The year is 2001, the venue, Lausitzring, Germany. Former F1 driver and Italian hot-shoe, Alexander Zanardi, is in a battling for the lead of an Indy Car race held across the pond at Germany’s EuroSpeedway. He dives into the pits needing a perfect stop to maintain position against a fast-lapping Alex Tagliani. Every split second counts. He floors it with his tyres not yet up to temperature and loses control re-entering the track. Spinning backwards up a section of banked oval adjacent to the pit-lane exit, Zanardi and Tagliani are on a collision course that’ll change Zanardi’s life forever. Tagliani, travelling at 300 km/h +, broadsides Zanardi’s near-stationary car.
Witnesses say it was ‘like a bomb going off’, so massive was the impact, so vast was the destruction. Zanardi lost both his legs in the impact and it was only through the quick response of Indy Car medical staff that he didn’t lose his life all together. The shocking accident highlighted the need for improved side-impact safety cells, as well as the need to reengineer raised nosecones to stop them becoming dangerous, high-speed arrows in an impact. For the courageous Zanardi, however, this was in fact the beginning of a truly inspiring story.
Zanardi, above all else, lives to compete. ‘So when I woke and realised that I no longer had legs, I did not ask myself: What am I going to do without legs? Instead, I thought: Okay, what do I need to do to be able to do everything I want to without legs,’ says Zanardi. Within two years of the accident he’d teamed up with BMW Motorsport and was back racing a hand-controlled vehicle in the 2003 European Touring Car Championship. This was the first step in a 16-year journey to perfect the unique hand-controlled system that would put him in a seat in some of the most competitive race series’ in the world – namely, European and World Touring Cars, DTM, GT3 and GTE.
Despite much scepticism about his comeback, together with BMW Motorsport and touring car legend, Roberto Ravaglia, Zanardi’s first custom system became a reality. It required him to brake with a ring on the steering wheel, use another ring to accelerate, while operating the gearbox with his right hand and working the clutch via a button on the gear lever. It did work, except he only had the ball of his thumbs to steer the car. ‘That was definitely too much. When I came back to the garage after the first test, I said to the guys: I have so much to do, if you put a little brush between my legs, I could also sweep the cockpit, too,’ recalls Zanardi.
To spread the workload, he suggested using his artificial leg attached to the brake pedal, applying downward pressure with his hips. ‘That proved to be a very efficient solution. I noticed in the very first test that I could apply the necessary pressure, and I was surprised by how well I could control and feel the brake pedal,’ says Zanardi. And so the system was decided upon – a throttle ring on the steering wheel, brakes operated via his artificial leg affixed to the pedal, and the H-pattern gearbox managed with his right hand. Zanardi claimed four race wins.
From 2010 to 2013, Zanardi focussed on paracycling and became a celebrated, gold-medal-winning Paralympian. In 2014 he rekindled his relationship with Ravaglia’s BMW team, this time competing in the Blancpain GT Series. Transferring what they’d developed for the 320i to a Z4 GT3, everything worked perfectly, and now gear shifting was made easier with paddles on the steering wheel. The next evolution was modifying the car so both he and able-bodied drivers, Timo Glock and Bruno Spengler, could share it for the Spa 24 Hour race in 2015.
‘I showed the engineers my artificial leg, a hollow tube, and suggested that we replace the brake pedal with a system, in which a kind of pin was slid into the prosthesis. They developed a small brake pedal for me, which was fitted to the very right of the pedal box. Timo and Bruno used the normal accelerator and brake pedals,’ recalls Zanardi. Instead of a clutch pedal, which was removed completely from the pedal box, there was a clutch-by-wire system. This system was controlled using two paddles on the wheel. In the following years, the clutch actuator was replaced entirely with a fully-automatic centrifugal clutch, developed by ZF, which opens and closes automatically at certain engine speeds.
‘The system we had developed allowed me to be quick, but to be honest, it was difficult to sit in the car for a long time, in a 24-hour race for example,’ says Zanardi. As he has no legs, he lacks extremities to cool the body through blood circulation. For Zanardi to drive for long periods of time he’d need to go without his prostheses in the car. As such, BMW engineers went back to the beginning and came up with a completely new system that would allow Zanardi to operate everything with only his hands. His brake pedal was replaced by a dash-mounted brake lever, which slows the car when he pushes forward with his right arm. As before, Zanardi accelerates using a throttle ring, which he operates with his left hand. He can change gear using a shift paddle on the wheel or a button attached to the brake lever, with which he can shift down through the gears when braking.
Thanks to the new hand braking system in the latest BMW M8 GTE in which he competed in the 2019 Daytona 24 Hour, the physical problems Zanardi struggled with in the past are no longer an issue. ‘If regulations allowed it, I could do a 24-hour race on my own now. I am really comfortable in the car without my artificial legs,’ Zanardi says. The systems developed by BMW Motorsport have opened a new dimension for disabled drivers, like Frederic Sausset who had both his legs and arms amputated but still raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2016.
18 years after Zanardi’s horror crash and development doesn’t stop on the Zanardi project. The result of the enormous commitment and passion, coupled with immense expertise and ingenuity, is the triumph of engineering and the human spirit over adversity. A truly inspiring story.
Alexander Zanardi’s driving systems:
BMW 320i – European Touring Cars (2003-2009): Modified brake pedal attached to artificial leg, steering wheel with ring throttle, gears changed using H-patter lever
BMW Z4 GT3 – Blancpain GT Series (2014): As before, but gears changed using shift paddles
BMW Z4 GT3 – 24h Spa (2015): New brake pedal added to pedal box, clutch-by-wire system with paddles
BMW M6 GT3 (2016): As befoer, but with newly-developed centrifugal clutch
BMW M4 DTM and BMW M8 GTE (2018-2019): Hand-operated brake lever, steering wheel with ring throttle, upshift via paddle on steering wheel, downshift via button on brake lever, centrifugal clutch