Alex Zanardi’s return to racing didn’t go unnoticed. After four years of standing on the sidelines bar a DTM test, the Italian chose to compete in the Blancpain Sprint Series this season, where he showed glimpses of his talent despite some misfortunes.
Sportscar365 caught up with the 48-year-old Italian after a trying Baku World Challenge, where his weekend was cut short after being hit from behind by Alvaro Parente halfway through the Qualifying Race.
“This Baku weekend was actually quite representative for my season; I had some highlights, with good pace in both practice sessions in challenging conditions,” said a relaxed Zanardi.
“But then in qualifying I experienced some brake problems. The pedal would go long and for me that’s particularly an issue because I have limited stroke with my prosthetic leg. So sometimes it’s hard for me to apply the right amount of pressure.”
Zanardi scored his best result early in the season with a fifth place finish at Brands Hatch, the venue where he won his Paralympic gold and silver medals, but with luck not particularly on his side he could only score points for a second time in Portugal.
“I had a few opportunities to get a very good result under my belt, but unfortunately it didn’t happen,” he said.
“In Slovakia because I got involved in a first corner incident that was not my fault and here in Baku, I believe I was actually coming back in the race and probably on my way to a good finish when I got hit.”
With a bigger risk of incidents and tensions sometimes running high in sprint racing, it’s no surprise that the Blancpain Sprint Series had its fair share of incidents this season, but the BMW brand ambassador still feels that there is room for improvement.
“The races are long enough that you should try to do a better job to survive at least lap one. On some occasions this year it was too easy to gain positions on the first lap with this system of rolling starts.
“So to a certain degree all the drivers could do a better job, but to another extend I believe the FIA should seriously consider changing the starting procedure because this is consistently producing problems.
“When I was racing in the United States we had a completely different procedure; I won the pole position, I’m leading the pack, dictating the pace and I’m in charge of bringing the grid to the start line.”
Zanardi quickly got to grips with his modified BMW Z4 GT3, which was clearly a step up from his BMW 320 TC (E90) back in 2009.
Despite praising the car for its capabilities, he still feels there are a couple of small shortcomings specifically related to sprint racing.
“The BMW Z4 is an excellent car, but we tend to get our performance from the speed we take the car around the corner rather than pure acceleration and top speed,” he said.
“Ever since the Pirelli tire has been introduced I believe this has not been in our favor. The compound we get is very hard and was developed for the endurance championship.
“On top of that, this tire has to last much longer than what we actually need on cars that are a lot heavier than ours.
Besides his racing activities, Zanardi also kept busy with paracycling, scoring another two world titles in Greenville, S.C. and successfully completing his first long-distance triathlon in Hawaii.
“Actually it’s not difficult to combine everything together, because my activities as a hand cyclist are actually really good for my driving.
“It helps me a lot to keep fit, to survive in the cockpit of my race car, because it is hard,” he said.
“After all I survived the year, actually pretty well, I’m just a little disappointed with the misfortunes we had in the Blancpain season.
“Getting a podium finish in the series would have been fantastic, but it simply means we have to try again.”
Looking ahead, Zanardi has the opportunity to focus on the things he likes the most and remains as passionate as ever in everything he does.
“All the effort that I put into to trying to succeed is related to the fact that I simply have fun doing what I do,” he said.
“When you cross the line with a good result, not only you are very proud, you’re also very happy.
“But right after that very precise moment, it already belongs to the things you have done, not the things that you still have to do.
“People say, ‘this is a miracle’… but it’s not, it was technically difficult to get to that point and as difficult as it was, as exciting it is to do this.
“The best moment is when you decide exactly where you want to go and you say, ‘Wow, this is the horizon I want to chase’ and you put yourself to work.
“I’m really lucky because it’s really my call, at this point in the season most drivers are worrying about what they are going to do next year.”
While he’s very motivated to continue in the sport, nothing is set in stone for next season, as he hinted he could change series.
“I don’t wan’t to do something where from the word go I’m loser,” he said. “I would rather do something where at least I have an equal chance to compete.
“I will sit down with my friends at ROAL Motorsport and later in Munich with Jens Marquardt and we will make a call.
“I can see myself competing again with a BMW Z4 next year, anxiously waiting for the new M6 GT3, which will be a rocket, I’m sure!”
Due to his limitations Zanardi is bound to sprint racing, and as he has always enjoyed competing in the U.S., the Pirelli World Challenge could potentially be one of his options.
“I want to try to see if I can find situations where with this car I can be more competitive,” he said.
“DTM is not an option. In reality the game there is even more complicated, it’s almost like Formula One.
“I’m not good enough because of my age and handicap. And it’s also related to the fact that I can’t put the mental intensity into this game that it takes to compete at that level.
“As long as I can find something that doesn’t compromise the balance of my daily life, I think I can do it well.
“You need to be 100 percent devoted to what you are doing.”