Eleven years after losing both legs in an horrific Champ Car accident at the Lausitzring, former F1 pilot Alex Zanardi has claimed a gold medal in the first of his Paralympic handbike events at Brands Hatch.
The Italian, who branded himself 'a lucky man' when referring to all he had been able to achieve in his life when previewing his Paralympic dream, finished the 16km H4 class time trial fully 27secs clear of second-placed Norbert Mosandl at a circuit he knows well from his time climbing the junior motorsport ranks.
Using a carbon-fibre handbike he designed and built himself, the former Jordan and Williams F1 driver was able to achieve the goal he set himself some eight years ago, when a sport he took up in order to fulfil a spur-of-the-moment decision to enter the new York marathon became the new focus of his life.
The multiple Champ Car series champion already has several marathon titles under his belt, but always had his sights set on representing his native Italy in the 2012 Paralympics in London, where he entered three different events, all taking place on the Brands Hatch circuit and surrounding roads in the second week of the Games.
Zanardi, a former lap record holder at Brands from his F3000 days, sees his participation in London as the high point of his fightback from injuries that left him ten minutes from death in that black September of 2001 - the accident which severed both legs coming just four days after the 9/11 World Trade Centre disaster in New York City.
Ironically, it was in the American city that Zanardi officially took up handcycling in a competitive manner, deciding that, as he had been invited to a 'pasta party' in NYC on behalf of long-time sponsor Barilla, he might as well contest the marathon while he was there. His competitive spirit had never left, however, as he filled the years between Champ Car and handbike racing by competing - and winning - in the World Touring Car Championship, having convinced himself that he could return to racing by completing the 13 laps he was denied at the Lausitzring just two laps later, reaching speeds of over 300kph in a specially-modified Champ Car.
Dissatisfied with the limitations of the prosthetic legs available at the time of his accident, Zanardi - whose heart apparently stopped seven times during attempts to free him from his car get him to hospital - designed and built his own and, unsurprisingly, has now made the most of his motorsport contacts in designing his new racing 'machine. He remains an inspiration to many inside the industry, as well as those who have discovered his story both before and during coverage of the 2012 Paralympic Games.
Although he is now 45, and one of the older competitors in his class, the Italian is already a silver medallist from the 2011 World Championships in Denmark, and will be back in action later this week in both the H4 men's road race and H4 mixed team relay.