His mind cleared long before his body healed. When he first showed up at the prosthetic center, on Jan. 3, his left stump was still raw and bleeding slightly, and walking on it with an artificial limb caused him considerable pain. Yet every weekday morning he rose early at his mother's house in Castel Maggiore and drove the nine miles to the center, in the town of Budrio, arriving by nine to begin his long, difficult hours of rehabilitation. They always started with that slow exit from his BMW station wagon. After dropping the back of the passenger seat in front, he would scoot on his hands, in a sitting position, to the back of the wagon. There he would open the rear gate, plop down on the end of it and unfold his wheelchair on the ground. Then he would slide into the seat, close the door and roll up the ramp to the center's entrance.
The early days were an adventure. On artificial legs for the first time, bracing himself with his arms on a set of parallel bars, he walked like a newborn foal. "I was really putting pressure with my arms, and I was crossing my legs," he says. "I thought, Man, I'll never be able to do it right! Then you improve and have more feeling. You start to walk better. First time you step on these new legs, it's bloody hard. It's painful on your pelvic bones. But I am getting better. Every day I get more of a feel for where my feet are."
Of course, Zanardi has thrown himself into his therapy with the same fervor he showed as he swept through the Corkscrew at Laguna. He has inspired other patients with his zeal for work, says Panizzi, but he must learn to throttle down at the sharper corners of his rehab. "He is the same as when he was driving cars," says Panizzi. "He wants to do everything at once. He must learn to go slower."
Not a chance. Zanardi was released from the hospital on Oct. 31, and within two weeks he had learned how to drive his BMW with hand controls. He was tooling along an Italian highway when Max Papis called him on his cellphone. "What are you doing?" Papis asked.
"About 240 kilometers an hour," Zanardi said.
Papis laughs at the thing that will never change. "I had this picture of Alex flying past Ferraris at 140 miles an hour," he says.
In fact driving has been part of Zanardi's therapy. "It makes me feel great when I'm driving and talking to my wife, and I look in the mirror, and my son is sleeping in the back," he says. "I feel like the head of the family again, like nothing has changed." He has not given up on racing cars someday: "Maybe in three months the desire to go back to racing will grow inside me so much that I'll work very hard toward it. It will be bloody difficult, but life is a fight, and I am always fighting. I never say never."
Zanardi seems unusually buoyant and cheerful given his circumstances, but he confesses to occasional bouts of melancholy: "I tend to get depressed sometimes, a little bit." On foggy nights, driving home from Budrio, he might see a runner slant past him in the gloom, and he'll recall when he was running six miles in less than 40 minutes. "You get a little nostalgic for those days, but not so bad that it causes me to cry," he says. "Maybe that would help."
He is sitting in the prosthetic center's cafeteria, on an espresso break, and looking down at his legs. "O.K., I'm going to be f——slow, but I can do things," he says. "I'm going to be able to drive my boat someplace where I can stay two or three weeks with my good friends and family. I'm going to be able to swim in the sea. Once I am in the water, it will be no different from before."
He yearns to get back to that place where nothing has changed. "The thing that is driving me is wanting to regain my independence," he says. For now all he wants to do is to walk again, without a cane, and reclaim a life as close as possible to the one he had before. For now he is simply grateful to have escaped a more calamitous fate: "I didn't have any brain damage." Thankful for the extraordinary life he had as a driver: "Hey, I did something good." Humbled at having survived: "It was a miracle that I lived." And moved by the support he has received from so many quarters.