Formula One driver who is better known for his dominance of CART during the late 1990s. More recently he has attracted widespread praise for his racing comeback in the aftermath of a horrific crash which resulted in him losing both legs.
Zanardi began racing karts aged 13. In 1988, he joined the Italian Formula 3 series, becoming a championship contender by 1990. In 1991, he moved up to the Formula 3000 series with the Il Barone Rampante team, who were themselves newcomers to the series. Winning on his F3000 debut, he went on to score two more wins that season, en route to second in the championship. By the end of 1991 he had also been blooded in Formula One: two starts for Jordan his reward for a strong F3000 campaign.
For 1992 Zanardi had to be content with guest drives for Minardi. In the off-season, he tested for the Benetton team, but contracted with Lotus for 1993. Zanardi compared reasonably to his teammate (Johnny Herbert) and was important in fine-tuning the team's active suspension system, scoring his first ever F1 point at the Brazilian Grand Prix. However, his season ended prematurely after he suffered a terrible crash during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix.
Still injured, Zanardi missed the beginning of the 1994 season, but he returned in the Spanish Grand Prix, replacing the incapacitated Pedro Lamy. However, that year's Lotus was highly unreliable, and Zanardi failed to score a single point. When Lotus' F1 effort collapsed at the end of the year, Zanardi spent a brief time in sportscars in 1995, his Formula One career seemingly over.
In 1996, Zanardi made the switch to CART, having won a race seat at the Ganassi team. He rapidly became one of the series' most popular drivers. He won three races in his rookie season, finishing second in the championship behind team-mate Jimmy Vasser and being named Champcar rookie of the year. He would win the championship for Ganassi in both 1997 and 1998, bringing home twelve victories. A memorable win came at Laguna Seca, where he conducted a highly risky overtaking move at the Corkscrew corner on race leader Bryan Herta, having fought his way through the field. After winning a race, Zanardi was fond of spinning his car around in tight circles, leaving "donuts" of tyre rubber on the track; this would eventually become a popular means of celebrating race wins all across America.
Zanardi's CART success caught the eye of Sir Frank Williams, who inked him to a three-year contract in 1999. In pre-season testing, he was fast; however, everything went downhill from there. Plagued by numerous reliability issues, Zanardi also made a series of crucial errors, his F1 return in Australia a prime example. He was consistently outpaced by team-mate Ralf Schumacher and rumours spread that he would not last long at Williams. A late season up-turn in speed seemed to signal a breakthrough. At both Spa and Monza he looked competitive, but problems cost him a good result. At Monza he had qualified an impressive fourth and briefly held second, but brake difficulties curtailed his pace and he dropped to seventh. The season ended with Zanardi failing to maintain his Monza form; he was dropped for 2000. Jenson Button replaced him.
The 2000 season was one of reflection for Zanardi. Out of a drive, he considered his options and began to plot a CART comeback. He tested for Mo Nunn and opted to sign to the team for 2001. It was not a successful return; for whatever reason he struggled to rekindle his past form and then tragedy struck. In what was by far his most competitive race of 2001, he suffered a horrific accident which ended his top-level racing career. It happened at the Lausitzring Euro Speedway near Brandenburg, Germany on September 15. The crash occurred while Zanardi was leading the race in the closing laps. After a late pit stop, Zanardi was attempting to merge back onto the track when he attempted to accelerate and spun into the path of Tagliani, who was travelling at over 220 MPH. The near-fatal collision cost Zanardi both legs, amputated below the knee.
Always a fighter, Zanardi was fitted with two prosthetic limbs and began an ambitious rehabilitation programme. In 2002, CART honoured Zanardi by giving him the privilege of waving the checkered flag in Toronto, Canada. In 2003, Zanardi was not only back behind the wheel, he was also racing again, with the aid of hand-operated brake and accelerator "pedals". He completed the final thirteen laps at the race track which had nearly killed him in 2001, and did so at highly competitive speeds approaching 194 MPH. It was a fitting testament to his recovery and persuaded him that a race return was something to pursue.
Zanardi competed in his first race since the accident at Monza, Italy, in a touring car modified to allow the use of his prosthetic feet, finishing the race quite impressively in seventh. In 2004, Zanardi returned to racing full-time, driving for BMW in the FIA European Touring Car Championship. The season did not see him score many points, but for 2005 matters were much improved. On August 24th, 2005, Zanardi won his first world series race since his accident, a round of the World Touring Car Championship at Oschersleben. Zanardi celebrated his win with a series of trademark "donuts". He then finished the season strongly.
Since 2004, he has had his own range of kart chassis, called the Zanardi which is raced in the European Championships by Martin Plowman. Plowman won the Asia-Pacific Championship for Zanardi just three months after the formation of the company.
Zanardi has been married to wife Daniela (nee Manni) since 1996, and they have a son, Niccolò. He has co-written two books based on his courageous life, Alex Zanardi: My Story (2004) and Alex Zanardi: My Sweetest Victory (2004).