British-born race car driver Alex Zanardi has been moved to a specialist neurological rehabilitation center from which he has returned home to the United States after a nine-month battle with multiple sclerosis, his family said Monday.
The 45-year-old former Formula One champion from Italy was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital in July following a skiing accident in February which left him partially paralyzed. He went on to undergo extensive surgery on his spine and major blood clots were also removed.
No update on his condition was given in a statement issued by the family, but his friend and chief executive of the sponsor World Trekkers Cycling Union Jose Espinoza said doctors were “close to restoring function to his legs.”
“It was the right decision, all the doctors have advised that it’s best to take him home to his family, in the U.S.,” Espinoza told The Associated Press. “They told him he was far behind the percentage of people that are living with this condition, but he’s very willing and very determined. He works tirelessly and is showing us very good results.”
Zanardi said in a statement through the campaign group Grand Prix of Mexico that he hoped to return to cycling at the end of March.
He made his last public appearance at this year’s annual road cycling event in Mexico City, a week after he fell into a coma following the March 22 skiing accident. The crash left him with a cracked vertebra and hospitalized for a month.
Former F1 champion Sebastian Vettel said “he’s got a tough road ahead of him,” adding that there was no doubt Zanardi would return.
“I think everybody knows how ambitious he is and what he can do,” Vettel said Friday. “I think that he’s one of the guys you don’t want to give up on because he will be back.”
Zanardi was born in London and was raised in France. He began racing as a child and made his F1 debut for Jordan in 1994.
After finishing ninth in the 1996 Brazilian Grand Prix, Zanardi won the most dramatic Grand Prix of the season in 1997 when he overtook then-leader Jacques Villeneuve as the French driver was trying to pass in one of the race’s most dramatic battles.
Villeneuve was leading when he encountered a huge spinning Ferrari at turn 4, and crashed into the barrier, breaking his front suspension. Zanardi was able to pull alongside and change tires before passing Villeneuve. Zanardi finished the race in third place and the most dramatic finish of the 1997 season led to the creation of the title-deciding constructors’ championship.
Just three years later, in 2000, Zanardi made it back to F1. He was often compared to Ayrton Senna, a comparison he didn’t appreciate.
“I’m a much more humble person,” Zanardi told reporters. “I work hard. I’m not arrogant. I’m not sure how I’ll fit into Senna’s class but I’ve worked hard on my career and I am proud of that. He (Senna) lived an incredible life and it’s an honor to be compared to him and I try to do the best that I can do with what I have.”
Zanardi also made his name in MotoGP, first winning the championship for Repsol Honda in 2000, and then moving to FIM rallying in 2003.
Zanardi took fifth at the 2006 world rally championship, a record for an American driver, and took his second world rally championship in 2009 for Peugeot.
AP writer Nancy Benac in Washington contributed to this report.
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