Sat, May 10, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Alex Zanardi returns to track that cost him his legs

REUTERS , BERLIN

Alex Zanardi returns tomorrow to the race track in Germany where he lost both his legs in a crash two years ago. But the indomitable Italian is not coming back just for a moving ceremony.

He will drive.

The original idea was for the Italian to act as the grand marshal of the German 500 at the Lausitz EuroSpeedway oval but that was too ordinary for Zanardi's standards.

So track promoter Hans-Joerg Fischer suggested Zanardi could drive a specially-designed car around the track before the race and the 36-year-old Italian accepted the challenge.

"This is a gesture for the German motor racing fans who love Alex so much and were moved by his fate," Fischer said. "We also hope that a few more spectators will come to watch him."

Zanardi has been testing secretly under medical supervision at a track near London in a car designed by his former race engineer Adam Schaechter.

"The challenge is to make the car as comfortable as possible," said Schaechter. "Knowing Alex, he will drive it as fast as it will go."

The car, equipped with hand controls, will have the same colors and the same 66 number as the Honda/Reynard Zanardi was driving two years ago. He will complete the 13 laps that remained in the CART race when he crashed.

In September 2001, Zanardi, a two-time CART champion remembered for surviving an horrific Formula One crash in 1993, was one of the main attractions at the Lausitz EuroSpeedway.

The official European debut of the US racing series was regarded as a test for the promoters of the circuit, a state-of-the-art facility some 145km south of Berlin which had been inaugurated the year before when it was presented as the safest circuit in the world.

Former Formula One driver Michele Alboreto was killed at the track in April 2001 during a testing session for the Le Mans 24-hour classic. A tyre burst was blamed for the fatal crash.

Zanardi had been far from his brilliant best in the build-up to the event but on the day he proved as competitive as ever and was leading the race before his final fuel stop.

Just after it, his Honda-Reynard, on cold tires, spun across the grass and into the path of Canadian Alex Tagliani's Ford Cosworth/Reynard.

Tagliani, who sustained only minor injuries, was driving at an estimated 320kph and could not avoid Zanardi. The Italian's car was destroyed and debris from both cars littered the track.

Zanardi had to have both legs amputated and was put into an artificial coma. His condition remained critical for days.

Shortly after checking himself out of hospital, Zanardi was back behind the steering wheel of a car fitted with hand controls. Friends and doctors were stunned when he changed a tyre on his car after a puncture on his way to an interview.

Zanardi has no interest in racing cars any more and tomorrow's emotionally-charged drive should not be interpreted as a new start to his career.

"Obviously there will be something going through my mind," he said of his return to the Lausitz oval.

"I would not be human otherwise, I guess. But, quite frankly, I feel that, psychologically, the accident is definitely behind me."

Zanardi left Formula One in 1994 after a spell with unfancied teams, including a severe crash in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix in 1993, and it was not until he joined the CART series that his career really took off.

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