Exclusive: Alessandro Nannini on what Kubica faces
Some people simply don’t understand the phrase, “No, you can’t do that.” Alex Zanardi, Alessandro Nannini and Robert Kubica are just some of those people. All three suffered potentially career-ending injuries, yet successfully climbed back into competition. All three had different injuries to overcome, but they did.
By Andy Hallbery
Zanardi’s situation is well documented, especially here on Motorsport Retro , returning to racing – and winning – after the sickening Indycar accident that cost him both legs, and oh-so-nearly his life.
Kubica’s accident came in a rally, the metal barrier shearing his car, and but for a sinew or two, his arm with it. At the time, the Pole, with one Grand Prix win to his name, was on the verge of the big time. He too desires a return to F1, and a test in a DTM car proved that the speed is still there, but not – yet – in the confines of a single-seater. “If all the races were at places like Barcelona, yes,” he says of his recuperation. “But Monaco? No way, not yet.”
An accident in 1990 severed Nannini’s right arm completely just below the elbow when he was thrown from his helicopter as he crashed while landing at his home in Siena. Like, Zanardi, we thought his racing career was well and truly over.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Groundbreaking microsurgery allowed doctors to sew Nannini’s right arm back on, the nerves were reattached, and all this happened to Sandro without barely the blink of an eye or a second thought.
There were doubters who at the time thought the then-ground-breaking surgery would not work, among them his former Benetton teammate and very good friend Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian was one of the first to visit Sandro in hospital, and advised that his arm would be better gone. “Yes, that’s true,” admits Nannini. “Nelson had a friend who had lost a limb, a leg I think, and had it sewn back on. Since, he regretted doing that, feeling that he would be better with a prosthetic limb. I wouldn’t even let myself think about what Nelson was saying. The doctors had rescued my arm, I was going to race Formula 1 again, and that was that. I didn’t want anybody to fill me with the slightest doubt.”
Nannini’s will saw him not only in the cockpit of a Formula 1 car just over a year later, it was his beloved Ferrari, the team he was – as the story goes – already signed to for 1991 when his accident happened. In the adapted #27, the helicopter crash was a memory.
Just two years after his accident the happy Italian was back at Monza, and this time he was racing. It wasn’t a single-seater like the Grand Prix winner had been used to, but that didn’t matter. Sandro was back doing what he loved, and the car was red. He was racing in Italian Touring Cars in an Alfa 155 GTA – and winning!
Many years later we are sitting talking in one of his Nannini cafés and with the espressos, the ever-present smile and cigarette. This is trademark Nannini, the driver the fans loved.
The only give away was his right hand which was now naturally curled up in a ball that he constantly tried to straighten, and that he now smoked using his left hand instead of is right one. A short puff and he is smiling his way down memory lane.
“You can’t imagine what kind of emotion coming back was for me,” he laughs. “I remember before the start my heart was pumping like crazy. I felt like I was a kid in my first Fiat Abarth races. But all those feelings vanished when the race started. By the time we hit the brakes for the first corner, I was grinding my teeth and slamming on the door of those trying to overtake…
“It was like waking up from a dream, “ he continues, “and I restarted acting like a racing driver, as if I’d never been away.”
To those outside too, including family, Sandro was the old Sandro, save for his new technique of holding his cigarette with his curled up hand. The muscles had withered, and it was a deal smaller than it had been, but first and foremost, he was a racing driver. At races, he kept the glove on, one less thing to worry about. There was however, a slightly new mindset.
“Nobody really thought I could come back from the accident,” he recalls. And without saying it, his demeanour suggests that he felt very much alone during his recovery. “Nobody really thought I could do it,” he smiled. “Neither the doctors nor my family. When I talked about my plans, they just listened to me almost condescendingly, just to keep me ‘up’, and thinking positively. But I didn’t want to give up, because I knew I could do it.”
And he did, that season led to an offer from Alfa for a works car in the DTM and subsequently the ITC. His teammates included Nicola Larini, Michele Alboreto, Christian Danner, Giancarlo Fisichella, Gabriele Tarquini and others.
His rivals included Keke Rosberg, Klaus Ludwig, Bernd Schneider, Dario Franchitti, Alex Wurz, Yannick Dalmas and others. These were no second-rate championships, far from it. It was the cream of touring car and F1 drivers. Nannini’s 13 wins showed that his spirit and speed were undiminished, the talent of the Grand Prix winner still there. And the smoking humour came at his expense, courtesy of German TV, Vox.
Another coffee arrived as we began our photo shoot in his café. While not quite ‘embarrassed’ about his hand, it was rarely on display, usually in his pocket or behind his back. The smile though is constant, even when talking about the difficulties. “There was a moment in those years where things weren’t going so well for me and I thought ‘what am I doing here if I’m not able to compete to win? Wouldn’t it be better to leave?’
“Once you are used to fighting for victory, when you don’t obtain it you feel like you are missing something,” he says, “and even behind this so-called smiling face’ I suffer if I am only second. However I can’t say I’m unsatisfied because it’s almost a miracle that even now I am still racing, although not at that level. It’s still normal to aspire to the maximum.”
Photo: Charles Best/motorsportretro.com
Handicap or not, both Zanardi and Nannini beat world class racers on their returns, and Kubica is still aiming at the very top.
Does this sound familiar? “Frankly I cannot imagine that I won’t return to F1,” Kubica told my colleagues at Autosport. “Quite the contrary. I am convinced I will go onto the startline again.” Kubica is working hard on his strength, and his speed is not in any question. “If it was just about power, I could fix it in the gym. But it is more than that, nerves and muscles, which are much more complicated.”
He knows that while not in the near future that return is still in his sights (“unless they make F1 cockpits 20cms wider tomrrow!”), but that goal is tempered with realism. “Last year after the accident, I said that I was happy I survived,” he adds. “Then when you go to the hospital and see people who have no chance at all, you start to take life differently.
“Very often we do not appreciate what we have. When all is well and everything is in order with us, we find the opportunity to complain about the bad weather. But when you are attached to a hospital bed and you can’t even get up, you don’t care if it’s raining outside or not. In those moments you start to appreciate what you have, even if it’s not what you dream of.”
Photos: Bernard Cahier, Cahier Archive, http://www.f1-photo.com/
Charles Best. http://www.charlesbest.co.uk/tearsheets/23.html