Zanardi shines while F1 tarnishes

As I’ve previously written, Monday’s two-year suspended ban for Renault over ‘Crashgate’ was not the FIA‘s finest moment, being a victory for pragmatic, political expediency over any even vaguely cosmetic attempt to make the punishment fit the crime. (If Nelson Piquet Jr‘s deliberate crash had caused the death of another driver, a marshal or a spectator, it is entirely possible that he, Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds could now be facing manslaughter chances.)

Formula 1‘s commercial ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone has hardly aided the credibility of the sport by suggesting that Briatore’s lifetime ban from all F1 activities is “harsh”:

“I would have banned Flavio for one year. That would have been enough.”

But, as Simon Barnes suggests in the Times today, the powers that be in F1 have bet that the punters will keep coming back for more rather than walk away from the sport in disgust. (Sadly, they are probably right.)

“It seems that we are always ready to take a high moral line about sport, but we are not prepared to do anything about it. The action of sport, the ever-unfolding narrative of sport, is not something we are willing to let go. We are addicted. Sport has us where it wants us.”

I know that personally I’m complicit in all this, as I will still be watching this weekend’s Grand Prix in (irony of ironies) Singapore, the home of Crashgate, although I’m not going to be trumpeting my liking for F1 as a sport too loudly for a while, that’s for sure. It’s been a tough year for motorsport fans, what with Crashgate, the death of Henry Surtees at Brands Hatch and Felipe Massa’s horrific accident.

However, my morning has been brightened by reading the latest blog by the BBC’s Eleanor Oldroyd about Alex Zanardi, which highlights that not every story that comes out of motorsport is a depressing one.

The Italian offers a unique perspective on both life and the perils of competing at the highest level of such a dangerous sport. Having started 41 races in F1 and won the CART championship (its nearest equivalent in the US) twice, his single-seater career was abruptly ended at the Lausitzring in 2001.

German 500, Lausitz, Germany, September 2001

The atmosphere at any race meeting is always highly charged; at this race in Lausitz doubly so, coming just four days since after the horrifying events of 9/11.

Alex Zanardi was leading the race in its closing stages when he dived into the pits for one quick, final ‘splash and dash’ refuelling stop. But as the Italian exited the pit lane, he lost control of the car (it’s thought he spun on spilt oil), and slewed luridly across the track before coming to a halt sideways in the middle of the raceway.

The first driver on the scene, Kenny Brack, narrowly avoided a collision. Alex Tagliani, however, did not, as he catapulted out of the previous turn at close to 200 mph. At 200 mph, you are travelling nearly the length of a football pitch every second. At 200mph, the last thing you expect to see is a stationary car straddling the road directly in your path. At 200mph, even armed with a racing driver’s reflexes, you have barely enough time to register this unlikely sight, let alone take evasive action.

Tagliani’s car rammed into Zanardi’s just in front of the cockpit – the area occupied by a driver’s legs – tearing it in two, its front sheared off at the point of impact.

It was only thanks to the speedy arrival and skilled work of the medical crew that Zanardi did not die on the track – he lost over four litres of blood as they struggled to stabilise him – but his legs were damaged beyond repair, the ends of both limbs having been torn off in the impact. (Dr Steve Olvey, CART’s medical director, would later eloquently describe it as: “Almost identical to what happens to soldiers who step on landmines.”) Eventually Zanardi was airlifted to hospital, where he was put into a medically induced coma for an operation in which both legs were amputated above the knee. Later came a series of fifteen operations to remove shards of his car’s carbon fibre from his body.

Alex Zanardi was lucky to escape the Lausitzring with his life.

Eight weeks later, he was out of hospital and driving a specially adapted car. And 20 months after his crash, he returned to Lausitz in a tailor-made car, where he ran 13 ‘ceremonial’ laps at an average speed (193mph) which would have seen him qualify fifth for that weekend’s CART race.

Since then, he has competed in the European and World Touring Car Championships, winning four races. Two years ago, he placed fourth in the handcycle event at the New York Marathon after only a few weeks’ training, and now hopes to compete in cycling events for Italy at the London 2012 Paralympics.

All this goes to explain why, when Zanardi chooses to comment on Crashgate – delivering his words with the same unflinching accuracy with which he used to attack the apex of a corner in a racing car – I listen.

“I am very sad for the sport. No-one goes away from the story with a clean soul.”

Concise, simple, and to the point. No matter how it is spun, the reputation of F1 has been severely tarnished by Crashgate. And while it will no doubt be polished up again by the action on the track and the passage of time, there is something fundamentally right about Zanardi’s words which no amount of money and glamour will ever truly conceal.

Alex Zanardi is a remarkable man who has taken every challenge that life has thrown at him and refused to accept defeat. He is exactly the kind of role model we want so many of our sporting idols to be, but so rarely are. And it is why he holds a place in my memory and my heart when other drivers who have enjoyed far more success in F1 – Zanardi only ever scored a single point in F1 – are long forgotten.

“It has been a splendid adventure because I guess human beings without some kind of challenge – they don’t live well. Whenever I have a drive or have a dream, I try to achieve it with what I have.”

The tale of Alex Zanardi, open-wheel racer, has long since passed (although he continues to compete – and win – in touring cars). However, the story of Alex Zanardi, the man, is far from over. And while I will be wearing red, white and blue at both the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012, I will also be hoping to cheer on an Italian and his handbike.

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