Zanardi began racing karts at age 13, as have many successful open-wheel drivers. In 1988, he joined the Italian Formula 3 series, becoming a championship contender by 1990. In 1991, he moved up to the Formula 3000 series with the Il Barone Rampante team, who were themselves newcomers to the series. Zanardi won the first race in which he competed, one of three victories that season for him. He had good pace and understood his car's behavior very well, allowing him to provide valuable setup feedback to his engineers. Placing second in that year's championship, he also made his Formula One debut that year with Jordan Grand Prix for the final two races of the season.
The charismatic Zanardi was out of a job for most of 1992, however, spending time as a replacement driver at Minardi in his first full F1 season. He had no success at Minardi, mostly due to a slow car rather than anything else. In the off-season, he tested for the Benetton team, but contracted with Lotus for 1993. Zanardi was just as fast as his teammate (Johnny Herbert) and was important in fine-tuning the team's active suspension system, scoring his first ever F1 point at the Brazilian Grand Prix. However, his season ended prematurely after he suffered a terrible crash during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix.
Still injured, Zanardi missed the beginning of the 1994 season, but he returned in the Spanish Grand Prix, replacing the injured Pedro Lamy. However, his Lotus was highly unreliable, and Zanardi failed to score a single point. When Lotus' F1 effort collapsed at the end of the year, Zanardi spent a brief time in sportscars in 1995.
In 1996, Zanardi made the switch to Champcars (then called "CART"), earned a race seat at the Ganassi team, soon becoming one of the series' most popular drivers. He won three races in his rookie season, finishing second in the championship and being named named Champcar rookie of the year. He would win the championship for Ganassi racing in both 1997 and 1998, bringing home twelve victories. After winning a race, Zanardi was fond of spinning his car around in tight circles, leaving "donuts" of tire rubber on the track; this would eventually become a popular means of celebrating race wins all across America.
Zanardi's Champcar success caught the eye of Sir Frank Williams, who inked him to a three-year contract in 1999. In pre-season testing, he was fast; however, everything went downhill from there. Alex had no success in his F1 return, being consistently outpaced by teammate Ralf Schumacher. After failing to score a single championship point the entire season, Zanardi's contract was terminated after just one year; he was replaced by Briton Jenson Button.
Zanardi rejoined the Champcar series in 2001, driving for Mo Nunn's racing team, meeting with little success. Tragically, his open-wheel racing career ended at the Lausitzring EuroSpeedway near Brandenburg, Germany in September, when he was involved in a horrifying crash with Alex Tagliani; the near-fatal collision cost Zanardi both legs, amputated below the knee.
Always a fighter, Zanardi was fitted with two prosthetic limbs and began an ambitious rehabilitation program. In 2002, Champcars honored Zanardi by giving him the privilege of waving the checkered flag in Toronto, Canada. In 2003, Zanardi was not only back behind the wheel, he was also racing again, with the aid of hand-operated brake and accelerator "pedals". He completed the final thirteen laps at the race track which nearly killed him, and did so at highly competitive speeds approaching 194 MPH.
Zanardi raced again at Monza, Italy, in a sportscar modified to allow the use of his prosthetic feet, finishing the race quite impressively in seventh. In 2004, Zanardi returned to racing full-time, driving for BMW in the FIA European Touring Car Championship.
Zanardi has been married to wife Daniella (nee Manni) since 1996, and they have a son, Niccolo. He has co-written two books based on his courageous life, Alex Zanardi: My Story (2004) and Alex Zanardi: My Sweetest Victory (2004).
Complete Formula One results
(Note: grand prix in bold denotes points scoring race.)