Zanardi makes return to F1

Italian Alex Zanardi has become the first double amputee to test drive a Formula One car – a modified BMW-Sauber C24-B.

updated: February 25, 2007 11:34 IST
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Valencia, Spain:

Alex Zanardi nestled himself into the car, fiddled with the buckles on his helmet until they were just right, then accelerated past a crowd of onlookers and onto the track. After driving four laps in a modified BMW-Sauber C24-B, the Italian pulled into pit lane just like any other Formula One driver. But Zanardi is no regular professional race car driver: He has no legs. "To put a guy with no legs, a handicapped athlete, into an F1 car, it's a good thing," Zanardi said after becoming the first double amputee to test drive a Formula One car. "This is why I'm so proud to be the one who is doing this, because for me I don't look at it from this point of view, but inevitably there will be a lot of people who will say, 'Sometimes I play in life, but look at that guy - he's driving an F1 car." When Zanardi came to a stop, the smile on his face and look in his eyes said it all - even with his helmet still on. "I'm really, really happy," Zanardi said. "I feel like somebody who has been cast away on an island for many years and suddenly he gets joined by a top model. "It's a fantastic feeling to see all the faces smiling when I brought it in - that was probably the highlight of the day." Horrific accident Zanardi lost both legs in a horrific crash on September 15, 2001, in Klettwitz, Germany, at the American Memorial 500, a race in the former American-based CART series - now known as the Champ Car World Series. He was exiting the pit lane in the lead with 12 laps to go before losing control of his car as it swerved into the path of Alex Tagliani. Tagliani plowed into the Italian at about 200 mph (320 kph), cutting Zanardi's car in half, spraying debris across the track, and sending Zanardi to the hospital and into a one-week coma. The only visible effect from that accident on Thursday came when the pit crew had to help Zanardi in and out of the tiny cockpit. "Had I had my original legs, it was still going to be difficult to find the right position in this car," Zanardi said. "It's difficult with the way my body is right now. I'm far away to be comfortable in the car, but so what - you do what you have to do." Zanardi's upper body is bulkier than that of the usual F1 driver, bringing the steering wheel closer to his chest and making it harder to steer. Also, he was forced to change his shoe size to be able to get his feet in - normally a 43, he downsized to a 36. But those problems didn't stop Zanardi from getting into an F1 car for the first time since 1999, when he raced for Williams. Despite having to improvise and use his left hand to work the clutch, Zanardi adapted to the car immediately, melting the slick rain tires the crew put on the car thinking he would need time to adapt. "At the end of the day, I've never driven the car with these types of controls, so I'm quite proud of the fact that they misjudged that I couldn't go out with dry tires and nobody was expecting me to push more than what the tires could take," said Zanardi, who will have the car suited to his specifications for testing on Saturday and Sunday. "When I'm driving, I'm not thinking I'm a handicapped athlete ... otherwise, I could not do what I'm doing. If I'm one-tenth behind pole position, I stop and I scream to my engineer 'We can do something to this car' and I try to get that one-tenth on this car and not think 'Wow, I got no legs so therefore I have to be happy if I'm one-tenth behind. "I always try," he said. New perspective The five years since his accident have given the former Jordan, Minardi and Lotus driver some more perspective on an unspectacular five-year F1 career. "I think I could have done much better in F1 and this was not because the team never gave me a reliable, fast car but for the fact I didn't push myself as hard as I could have," he said. "Not just to drive the car faster but to create a situation around me that would allow me to go faster on Sunday afternoon." In 41 career F1 races, Zanardi's best finish was a sixth place for Lotus at the Brazilian GP in 1993. "But you can't change the past, only learn from it, and without it I would not have had the success I did in the United States of which I am very proud," he said. Zanardi amassed two championships, a rookie of the year honor, and 15 wins during his four years in CART. Still, the 40-year-old Italian can't believe it's him who survived that mangled wreck of a car whenever he sees a replay of that fateful accident. "I say 'Wow, that was a good one,'" he said of the crash. "(Watching it) doesn't make me feel anything than the curiosity of trying to understand what the hell happened. Whether it was my fault for taking it a little too fast, or the grip of the tires, or if it was true that there was some water cooling fluid on the acceleration lane as some drivers suggested. "But after all, it doesn't really change anything," he said. (AP)