When double Paralympic gold medallist Alex Zanardi first featured on my radar it was 1991 and he was driving for an Italian team called Il Barone Rampante (The Rampant Baron). Colleagues close to the team alleged that rather than driver debriefs, its motorhome was used mainly for the rampant snorting of white powder. It was an ‘interesting’ environment, not least for Zanardi who unassisted by the devil’s dandruff was attempting to win a major motor racing championship.
I met him first eight years later on his second coming to Formula One. I interviewed him two thirds of the way through the year. Things weren’t going well. He hadn’t scored a point and as it turned out wasn’t going to. But he was punctual, polite and gave full attention to my questions about how he could turn his season around. Some of his erstwhile fellows – stand up please Ralf Schumacher – managed to hide those qualities remarkably well.
Three years later I spoke to a very different Alex Zanardi. His Formula One career had ended and racing an IndyCar he’d lost his legs in a horrific crash. Yet the same competitive instinct and trade mark good humour was present.
Asked if he wanted to give son Niccolo a sibiling, he laughed: “No, (wife) Daniela is happy with one. I would like more, and believe me I could! I might have lost my legs but I’m still capable. All the blood that was in my legs has to go somewhere!” And you couldn’t keep that grin away. You might have wondered if Ralf Schumacher, his one-time Williams team mate, had been in touch after Zanardi’s life-changing crash. Again, that broad grin: “That’s a ridiculous question! Ralf can drive a car quickly but not much more. Of course he hasn’t called me.”
Rather than wallow in self-pity, the overriding impression he gave was of a man determined to continue enjoying life. He’d designed his own prosthetic legs after growing frustrated with the ones he’d been given. And one of the other memorable quotes in the interview was when he said: “I have so much in my life.” Now of course he has even more: two Olympic gold medals and the promise that a US team will provide a car for the legendary Indy 500 oval race. Don’t bet against it happening.