by Rob Wilkins

Alex Zanardi was dealt a devastating blow in 2001, when he suffered an appalling crash in Germany which cost him both his legs. He never gave up though, and although he insists he is no 'superman', the Italian is an example for us all. caught up with Alex this week in London, while he was promoting his autobiography, Alex Zanardi - My Story. He was good enough to take time out from that busy schedule to talk to us, and now you can read all that he had to say... Inspiring, funny, pleasant - he is all that and much more, as you will find out.

Best of all, though, this is only part one.

Alex, thanks for taking the time to talk to Your autobiography is out in the shops now. Tell us what were you trying to achieve when you wrote it?

Alex Zanardi:
Well, first of all, to have fun.

Secondly, deep inside, I think, every one of us wants to leave something of himself behind. The fact that I am a proud father of a beautiful son, and I think that, maybe, in some years, I could see my son reading my book, and smiling and laughing and maybe being touched by 'the adventure', an incredible life, that I had the fortune to experience. That is one of the reasons.

I have experienced some problems in my life. I lost my legs in a big crash and, of course, after that, there were times, not so much of darkness, but certainly times where it was very uncertain of what my future would hold. At that point, of course, you get a little scared. For me, besides the words of the doctors, or the physiotherapists, what helped me the most was to talk with patients that had gone down that road already, with similar experiences.

Therefore, in a way, I thought that maybe writing my story could be of help for some other people, so that they could see, not the way, but a way - the way I did it. And perhaps they could get, somehow, a sort of a push. In other words, perhaps they would think that, if that guy with no legs is driving a racing car, at least I could get my act together and go down to the grocery store and buy myself a couple of apples.

Your route to the top of the sport, to CART and F1, came via karting, where you spent seven seasons, F3 [1988-1990] and F3000 [1989-1991]. What were the most two memorable moments during that time?

Of course, when I won my first race in F3000, it happened... everything happened so rapidly. The previous year, I thought I was going to be left out of every potential programme and I had no drive. Then I found a drive at the very last moment, and in the most unlikely way, because I had hope at that point. A guy like me, without any personal sponsor, without any particular background, could not promote himself in the eyes of an F3000 team manager. Instead, I found I a drive - and a hell of a drive as well. Although the [Il Barone Rampante] team was new, we went out and won our first race at Vallelunga, and so there was an incredible satisfaction.

But, going back some years before that, in 1985, I went to Hong Kong for a go-kart race with my dad and, when we arrived there, we were supposed to find all the equipment from the previous year. The manufacturer that I was riding for had already sent and left stuff there, because they were competing there the previous year. They said that we were only taking the engines, because the chassis is there. And, when I arrived, the chassis that was assigned to me had been used all year long, by the local importer - and it was all full of cracks and things like that.

I was desperate, because that was a very important race. For me, it was a dream come true to be invited to take part at that event. I thought everything was lost, but my father was there with me and he said 'hold on a second, lets take a look at this chassis'. I actually tell this story in my book as, for me, it meant what my father left me, a kind of education. To think that, before you raise the white flag, hang on a second, and take a look at the thing, and see if there is a way to fix the problem. In fact, in that day, he found a power transformer and, by changing the polarity, he turned it into a welding machine. With a wire that he stole from the fans, he fixed my chassis, and, with a couple of stones, we basically improvised a sort of a rig to make the chassis right. Using parts, which were designed to do other things, we fixed the seat, which was all broken, and I went on to win the most important race of the year.

With that chassis, which was working beautifully because it had been beautifully fixed, but, when we arrived, was junk, I learned a great lesson from my father. Never say never, always try to see if there is an opportunity to go around the problem if you can't go across it.

Your father obviously played an important role, not only in your career, but in your life too. In your biography, you also mention that your idol was Nigel Mansell. Why was that?

I think you can learn, even from other people's mistakes. Most of the time in life we have to make mistakes to learn the lessons, and next time we find ourselves in a similar situation, we do it right and we avoid the mistakes we made the previous time.

I think you can learn from other people's mistakes and other people's strengths, and that is why I have always been watching, with particular attention, other drivers - and not only drivers at the top.

I was always a big fan of Nigel, because he was the only one that would win races when other drivers would have raised the white flag. To me, that is what I remember of Nigel. I think, not a lot of drivers, but some other drivers, could have won the championship in 1992 with the Williams he was driving, but no other driver could have done the pass he did on Gerhard Berger in Mexico, or the race he had in Hungary, when he came back from 17th or so on the grid, or other moves that he pulled out on other people that were totally unexpected.

To arrive and do this, he had to go through a lot of mistakes, because he is also known to be a driver that, in his early years of his career, made some ridiculous mistakes and lost races in a ridiculous way. But, nevertheless, thanks to these mistakes, that appeared to be ridiculous, he learned to do things that other drivers simply couldn't do. And that is why I always try to aspire myself to him to a certain degree.

If possible, I tried to avoid making the mistakes, but it wasn't always possible, so I had to go through some faults as well. When I talk to a fan, instead of them saying 'I remember when you won the championship in the United States', the fan comes to me, and says 'I remember that pass you pulled out at Laguna Seca, or that race you won at Long Beach, coming back from a lap down'. That, for me, is a great reason of pride - much more than if we talk about the championships I won.

Your first taste at the top of the sport came with Jordan [1991], Minardi [1992] and Lotus [1993] in the early 1990s. But it wasn't an easy time by any means, was it?

No, but it would be unfair just to blame it on the car because, in reality, I made mistakes as well. My team-mate at Lotus, Johnny Herbert - who is a great driver by the way - took much, much more out of the opportunity than I did and, in fact, in 1993, I scored one point, and he scored eleven, so that gives you the answer.

In reality, it wasn't just about the car. You have to go through some sort of experience. Okay, of course, you can be lucky and find yourself directly involved in a programme where you are driving the best car in the field, and then your experience, or learning curve, could go up immediately, just because scoring results would give you confidence, and that would make you think much more clearly. But, when you are always at the back, it is very difficult to be wise. You would always want to finish ahead of other people.

But, having said that, I feel very fortunate, because I have made mistakes, I failed to get the best out of some opportunities I had in my career, but probably the best opportunity I had came at the right time, because I was ready, and had made enough mistakes to have learned a lesson. I got the best out of it with Chip Ganassi Racing in Indy Cars in 1996.

Moving onto your CART career, you were obviously very successful there, particularly in 1997 and 1998, when you won the title. But what was it like actually getting used to racing on the ovals. It is a very different discipline to anything you had done before isn't it?

Of course, it is quite different, but it's not night and day, because you are still driving the same kind of car. But it is much more the attitude you have got to have towards the race and towards the competition. On the 500-mile races, all you have to do is keep you car in shape for 450 miles, and then, on the last 50 miles, you go on and race. It is very difficult for somebody, who is used to 'going banzai' from the word go, from the green light, knowing that every tenth he makes on people is going to be there at the end of the race.

In the States, even in road course racing, with all the neutralisation you tend to get, if you make two seconds on somebody on the first lap, they are not going to be there at the end of the race, because there is going to be a safety car cancelling that.

So, with these new rules, you have to be smart enough to understand when it is time to push and when it is time to 'woah', as they say in America. On the ovals, there are things that are mathematically possible but, in reality, very rarely do they give you the result you are thinking that they will give you.

You have to let the car do the job and try to trust it, try to understand what you are doing, try to be smooth, and try to be incredibly smart to set the car up, because that is the most important part. Then, of course, in the last 50 miles of the race, you have got to be brave as well because, sometimes, when you get the turbulence of the other cars, the car will react in way that is quite scary. But you get used to it and, even if you get sideways at 400kph, you know what to do - and, most of the time, you get away with it.

Chip Ganassi holds a special place in your heart. Why is that?

I probably achieved the best results of my racing career with him, not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of quantity - in 1998, out of 19 races, I finished 15 times in the top three with a podium result. It was an unbelievable three years, and an unbelievable season, in particular, in 1998, so, of course, you tend to classify that as the best period of your career, the most successful one. And there is no doubt, as I said, not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of quantity, that, in those three years, I had the most number of satisfactions.

Alex Zanardi - My Story is available in all good book stores now, priced ?18.99. Look out for some excerpts coming soon on over the next few weeks. The perfect way to get a taste of what is surely one of the 'must have' Christmas presents for any racing fan. Alex's autobiography will also be available in the shop, in the book section, from Wednesday October 20th.