Alex Zanardi has accomplished a lot in his remarkable life. From CART championships to Paralympic gold medals [below] to New York City Marathons, life both before and after his accident at the Lausitzring in 2001 has been about competing, and winning. After a few years away from competitive motor racing, he’s ready to get back behind the wheel for another big challenge: a tilt at the GTLM class in the 2019 Rolex 24 At Daytona driving a factory-backed BMW M8 GTE.
Final plans are still being made, including which team will run the program and who his co-drivers will be, but in the meantime, preparations go on as Zanardi confers with BMW Motorsport on adapting the car to simultaneously suit his needs as well as those of his co-drivers. Zanardi makes it clear that this isn’t feel-good story fodder. He’s doing this because his appetite for winning is insatiable.
This won’t be Zanardi’s first try at a 24-hour race. In 2015, driving a BMW Z4 entered by ROAL Motorsport, Zanardi co-drove with fellow BMW works drivers Bruno Spengler and Timo Glock to finish in 25th place overall out of 57 entries.
“After the 24-hour race at Spa in 2015, we all felt it was a kind of unfinished business because it was a great experience with a bittersweet ending,” says Zanardi. “The car had a technical problem with only one hour to go.
“It was a decent surprise to do that well. We can’t say it was a ‘big surprise’ because that would mean that there was no expectation of doing well, when in reality the expectation was there all along – but probably not to do that well. In the middle of the night we were in a position to win. The huge talent of Bruno Spengler and Timo Glock had a big role in allowing us to have that aim. Still, for me to have role in achieving that goal and turning out competitive lap times was a big surprise to the people [at BMW] in Munich.
“So they were all very, very excited,” Zanardi continues. “And after a few days we spoke about trying to do this again, but in a better way. In 2016 there was the Olympics, and Jens Marquardt asked me if I wanted to [race] again, but I chose to focus on the Olympics. But right after the games, I got the chance, with only two weeks preparation, to drive in the final of the Italian GT Championship at Mugello, and everything went so well that I won! The following day Jens was so happy and he called me and said, ‘Hey Alex, we have to organize something,’ so we talked about it and it was announced – much to my surprise because it wasn’t yet official in my mind – at the year-end BMW Motorsport party in December of 2017.”
When discussing the plans, Zanardi says that other races including Le Mans were considered. But from boyhood, when he first fell in love with motorsport, one name was etched in his mind: Daytona. He last drove there on the oval as part of the 1997 International Race of Champions (IROC).
“Le Mans is a great event, but Daytona takes place in a country that changed my life and happens in front of fans who are going to remember what I’ve done here,” he says.
Currently, Zanardi has been spending time behind the wheel of a BMW M6 GT3 trying to optimize the system he will use to drive the M8 GTE in Daytona while incorporating the lessons learned from his Spa 24 Hour experience. Chief among those is figuring out a way for Zanardi to drive without the use of his prosthetic legs, which he says isn’t a problem for a sprint race, but they are an impediment in endurance racing. BMW Motorsport has developed a steering wheel and braking system that Zanardi has already tested extensively, having completed approximately 450 miles, including a triple-stint, on a recent test day.
With that system, Zanardi will control the car via a steering wheel-mounted throttle in the form of a ring of the same diameter as the steering wheel, which he will pull towards himself to accelerate. Upshifts are engaged through a right-hand paddle as normal. The brakes will be operated via a lever on his right, akin to the rear brake handle typical found on rally cars. That lever will also house a trigger that will allow Zanardi to brake and downshift simultaneously with his right hand while controlling steering and throttle with his left. A redundant downshift button on the steering wheel will allow Zanardi to quickly drop a gear in circumstances where braking is not required. The M8 GTE will use a centrifugal clutch, eliminating the need for a hand control to operate it.
During pit stops with a driver change, Zanardi will swap the steering wheel for his own. Although BMW is yet to determine all the choreography of having him change places with the his co-drivers, he suspects that it will be faster without legs, and that he may even attempt to exit the car through the passenger side into a waiting wheelchair.
“The decision is not yet 100 percent made [about driving without his prosthetics], but in the testing we have done I was able to stay in the car all day after a year and a half of not being in a racecar with no problems, so that is the way to go in my view,” says Zanardi. “I’ve been able to drive the car at a very good speed, but I want to go faster. So the engineers in Munich are working to improve the systems, especially around the braking feel in the lever. Very good is not enough, it has to be right.”
Developing the car just for Zanardi is one thing, but the task is to create a solution that works on equal terms for Zanardi and his co-drivers. Until now, Zanardi has always driven with his prosthetic legs because he’s used one leg for braking, mostly in an effort to free up his hands from doing too many things, which in the beginning included driving a car with an H-pattern gearbox. While this method has served him well for shorter sprint races, the physical toll during endurance races is substantially higher. Plus, there are complications with the prosthetic legs on driver changes and car set-up.
“Up until 2015 for the 24-hour race at Spa, using my legs to brake worked so well that I was able to win multiple races,” says Zanardi. “But at Spa, in order for the other drivers to feel like the car worked for them too, we decided to add a second brake pedal for me to the right of the throttle pedal.
“This brake pedal was linked to the main brake pedal so that they would both work at the same time. Timo and Bruno had their brake and throttle pedal as normal, and I had mine to the far right, with a foot rest on the far left. The difference with that brake pedal compared to what I had used before was in the connection to my prosthetic foot. Whereas before the brake had a kind of socket that my prosthetic shoe would slide into, we opted instead [at Spa] to create a connection via a rod that came up from the brake pedal and would connect with with the prosthetic where your fibia would be.
“So when I jumped into the car, I would simply center my leg with this rod and it would slide right in. In this way, my shoe wouldn’t move off of the pedal. To get out, I just ejected myself straight up and the rod would slide out naturally. In addition, because the connection of my leg to the pedal was metal to metal, it eliminated any of the flex that was not ideal.
However, as Zanardi goes on to explain, the system used in Spa was not without its drawbacks. “The problem with my prosthetic legs while driving is the socket of the prosthetic leg fills with perspiration, which then detaches from my skin and I lose my connection with it. So there is this valve designed to expel the accumulation of liquid, which I would have to open and operate through my driving suit while driving down the straight at 175mph!
At 51, Zanardi feels like he is in far better shape today, than he was when driving before his accident. Despite this, the prosthetic legs do require more physical effort, so he feels that liberating himself from them while driving puts him closer to being on an even keel with other drivers. But more than that, Zanardi feels a particular obligation to his co-drivers. They are not on the team to support his efforts. Rather, in his view, they are all part of one effort to win the race, and as such, his desire is that the car must work for all of them in equal measure. That sentiment even extends to the team and to BMW that is supporting his effort to compete at this level.
“Spa was my first experience with endurance racing, and immediately there was a bond with Bruno [below, left] and Timo [below, right], and the whole team. When you share a car other drivers, it makes you look at every team member in a different way and realize how essential everyone is to the success of the effort,” says Zanardi.
In that vein, Zanardi says he won’t hesitate to forego a stint if he is not on pace with his teammates in his quest to win. “I would never start a race without knowing we haven’t done everything we can to be in a position to win,” he says. “But, I’m going to do everything I can to be that guy, to have them need me to be the driver to make that gap and go for the win.”
If you’ve followed Zanardi’s career closely, then you’ll know this attitude is pretty much what sums up the man. His disability is not an impediment, merely a challenge that requires a solution, however unique it may be. And following the Lausitz accident, he acknowledges that life changed, yet he can’t say if it was for the better or the worse, just that it changed as it life is wont to do for any us at anytime. He never would have had the opportunity to participate in two Olympic Games, and who knows if we have had the chance to drive in the 2019 Rolex 24 At Daytona. All he knows is that life is a privilege, and he counts himself fortunate to have a life to live.