MOTOR SPORT LEGENDS
Racing's 'Jimi Hendrix' will need fancy fingerwork to take on Daytona without legs
Alex Zanardi to use specially adapted racing car with throttle and brake on the steering wheel
Alex Zanardi was a champion driver before losing both his legs in a 2001 racing accident, but it's since the crash that he's become a real rock star of the motorsport world.
After a storied comeback that has seen the former F1 driver and two-time CART champion excelling not only in motor racing but also earning gold medals for handcycling in the Paralympics, the Italian’s inspirational journey continues with his entry into the 24 Hours of Daytona in the USA next month.
In preparing for the gruelling endurance race, where his BMW M8 GTE has been specially modified to be driven with hand controls, the BMW M Motorsport engineers compare him to a drummer, while Alessandro Zanardi himself says: “I feel a bit like Jimi Hendrix.”
The manner in which the BMW works driver controls the car is comparable to a virtuoso performance, says his team. Together with BMW M Motorsport, Zanardi has developed a special system that allows him to accelerate with a throttle ring on the steering wheel but also allows him to brake by hand, by using a brake lever.
“When we started to think about what I would need to drive the car longer in distance in an endurance race, the idea was for sure to forget the legs and to do everything with my hands,” explains Zanardi.
That was the genesis of a plan to install a brake lever instead of the brake pedal that he pushed by moving his hips and applying pressure through his artificial leg. Zanardi accelerates by using a throttle ring on the steering wheel, and changes gear with a shift paddle on the steering wheel. There is also a switch on the brake lever that allows him to shift down when braking into turns.
The new system had its first serious test when Zanardi guested in the DTM touring car race at Misano, Italy, in August and secured an impressive fifth place. Based on the experience gathered in Misano, the BMW M Motorsport engineers and Zanardi then began to optimise the system for the 24 Hours of Daytona on January 26/27.
“In Misano when I was driving the DTM car, I realized that my right hand is so busy,” explains the Italian driver. “I could not keep my hand long enough onto the steering wheel to push the radio button and talk to the pit. Because at one point the corner was coming so I had to reach for the brake lever. And it’s more important to brake rather than to continue your conversation!”
Zanardi has to complete – and be able to coordinate – extremely complex processes in every turn.
“There is almost no point where either of my hands are free enough to focus on only one operation. I may have to push a button while my fingers are opening the throttle with the ring behind the steering wheel, I may have to trigger a downshift while pressing the brake lever. I feel a bit like Jimi Hendrix: I play with both of my hands.
“When you press the lever with your hand, on the same time you have to have a different feel with your fingers. So your muscles are doing one thing, and other muscles are doing another thing. This is incredibly complicated. Probably, it will be easier for a guitar player, someone who is used to use his hands in a different way.”
Along with Niki Lauda winning the F1 title after coming back from a life-threatening F1 crash which left him severely burned, Zanardi’s fight back has been one of motorsport's most inspirational stories. The Italian raced in Formula One with Jordan, Minardi and Lotus from 1991 to 1994 before moving to the US-based CART (Indy Car) series, where he won the 1997 and 1998 titles.
After returning to F1 with Williams in 1999 he was making a CART comeback in 2001 when he suffered a horror accident whilst leading the EuroSpeedway Lausitz race. He was hit from the side, severing the nose of the car and taking off both his legs.
This ended his open-wheel career but Zanardi returned to motorsport in 2004 using prosthetic legs and specially modified cars, taking several wins in touring cars.
He has also achieved great success in athletics, including winning gold medals in handcycling at the 2012 London Paralympics and the 2016 Rio Paralympics.