The final part of our look at Champ Car drivers who raced in Formula 1 includes one of the most incredible stories of survival in any sport – never mind just motor racing.
Alessandro Zanardi had two separate stints in F1 and Champ Car. But when he returned to the latter he almost lost his life in a sickening crash that severed both his legs.
Also in the final instalment is the career of 1997 world champion Jacques Villeneuve.
‘Tora’ Takagi drove in F1 for Tyrrell and Arrows in 1998 and 1999 respectively but never troubled the points-scorers. In 2000 he won the Formula Nippon championship before joining Champ Car for two years with Walker Racing, scoring a pair of fourth place finishes. After that he defected to the rival IndyCar series.
Officially the youngest driver ever to participate in a race, although he didn’t officially started it: Thackwell qualified for the 1980 Canadian Grand Prix aged 19 years, five months and 29 days. But he was eliminated in a crash at the first start and didn’t take the subsequent re-start.
Thackwell was highly rated and had talent but not luck. He languished in Formula Two looking for another F1 drive, getting two starts in 1984 for RAM and Tyrrell. The same year he also made his only two appearances in Champ Car. Reluctantly he moved on to the new F3000 championship, where he would have been champion in 1985 but for bad luck. He left motor racing entirely in 1988.
A young Villeneuve arrived in CART in 1994 and took his first win late in the year at Road America. The next season he stormed to the title, taking the Indy 500 on the way.
Bernie Ecclestone, desperately searching for a new F1 superstar, hurriedly arranged for Villeneuve to join Williams in 1996. He set pole position in his first race, very nearly won it and chased team mate Damon Hill for the title until the final round. The following year he clinched the title after a controversial clash with Michael Schumacher.
But as Williams lost star designer Adrian Newey and Renault engine for 1998 the team slumped in form and Villeneuve embarked on an ambitious project to set up a new team, BAR, with manager Craig Pollock. After five barren years Villeneuve was squeezed out and after a brief stint at Renault joined Sauber for 2005. BMW took over the team for 2006 and he was booted out halfway through the season to make way for Robert Kubica.
Read more about Jacques Villeneuve: Jacques Villeneuve biography
Jacques Villeneuve Snr
Gilles Villeneuve’s brother (uncle of Jacques) failed to qualify twice for Arrows in 1981 and once for RAM in 1983. In between the two he made his debut in Champ Cars and he returned in 1985, winning at Road America. He did another season in 1986 but then left, only to return for two final races in 1992, two years before his nephew arrived in the category.
The only woman to win an F1-class race, Desire Wilson triumphed in an AFX Aurora British F1 race at Brands Hatch in 1980. She made a single attempt to qualify for an F1 world championship race in 1980 but failed. After that she raced in Champ Car in 1983, 1984 and 1986, but finished only three times out of 14 appearances.
It was often said that Justin Wilson’s tall frame was the reason why he struggled to get an F1 drive despite having dominated F3000 in 2001, beating Mark Webber and Tomas Enge who scored 39 points each to Wilson’s 71.
Paul Stoddart stuck him in a Minardi in 2003 and Wilson was noted for his astonishing starts – he gained 11 places in the first lap at Malaysia that year. He got a drive at Jaguar for five races but was kicked out at the end of the year when Red Bull came knocking with $20m to buy a seat for Christian Klien.
He switched to Champ Cars in 2004 and the following year he won twice for the young RuSport outfit. He took up the mantle of the leading challenger to Sebastien Bourdais and won twice more over the next two years. Having taken Bourdais’ seat at the team this year he was title favourite before Champ Car collapsed and merged with IndyCar.
F1’s first Malaysian driver was out of his depth in the series and was briefly rested by Minardi in 2002 after he failed to qualify on three occasions. The following year Yoong followed the well-worn path linking ex-Minardi racers to Dale Coyne’s Champ Car team, doing four races for them.
The last story in this series is without question the most incredible.
Zanardi was a promising F3000 driver who got his F1 break with Jordan in 1991 in the fallout after the Michael Schumacher debacle. He showed promise in practice at Adelaide but didn’t keep his place in the team for the following year and made a single appearance for Minardi in 1992.
Switching to Lotus for a full-time seat in 1993, his season ended when he had a huge crash at Eau Rouge at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit. He returned to the team halfway through 1994, but the outfit folded at the end of the year.
He made his way to Champ Car for 1996 and won three times in his first season for Chip Ganassi. One of those wins, at Laguna Seca, became an instant part of CART history as he lunged past Bryan Herta at the infamous Corkscrew bend to steal the win on the final lap. He claimed the next two championships and won 12 more times.
After that he was snapped up by Williams who hoped to repeat the success they had enjoyed with Villeneuve. But the F1 cars Zanardi returned to in 1999 were very different machines – narrow-tracked with grooved tyres. He completely failed to adjust to them and terminated his two-year contract after just one season.
In 2001 he was back in Champ Cars at the team run by his former engineer Mo Nunn. The season began slowly but at the Lausitzring oval in Germany Zanardi was running at the front once more. But with a few laps remaining Zanardi spun on his way out of the pitlane and rolled onto the track in the path of traffic. He was struck by Alex Tagliani and the impact snapped the car in two.
Despite enormous blood loss and the severing of both his legs, Zanardi’s life was saved by the quick attention of CART’s medical crew.
Just as incredibly he has since returned to racing and has spent several years competing in the World Touring Car Championship using a BMW 3-Series fitted with special hand controls. Appropriately it was back in Germany, at Oschersleben, where he won once again, somehow keeping a train of cars behind him in the closing laps.
BMW also gave him the chance to test their F1 car. And he also returned to the scene of the accident that almost killed him, to complete the final 13 laps of his fateful last Champ Car race (pictured above).
Read more about Alessandro Zanardi: Alessandro Zanardi biography
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- Justin Wilson, 1978-2015
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