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10 September 2012

Ex-Formula 1 driver Alex Zanardi wins Paralympic Gold

Words by Niky Tamayo | Photos courtesy of London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games
 
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On the off-season, many Formula One drivers compete in various athletic events. Most notably, former world champion Jenson Button recently competed in an Iron Man 70.3 in Cebu, right before flying back to Belgium and winning his second race of the year.
 
While most fans can tell you who Jenson Button is, not many know of Alex Zanardi. His unremarkable Formula One career was beset by bad luck and bad timing. Instead, he is best known for his back-to-back world championships in the American CART series (now known as Champ Car) in the late 90’s. 
 
In those days, “Mister Donut” was known for exceptional race craft and daring overtakes. He would celebrate each victory by spinning his racer on track. In this latest victory, he instead held it high over his head. Not hard to do, as his racing hand-cycle is very light.
  
For this former world champion and double amputee, very few victories have ever been as sweet.
 
In September of 2001, Zanardi was involved in a horrific crash in Germany. His race car spun exiting the pits, and the resulting collision with fast-moving traffic cut his car in two and severed his legs. He lost over two-thirds of his blood and would have died if not for the timely intervention of the on-site medical team.
 
This didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for racing. The former F3000 and CART champion got right back in the saddle, designing his own racing prosthetics and piloting specially-prepared BMWs in the World Touring Car Championship. He also drove Formula 1 cars and Champ Cars in 320 km/h tests. So far, he is the only double amputee to ever win a WTCC race.
 
For the past few years, though, Zanardi has been participating more and more in hand-cycling, with his usual dogged determination and indomitable spirit. Just five years after first learning to ride, Zanardi won last weeks’ Individual Time Trial in the London 2012 Paralympic Games by nearly half-a-minute over his closest rival.
 
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“I only collected a second place (and) a third-placed finish (at Brands Hatch) and to win I had to come back with a hand-cycle. It's an amazing feeling,” said Zanardi.
 
Yet the Italian has no plans of sitting still. “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,” he added. 
 
As Zanardi’s former teammate and good friend Jimmy Vasser has offered him a race seat at the next Indianapolis 500 should he win that gold, it seems like Alex won’t have long to wait.