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Alex Zanardi finishes 13th in Blancpain GT Sprint debut

Apr 22, 2014, 3:00 PM EDT

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Yesterday, the toughest man on the planet got back to doing what he does best.

Former CART champion and F1 pilot Alex Zanardi – who lost his legs in a 2001 crash but has become a two-time Paralympic champion in hand cycling – got back behind the wheel in the Blancpain GT Sprint Series’ season opener at Nogaro, France.

Zanardi drove a modified BMW Z4 GT3 for the Roal Motorsport team, whom he competed for in the FIA World Touring Car Championship. The Italian appeared on line for a Top-10 finish at Nogaro, but in the final laps, problems with the clutch caused him to fade to 13th at the finish.

Afterwards, Zanardi tried to look at the big picture but still called finishing out of the points in his Blancpain debut “a pity.”

“In the race, our BMW Z4 GT3 was probably better than many other cars, so this gives me hope for the next races,” he said in a team statement. “Unfortunately we had this problem – which has nothing to do with BMW – but it was the clutch which we installed for me. It compromised my race even in the first half.

“After the pit stop, I managed to somehow start without the clutch, but then the car became very difficult to drive and basically, I was driving the whole third sector in fourth gear to avoid problems. At the hairpin, I tried to shift down but nothing was happening, then all of a sudden the gears were there. But what can you do, this is racing. Now I am looking forward to the next round.”

Nonetheless, Zanardi held his own on Monday, with team principal Roberto Ravaglia noting that he logged one of the ten fastest laps during Monday’s race.

“This shows how competitive Alex can be,” he said. “In the first stint, before the clutch troubles, he was consistent and was able to go faster and faster, lap by lap, and in all track sectors.

“Now we need to work in order to improve in qualifying and to let him start from a better position than this weekend’s 14th.”

BMW Motorsport director Jens Marquardt also hailed Zanardi’s effort, which he said proved that “he is still a real racer.”

“He can be satisfied with his performance,” said Marquardt. “You should not forget that GT racing is something new for him, and that he is competing against strong and experienced rivals.”

Mercedes drivers Maximilian Buhk and Maximilian Götz won the race at Nogaro.

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