Back in the autumn of 1991, when Michael Schumacher jumped ship from Jordan Grand Prix to Benetton, team boss Eddie Jordan grabbed the man that he thought would be another star of the future: Alessandro Zanardi, as he was then known. Zanardi had won that year’s Formula 3000 title with the wonderfully named Il Barone Rampante team and was ready to break into Formula 1.
He took part in three races for Jordan and did well, but he did not have any money to get a drive in the 1992 season and so settled to be the reserve driver with Minardi. A year later, Team Lotus took him on as team-mate to Johnny Herbert and he scored his first point in just his second race for the team.
Sadly, the team struggled more and more for money and by mid-season was forced to drop Zanardi in order to raise extra funds. He returned in 1994, but the team was by then in terminal decline. When it closed down, Zanardi was left with nothing for 1995.
That year he married Daniela Manni, who had been his team manager at Il Barone Rampante. They decided to head to the United States in 1996, taking up the offer of a drive from Chip Ganassi. A few months later the Americanised 'Alex' was winning races, and in 1997 and 1998 Zanardi won back-to-back IndyCar titles.
Frank Williams took notice of these results and decided to sign Zanardi for F1 in 1999. The relationship did not gel and an unhappy Zanardi quit the team after just one season, opening the way for Jenson Button to get his break in F1.
Zanardi went back to IndyCars in 2001 with Mo Nunn, who had been his engineer at Ganassi. However, in September of that year he lost both of his legs when he was hit side-on at high speed by another car in a hideous Indycar crash at the Lausitzring in Germany.
Zanardi’s heart stopped three times as he was flown by helicopter to hospital in Berlin, but surgeons there saved his life during an eight-hour emergency operation.
Alex accepted that he would have to live a very different life, and, one step at a time, went back to doing what he loved doing most of all: racing. It is an amazing story of human courage and the refusal to give in in the face of adversity. Two years after the accident he returned to the Lausitzring and drove a specially adapted Indycar in a demonstration run, finishing the final 13 laps that he should have driven on the day that he nearly died. Hollywood could not have asked for a better story.
Later that year Alex tried his hand at touring car racing at Monza, driving a specially modified BMW, and he did so well that he was hired by Roberto Ravaglia's BMW Team Italy-Spain to take part in the FIA European Touring Car Championship in 2004. He stayed with the team in 2005 when the series became a World Championship and, in August that year, he won his first victory, taking advantage of a reversed top eight grid. He would go on to win further races in Istanbul in 2006 and at Brno in 2008 and 2009.
In the autumn of 2006 he drove a specially modified BMW Sauber F1 car in a test at Valencia, then in 2007 he entered the New York Marathon after only four weeks of training with a handbike. He finished fourth and began to take the sport more seriously. Two years later he won the Venice Marathon and, after announcing his retirement from motorsport at the end of 2009, won the Rome Marathon of 2010.
The following year he won the New York Marathon at his fourth attempt. Next, his goal was to win a gold medal in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. He ended up with two golds and a silver.