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Motorsport: Emotions high as Italy icon Alex Zanardi fights for life

Last updated 1 month ago | By AFP

In this file photograph taken on April 2, 2017, former racing driver and paracyclist, Italian Alex Zanardi takes part in the 23rd Marathon of Rome. - Ex-Italian Formula One driver Alex Zanardi, who won four Paralympic gold medals after having both legs amputated in a motor racing accident, was seriously injured on June 19, 2020, in a crash while competing in a handbike race in Italy. [Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP]

Emotions were high in Italy on Saturday as Alex Zanardi, a former Formula One driver who became an inspirational paralympic champion after having both his legs amputated in a motor racing accident two decades ago, fought for his life after a bike crash.

Zanardi's photo made the front page of the country's three sports newspapers on Saturday, despite the return of Serie A later in the day after a three-month shutdown.

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Zanardi, 53, suffered horrific head injuries during an accident Friday when he collided with a truck while competing with his handbike in a race in Tuscany. He was airlifted to hospital in Siena and underwent three-hours of delicate neurosurgery before being placed in an artificial coma.

Mario Valentini, coach of the Italian Paracycling national team, said the athlete lost control of his bike on a hairpin turn and made "two rolls" before hitting a truck that was coming in the other direction.

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On Saturday, Zanardi remained "intubated and on artificial respiration" and his "neurological picture remains serious," the Santa Maria alle Scotte hospital said. 

"The conditions are stable, but the neurological damage is serious and uncertain, and instability and deterioration may be possible."

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Neurosurgeon Giuseppe Olivieri, who carried out the operation, described Zanardi's condition as "very serious".

"He arrived with significant crano-facial trauma," Olivieri told journalists. 

"Concretely, all the bones of the face are fractured. He also has fractures on both sides of the frontal bone.

"At the moment, we are not talking about his neurological state. This is something that we will see later, when he wakes up and if he wakes up.

"The patient's situation is serious, that is to say that he can also die. In such cases, the improvements are slow, while the worsening can be brutal," he added.

Messages of support poured in for the former Grand Prix driver who twice won the CART championship in the United States, before having both his legs amputated following an accident on the Lausitzring track in Germany in 2001.

He went on to win four gold medals on his handbike in the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games, and two silver medals, and multiple world championship titles.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte wrote on Twitter: "Courage Alex, don't give up. All of Italy is fighting with you."

"I am so anxious and frightened about Alex Zanardi that I'm holding my breath. I am his fan. I am his friend," tweeted former world Formula One champion Mario Andretti.

"Please do what I'm doing and pray pray for this wonderful man."

Former Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso posted an image of Alex on his handbike: "Come on champion," with Brazilian Felipe Massa saying: "I pray for you".

"Fight as you know how to do it, Alex. You are a very great man, courage," tweeted in Italian Charles Leclerc who drives for Ferrari.

Zanardi raced for Jordan, Minardi and Lotus in Formula 1 in the early 1990s before switching to the CART championship in the United States where he was series champion in 1997 and 1998.

He returned to F1 with Williams in 1999 before heading back to the CART series.

"Alex is one of life's truly inspirational people and as we all know, a fighter through and through. Stay strong and Forza Alex," his former Williams team wrote on Twitter.