The 2012 London Olympics have provided no end of inspirational stories over the past month and for the motorsport community the most poignant came on Wednesday afternoon at Brands Hatch as former F1 driver and double Champ Car champion Alex Zanardi claimed Paralympics gold in the handcycling time trial around the circuit he first competed on as a racing driver more than 20 years ago.
The 45-year-old came close to losing his life when he was involved in a horrific crash during his second stint in the American-based Champ Car series at Germany’s Lausitzring in 2001, an accident which saw him lose both of his legs. Yet since then his story, and return to top-level sporting competition, has been little short of remarkable.
Not only did Zanardi return to racing in a modified touring car in the World Touring Car Championship, he took his racer’s competitive instinct into the world of disability sport and handbiking with the goal of winning gold at the 2012 Paralympics.
Last November Zanardi, at the second attempt, won the handcycling class of the New York Marathon and in addition to winning silver at the World time trials and further marathon wins in Italy, collected enough points to make Italy’s Paralympics team for the handbiking road events at the 2012 Games. With the events taking place in and around London, the venue for today’s event was rather well known for Zanardi – even if the anti-clockwise route round the circuit would have been somewhat unintuitive – given he first raced at Brands Hatch in Formula 3000 in 1991, and more recently the WTCC, where he finished on the podium in 2008.
For Wednesday’s H4 category event, the athletes had to complete two laps of a 8km loop around the race circuit and surrounding roads with the 10 handcyclists’ start times staggered. By the end of the first split Zanardi was already a number of seconds up on his nearest competitors and by the end of the second lap had done enough to beat the German Norbert Mosandl to the gold medal by 27 seconds.
In an interview with Channel 4, the UK’s host Paralympics broadcaster, before the race Zanardi had spoken of his deep enjoyment of the build-up to the competition and admitted that finding a fresh challenge after the Games would be a difficult task.
“It’s a sad moment to a certain degree because I wouldn’t be here had I not loved every single second of this experience,” he said.” To be at the end of the road will also be a bit of a sad moment because if I won’t be able the day after to find a new horizon to fill my life honestly it would be a very empty life, so I will be a very busy man the following week looking for something new.
“But who knows – maybe I’m like red wine so I can go to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Games!”
But before turning to the future, the former Jordan, Lotus and Williams driver will have two further opportunities to add to his medal count in London, with appearances in the individual road race on Friday and team relay event on Saturday.