Italy. | Bryn Lennon/Getty Images for Ironman

That unfortunate accident at the 2001 American Memorial in Klettwitz, Germany, required doctors to amputate CART competitor Zanardi’s legs. The crash happened after he pitted on lap 142 of a 154-lap race. Attempting to accelerate back onto the course, he lost traction and spun into the path of oncoming traffic.

Patrick Carpentier avoided hitting the Italian driver, but Alex Tagliani was following closely and could not react in time. Tagliani plowed into Zanardi’s car, severing the nose and crushing the lower shell. Paramedics rushed to the scene, where Zanardi was bleeding heavily from fractures in both legs. Surgeons at a nearby hospital determined that they had to perform a double amputation.

Zanardi, who was 35 at the time of the crash, took an aggressive approach toward rehabilitation, deciding that he would not let the physical setback dictate what he could and could not do for the rest of his life. The progress in less than two years was stunning and inspiring.

In June 2003, he drove 40 practice laps on the same EuroSpeedway Lausitz track to get the feel for using hand-operated controls. On race day, he returned for another drive before the competition, this time symbolically completing the 13 laps on the two-mile layout that he could not finish in 2001. According to Cart.com, he turned laps at more than 190 mph, making for an amazing story. Had he done that in qualifying a day earlier, he would have placed fifth on the starting grid.

“It was flat out. Wide open. I can’t say pedal to the metal, because I didn’t have a pedal. I just had a little knob, but that was all I had in the car.”

Alex Zanardi

However, Zanardi did not settle for that feat. Having won 15 of 52 CART races from 1996-98 before returning to Formula 1 in 1999, he wanted to taste victory again, whatever the form. He began competing in 2003 in the European Touring Car Championship, which morphed into the World Touring Car Championship, and Zanardi triumphed four times from 2005-09 when he announced his retirement.

Zanardi made a handful of competitive appearances in subsequent years, but he found new challenges to conquer by competing in hard cycling in the Paralympics, held in conjunction with the Olympics every four years. He earned two gold medals in London in 2012, then followed up with two more at Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Sadly, that second career led to another near-fatal racing accident. While competing in a cycling road race in Italy in June 2020, Zanardi lost control while descending a hill and veered into an oncoming truck. Multiple head injuries left him in a medically induced coma and hospitalized for months.

In July 2021, Daniela Zanardi said her husband was continuing his recovery in a rehabilitation facility. According to BMW Motorsport, Zanardi cannot speak but is otherwise able to communicate while performing physical therapy and working to regain mental acuity.

“It is a very long journey, and at the moment no predictions are made on when he will be able to return home,” Daniela Zanardi said. “We put all our energy in Alex’s recovery.”

It’s a recovery that will understandingly take many more months, but Zanardi has already shown determination and perseverance beyond what even other elite athletes could muster.

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