For Alessandro Zanardi (IT) an eventful year is drawing to a close. 2014 marked his comeback season in motorsport after a break of four years: the BMW works driver competed in the Blancpain Sprint Series with his BMW Z4 GT3 entered by ROAL Motorsport. In para-cycling, the 48-year-old Italian celebrated further great successes, including two more world championship titles. In October, he completed his first ever long-distance triathlon in Hawaii (US) in a superb time. And, on top of that, Zanardi represented BMW as a BMW brand ambassador on many occasions all around the globe. In an interview, Zanardi looks back on this eventful year.
Alessandro, early this year you started your comeback-season with the roll-out in Adria in Italy. How did you feel when you drove the first meters with the BMW Z4 GT3, which were obviously your first meters back in motorsport?
Alessandro Zanardi: “I was very excited, as I always am when I start something new. After the long break I had after the 2009 season, it was a new adventure with a new car. I was back in a BMW, a brand that had already been very much part of my racing career. I was back with ROAL Motorsport, a team in which I have many friends and with which I have had many great moments in the past. All that combined made this moment a very special one. I was sitting in a BMW Z4 GT3, a great car that was new to me and certainly much more powerful than the one I drove before, so it was a great feeling to do the first laps.”
What did it mean to you to not only return to racing, but to return as a BMW works driver?
Zanardi: “To be appreciated as a sportsman and as an ambassador among all my partners at BMW makes me very proud. To see so much enthusiasm for my participation, to start again in a new championship, in a new adventure, to see myself again in the role of a race-car driver – this is what made it special. I have been connected with BMW for a long time – and the enthusiasm and support that I received when it was rumoured I could end up wearing the overalls of a race car driver again made me feel special. It made me feel a racing driver once again. That was a cool sensation.”
With the Blancpain Sprint Series, you returned to Brands Hatch, the place where you won your Paralympic gold and silver medals. In the race you shone with a great fight back and scored a strong fifth place. Was that one of the highlights of your racing season?
Zanardi: “Yes. In Brands Hatch all the conditions were perfect. In spite of the fact that, after a crash in the qualifying race, I started last in the main race, I was able to clinch a very encouraging fifth place finish. Had I started the race a little bit further up I think I could have actually improved on that. Another situation where I believe we could have had a great result was Slovakia, where a BMW ended up winning the race – actually BMW Sports Trophy Team Schubert starting from 18th. In free practice and in qualifying, me and my team-mates at ROAL Motorsport had been the fastest BMWs, but unfortunately in the race we were involved in a first corner incident. But this is motorsport. So your only option is to say: I will have to try again.”
Apart from racing, you had several other important sporting events this year. In Greenville, you won another two world titles in para-cycling. It seems so easy for you – you just go there and win. Is it that easy?
Zanardi: “Absolutely not. It is pretty hard – in fact, this is why I am enjoying it so much. It is pure sporting, tough but sane competition among a group of hand-cyclists who are by now good friends. Ernst van Dyk, who is now my main rival, is a good friend of mine. He is a fair athlete and I enjoy hanging out and spending time with him a lot. But when it is time to race we are fighting for the same centimetre of road and, luckily for me in spite of my age, I can still perform to the level it takes to challenge others for the race win. And from that point of view it was a very successful season, though for it to be perfect I should have also won the gold medal in the road race. In that one I actually finished runner-up to Ernst van Dyk, but there will be another opportunity to try next year.”
In October, you successfully completed your first long-distance triathlon on Hawaii. Has triathlon become a new passion for you?
Zanardi: “No doubt. I was expecting to enjoy myself there. It has a lot in common with driving from last to the winner’s circle in Cleveland in 1997, or from a lap down to the winner’s circle in Long Beach in ‘98, or risking it all in Laguna Seca, where I was in second, was trying to get the big result and passed Brian Herta through the Corkscrew. There is a lot in common with that type of behaviour, which is the behaviour of a man who prefers to live a day like a lion rather than 100 days like a sheep. And wanting to do such an adventurous sporting day like participating in the Hawaii triathlon is the way I am. The best moment was when I came out of the water, stepped onto my handcycle and took Road 19 towards the North. I knew I had 175 kilometres in front of me, plus the marathon. At that point I could have been scared or intimidated by what I had in front of me. In fact, I just felt pure happiness. I was so happy at that point, because I knew that it would be a lot of fun to have it all in front of me and not behind me. Also the last 300 metres and the finish were amazing, because I was not prepared to be cheered the way I was. I was really struck by how much support I got, by the people shouting my name. It was fantastic on one side – but sad on the other, because it was over, it was the finish. So now if I want to live this type of adventure again, in the best case scenario, I have to wait one year.”
You are also BMW brand ambassador and represent BMW on many occasions all around the world. On these occasions, you often met your BMW ‘colleagues’, for example when you visited the BMW plant in Spartanburg in August. Do you feel like part of the family at such events?
Zanardi: “Not just this, it is much more than that. It is difficult to explain it in words, because nobody thinks about it anymore – and this is what I really mean. It is the fact that all the people look at me as Alex, as Alex Zanardi, BMW brand ambassador. And they are all very proud to have me as a brand ambassador. And this is the really fantastic thing, because there was a time when I was also Alex Zanardi, but then my accident had just happened and people did not know how to approach me. In their minds what had happened to me was a total disaster. And so it was inevitable that every time someone met me I could feel some sort of embarrassment in not knowing how to approach me. This is now completely gone. The people approach me in a completely normal way. In addition, it means something special for me to be BMW brand ambassador. A great and world-wide recognised company like BMW for sure does not strictly need to be represented by anyone. But it chose Alex Zanardi to represent its brand, and you can look at it anyway you want, but Alex Zanardi is a handicapped man. Just stop for a moment and think about this: a huge company like BMW decides to be represented by a handicapped man. This is something really special. Every time I meet BMW employees I can see that they are very happy to have me there and this is priceless. This is something that makes me feel very proud and comfortable in this family.”
Racing in the Blancpain Sprint Series, several para-cycling events, the triathlon and your commitments as BMW Brand Ambassador – how did you manage this very busy year?
Zanardi: “To do one thing at a time, that is all.”
At the end of the year, how would you sum up 2014 from a sporting point of view?
Zanardi: “For sure, everything can be improved, but I am pretty satisfied with the results. Together with BMW Motorsport and ROAL Motorsport, we showed some competitiveness and, without some bad luck, great results, including a race win, would have been on the cards. But this is life. Sometimes you may deserve something, but you did not get it. So all you can do is to try it again. And this a little bit the same with my story in para-cycling. It has been a great season, but I know that it is possible to improve. So next year it will be another opportunity for me to try again. I know the clock is ticking, I am 48-years-old and I can’t go on forever, but I am very excited that, in spite of my age, I am absolutely convinced that I can keep myself at the same high level both in para-cycling and in motorsport.”