Remember When Alex Zanardi Drove An F1 Car in 2006?
On 31 October 1999, Alessandro Zanardi started, and prematurely ended, his 44th and final Grand Prix in Formula 1, his Williams-FW21 calling time with electrical issues on the opening lap. It was a fittingly ignominious end to an F1 career that promised much and yet, somewhat bafflingly given both the Italian’s future success in IndyCar (CART) and the potential opportunities en-route, delivered almost nothing.
Had Benetton not been able to wrangle a certain M.Schumacher out of his Jordan contract in 1991 for instance, and as confirmed by the man himself on F1’s recent Beyond the Grid podcast, it would likely have been Zanardi, not the future seven-time World Champion, who lined up alongside the soon-to-depart Nelson Piquet for that year’s Italian Grand Prix. Sure, the Italian would eventually make his F1 debut with Jordan two races later at Barcelona, but by this point, Zanardi’s relationship with Benetton team boss, and all-round series mogul, Flavio Briatore, had already hit the skids.
Despite promising pace, three guest appearances with minnow Minardi in 1992 failed to set the world alight, and though Zanardi scored his first points with F1 icon Lotus at the 1993 season opener, the team was in receivership just 18 months later. Time spent on the bench with a concussion after his suspension failed at 290kph at Spa ’93 certainly didn’t help either.
Even when Zanardi did make his F1 return five years later, with nine-time World Champion Williams no less, the British squad, now saddled with an outdated ‘Supertec’ V8 and without the creative genius of Adrian Newey, was far from the competitive juggernaut it had been throughout the early ‘90s. Zanardi himself admits that this, plus a strained relationship with Williams technical director (Sir) Patrick Head, meant much of the internal “fire” was already gone by the summer of ’99. By the time his FW21 pulled to a lifeless halt at Suzuka, Zanardi had already been bought out of his Williams contract one year early.
Fortunately, this was not the last time Alessandro Zanardi found himself at the wheel of a contemporary F1 car. Fast forward to 25 November 2006, and the Italian, now a BMW works driver in the World Touring Car Championship, is being helped aboard a specially prepared BMW Sauber F1.06 at Valencia’s ‘Circuit de la Comunitat’ for some headline-grabbing sighter laps.
This was a very different Alex Zanardi to the driver that had climbed aboard his Williams FW21 for the final time seven years earlier. This was a man who’d suffered his now infamous accident at the Lausitzring in Germany, 2001, lost both of his legs in the aftermath, yet somehow had the fortitude not to let go entirely, despite losing an ungodly 72 per cent of his blood volume and having his heart re-started seven times.
A man who, just 20 months later, completed ‘the final 13 laps’ he’d been unable to at the same circuit aboard a specially-prepared Reynard Ford-Cosworth Champ Car. He did so before 68,000 fans in the grandstands – all of them on their feet – and at a seriously impressive pace: his best time, a 37.483s posted at 312.6kph, would have put him 5th on the grid for that year’s German 500! That right there would have been a fitting curtain call to an already hall of fame-worthy motor racing career.
But no. Six months later, Zanardi was making his European Touring Car Championship debut at the season finale in Monza (where else?), a one-off run that led to a full-time return to motorsport in 2004. The following year, again with BMW Italy-Spain and now in the World Touring Car Championship, Zanardi was a winner again just six rounds in. In, of all places, Germany.
It speaks volumes then that, as the man himself walked around the Valencia garage with the assistance of hand crutches, modestly introducing himself to the assembled BMW-Sauber mechanics – “Hi, I’m Alex, nice to meet you.” – the magnitude of the event seems almost lost on the two-time CART champion. On that day, and at 40 years old, Alessandro Zanardi became the first driver with amputated legs to drive a Formula 1 car. But to the man himself? It was simply another opportunity to do what he loved most: feeding “the fire” within.
“This is just amazing for me,” Zanardi remarked at the time. “Of course, I know that I won’t get a contract with the F1 team, but having the chance to drive an F1 racer again is just incredible. F1 is all about development speed. I’m really excited to see what has changed since my last Grand Prix in 1999.
“I can call myself a very happy man, as I turned my passion into my profession. Despite having been a race driver for quite a while now, I still feel the fire burning in me. Formula 1 is – and will always be – the pinnacle of motor racing. I can hardly wait for the moment, when the V8 engine is started.”
Few could. Not least the 36 assembled youngsters competing in the BMW World Finals that weekend to win an F1 test of their own. A group that included seven-time Grand Prix winner Daniel Ricciardo, two-time Le Mans winner and future World Endurance Champion Earl Bamber, and, in bittersweet irony, Robert Wickens. The latter, during his maiden IndyCar season in 2018, was involved in an horrific accident at the Pocono superspeedway in Pennsylvania that left him with severe spinal injuries. His recuperation, like the two-time CART champ before him, has also proven an inspiration.
But back to the car, specifically a BMW-Sauber F1.06, albeit with some significant upgrades to the controls. Acceleration for instance was controlled by a paddle mounted to the left side of the steering (all but the required switchgear was removed in advance), while the paddle on the right was responsible for gear shifts. Braking? With Zanardi able to generate more force with his right limb, the pedal was moved from the left side of the cockpit to the right, to which, in lieu of the tight confines of an F1 cockpit, a specially-made prosthesis was attached using velcro… no, we’re not kidding.
Suited, prosthetically booted, and with the 740hp(ish) 2.4-litre V8 behind his back fired into ear-splitting life, Zanardi pulled the F1.06 into the Valencia pitlane amid a flurry of camera flashes to begin the first of 12 laps of the 4.005km Circuit de la Comunitat. It was ‘hairs rising on the back of the neck’-type stuff: had there been 68,000 fans in attendance that day, each would no doubt have been on their feet once again.
“The car was fantastic!” he commented afterwards. “Everything is so precise; I was really amazed, because usually you need more time to work on all the details of the car. I expected the car to be much rougher. But it feels rather like a beautiful BMW 7 Series” – a facelifted version of which arrived midway through 2005, but we’re sure that’s just a coincidence [cough] – “not like a Formula 1 car.”
“This is a special opportunity for me. I saw some very happy faces; everybody was surprised that everything was working so smoothly. BMW always gave me maximum support, especially in the WTCC [World Touring Car Championship]. Driving the Formula 1 car is another step. I am very proud that I am doing this.”
“Alessandro Zanardi is a truly impressive character,” BMW Motorsport Director Mario Theissen explained in a masterpiece of understatement at the time. “With an unprecedented show of will and dedication, he fought his way back into motor racing and now proves in the WTCC that he is able to win races at the highest level.
“It was rather a joke when he asked me at the beginning of the year, if he could do an F1 test with us. We will give him this chance now, the engineers made it possible.
“I was impressed with how well the modifications on the car are working. Alessandro felt comfortable from the word go, which has also been proved by his lap times. It’s obvious that he is no F1 newcomer. He has not forgot how to drive a race car like this at the limit.”
Nor would he in the years that followed. On top of his maiden series win in 2004, and after his second just two months before his F1 ‘return’, Zanardi would go on to win twice more in the WTCC before bidding adieu to full time tin tops at the end of 2009 to re-focus his attention on hand biking. Paralympic gold medals – four of them – awaited in 2012 and 2016, as did new World Championships to add to his collection, on three wheels rather than four this time, and a career reborn for a fourth time.
All that was to come though. On 25 November 2006 in Valencia, seven years after his final GP and albeit for a limited time only, Alessandro Zanardi was a Formula 1 driver once again.
*Images courtesy of Motorsport Images, BMW Motorsport, and Formula1.com