By Mark Glendenning, Australia
Autosport Atlas Writer
I loved this book.
I figured it was probably best to get that bit out of the way early. That way, we all know where we stand, and we can just get on with talking about why. Or maybe, I have done it so that in the course of writing the next few hundred words I can figure out why myself, because right at this moment I couldn't give you a particularly convincing reason.
This is not one of motorsport's 'great untold stories'. Alessandro Zanardi was an icon of his era even before he had the accident that made him famous outside of the motorsport arena. It's a great shame that it takes something like that for guys like Zanardi to be noticed by the wider world but you could probably say the same thing about Lance Armstrong, whose name will be forever prefixed with 'cancer survivor' in the mainstream press even though he has spent the better part of the past decade winning Tours de France the way that Michael wins World Championships. Not everyone likes sport, but they do love a battler.
So those picking up this book will know about Zanardi winning Championships in CART when the series was at its absolute peak a time when you'd regularly turn off a telecast and say to someone, "I've just seen one of the best races of my life". They'll know about his mystifyingly poor record in F1. They'll know about his accident at the Lausitzring, his recovery, his incredibly moving return to Germany to drive those 13 laps that were left uncompleted, and they'll know about his reincarnation as a BMW Touring Car driver.
So did I love it because it was an 'inspiring tale of one man's battle against overwhelming odds'? No. Armstrong's zillion-selling 'It's not about the bike' covered that base beautifully, and in any case, that is not Zanardi's style. The chirpy Italian's story would have been worth telling even if the accident at Lausitzring had never happened, and while reading this book it's hard not to shake the feeling that when he talks about the crash, he's only doing it because he figures that it is what everyone wants to know about.
Don't get me wrong Zanardi's recollection of the accident is understandably hazy, but his account of the months that followed is amazing reading. I have no experience whatsoever with people who have lost limbs, or the processes involved in rehabilitating them, so his journey through the clinics of assorted prosthetic specialists was a real eye-opener. What made it specially good, though, was that you are not only treated to a beginners course in something that you know nothing about, but you can also glimpse tiny flashes of Zanardi's personality in genuinely vivid and meaningful way.
Looking for an insight into his mechanical understanding and sympathy? Look out for the passage where, almost in passing, he mentions taking his prosthetic legs off and making set-up changes to the joints. Want to know about his determination? Listen to him speak about his thoughts on the state of the prosthetic industry, and what he plans to do about it. If you are reading carefully, it is pieces like that which bring you somewhere close to understanding how he really ticks.
Zanardi's brilliant disposition is obviously a huge asset to the book, but credit must also go to co-author Gianluca Gasparini, who has put together a story that is superbly structured and balanced, particularly considering that the subject is still contemporary. (Don't ask me why this should be an issue, but in my experience it seems to be). I don't know whether that is a credit to Gasparini's personal approach or what, but a lot of the regular army of British writers could learn something here. This is the first motorsport book to have been originally written in another language and translated into English that I have read in ages, and if it is indicative of what I have been missing out on then I have to learn another couple of languages.
Another of the book's strengths is Zanardi's honesty, often coupled with his trademark humour. By and large, he calls things the way he sees them, which means that one or two other racing personalities come out smelling less than rosy (has Ralf Schumacher read this book yet)?
But there's also a disarming simplicity to a lot of it that is really endearing. For example, he describes one difficult night at home, not long after he was out of hospital, when he was struggling to manage a young child, concerns about his wife (who had been hospitalised with acute pains in her leg and back), and all the while trying to get used to having no legs.
"I left the hospital around midnight to go home and get some sleep. I would have to wake early the following morning because Daniela was going into the operating theatre around 7am. As soon as I arrived, my mum told me that Niccolo had just gone to sleep, complaining of an earache. I went to bed and tried to go to sleep, but it was difficult because of the ghost limb pain. I was about to fall asleep when Niccolo woke up screaming, calling out for his mum. It was three in the morning and I tried to give him some medicine, but didn't have much success.
"After 40 minutes of him waking and crying, I really had had enough. I was there, without legs, while Daniela was in the hospital about to undergo difficult surgery and Niccolo was crying his head off. I lifted my eyes toward God, up in the sky, and in exasperation, 'You're really annoying me. If this is a test, well then I've failed. I surrender. I give up, that's enough'.
"I don't know if someone heard me, but Niccolo turned his head and fell asleep and didn't cry anymore. I have always been very open about God. To me He is love, our ability to be good, tolerant and united. After all, God is deep within all of us. I try to disturb Him as little as possible, but it was an exceptionally stressful night." (p. 343).
A few errors have slipped into the English language version of this book, and while some of the grammatical ones can be explained away by a presumed desire on the behalf of editor David Tremayne to keep some of Zanardi's Italian-English intact, that doesn't excuse the punctuation issues. Speaking of Tremayne, his association with the book somewhat cheapens his glowing recommendation on the back cover, but luckily, I agree with pretty much every word he says and then some.
So, why do I love this book? Don't know. Sorry. The best I can do is say that it is like Zanardi himself how can you not like it? Whatever the reason, it has set the bar pretty high for every other biography to follow this year. Buy it, and buy another one for your friends.