After an absence of four years – during which he collected two gold medals in handcycling at the 2012 London Paralympics – Alessandro Zanardi is ready to make his return to racing this weekend at the Blancpain Sprint Series opener at Nogaro.
“I’m very much looking forward to it. The Blancpain Sprint Series is a great championship and I am very proud to be part of it with BMW,” said Zanardi.
Following the presence of nine-time world rally champion Sébastien Loeb last year, Zanardi’s entry is another major boost for SRO’s Sprint Series, which features a compact but strong grid of 20 cars this weekend.
For his first race, the Italian has modest expectations as he is still adjusting to his new environment.
“[I want] to be really close to the best BMWs,” he said. “Because where all the other cars with the ‘Balance of Performance’ are going to be is very hard to predict.
“We did a good test program over the winter, where we learnt a lot of things. We still have some question marks about setup or about how to use the tire in the best possible way, but throughout the season we will learn more, no doubt about that.
“The lap times were more than encouraging. Performance wise we got to learn the car better with every test. Me and the car ‘coupled’ very well together, because the BMW Z4 GT3 needs to be driven in a way that seems very natural to me.”
With the pit stops being a crucial part of the 60-minute races and no minimum time imposed, it was clear from the beginning Zanardi would have to race alone.
Over the winter BMW Motorsport and ROAL Motorsport have modified Zanardi’s BMW Z4 GT3 to suit his needs, thereby utilizing the lessons learned from his time in the World Touring Car Championship.
“The first task was to get me comfortable in the car,” Zanardi said. “I knew that we would not start from a blank sheet of paper, but in fact we could pick up from the previous experience in the WTCC.
“The second task was setting up the car. It is true that the engineers at ROAL Motorsport have some experience with the BMW Z4 GT3, but it was done with tires from another brand, which they ran in the Italian championship.
“Therefore, at the beginning we had to learn the tire. So we worked on the setup of the car and this also will be one of our main challenges throughout the season.”
After his violent crash at Lausitzring back the 2001, the 47-year-old Italian lost both his legs. This meant the focus was on utilizing his hands to drive a car, for braking, however, he’ll make use of his prosthetic legs.
“Back in 2003 I realized very early on that to use my right prosthetic leg was probably the best and most efficient way to push the brake pedal,” he said. “Therefore we took that road, we developed the system and we ended up with something which I believe is very close to what a human leg is capable of doing.
“Everything else I do with my hands. Not only do I have to control the steering wheel, I also have to power the car with a ring which is placed underneath the steering wheel itself.
“I shift with my fingers via shift paddles. The clutch mechanism is a small butterfly mounted on the lower part of the steering wheel.”