After making his debut with Jordan in 1991 having tested for Footwork, he made guest drives for Minardi in 1992, then moved to Lotus for 1993 and 1994, where, thanks to an enormous crash at Spa in practice for the Belgian Grand Prix he was unable to complete either season. Huge success in the Indycar CART World Series earned him a drive with Williams for 1999, where despite showing flashes of promise, he and the Williams Team decided to part ways at the end of the first year of a three-year contract.
He returned to Indycar for 2000, but it was to be a crash at the Lausitzring that would be the defining moment of his career. Starting the race from the back of the field, Zanardi had made his way into the lead, when he stopped for a routine pit-stop. On exiting the pits, he momentarily lost control of his car, spun into the path of Alex Tagliani, who, unable to avoid a collision, hit Zanardi’s car with such force that the front of the cockpit was ripped from his car.
Zanardi lost both legs in the crash, which could have claimed his life but for immediate trackside medical intervention. This was the end of Zanardi’s open-wheel career.
Determined that this wasn’t to be the end of his racing career, Zanardi began rehabilitation with a new focus, designing and building his own prosthetic legs that would allow him to race again. And race again he would.
After a few laps in modified vehicles, he returned to racing in 2004 when he finished 7th in a touring car race at Monza, which encouraged him to pursue a full-time seat in World Touring Cars, where he won a number of races before announcing his retirement from motor racing.
As part of his rehabilitation, Zanardi had taken up handcycling, and in 2007, having decided to pursue it more keenly, he placed fourth in the New York Marathon. Encouraged by this he participated in the 2009 Para-cycling World Championships with a view to competing for Italy at the London 2012 Paralympics, where, following wins in the Venice, Rome and New York Marathons, he won two Gold medals and a silver.
Not content with his Olympic success, he turned his hand to Ironman, and targeted further success in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, where of course, he was successful with a further two Gold Medals and a silver to add to his collection.