June 19 - Italian former Formula One driver Alex Zanardi, who is aiming for a medal in handbiking at London 2012 after losing his legs in a huge motor racing accident in 2001, has returned to the internationally renowned motor racing circuit at Brands Hatch to hone his preparations for this summer's Paralympics.
The 45-year-old double amputee, who took up handbiking as part of the rehabilitation from his accident and is now a serious Paralympic medal hopeful, was one of nearly 160 Paralympic road race and time trial cyclists who tested the 4.2-kilometre Grand Prix layout at a special Games training day (pictured top and bottom).
The event gave riders from 26 national teams around the world the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the eight-kilometre course which starts and finishes at the former British Grand Prix venue and runs through Kent, including the district of Sevenoaks.
Former Lotus and Williams driver Zanardi (pictured below) – who also won two Champ Car titles in America in 1997 and 1998 – admitted he already knew the circuit like the back of his hand.
"It is an amazing feeling to be back here at a track that I love and that I know so well from before my accident," Zanardi told insideworldparasport.
"I thought I would be at an advantage to the other competitors here but it is much different being on a handbike to being in a motor car!
"It is a course that I enjoy, though, and I just feel lucky to be alive and to be back here in this new life I have.
"I did laugh to myself when I heard the venue was Brands Hatch and thought that maybe it was fate that it was here, but I'm just going to concentrate on giving my best at the Paralympics.
"Part one of the journey is over for me now having qualified for the Paralympics so now the journey is training hard and trying to win a medal."
A number of Britain's top riders were also out on the track, including Beijing 2008 double Paralympic cycling champion Sarah Storey, while international stars in attendance, in addition to Zanardi, included reigning Paralympic time trial champion Jiri Jezek of the Czech Republic.
The one-off training session today allowed many of those athletes who will be at London 2012, along with their team staff, to get to grips with the course which has been specifically chosen to provide a suitable and challenging test for the many and varied classified race categories.
London 2012 staff and volunteers also used the day to test their Games time operations and processes, including transport, accreditation, technology, timing and workforce.
The Paralympic course must be completed a different number of times by riders depending on the event distance and the athlete's racing category.
Approximately 25 per cent of the course contains uphill sections, with a gradient of up to six per cent, while the route includes challenging bends, turns and technical sections.
Unlike most road cycling events, the final kilometre of the circuit unfolds in front of the spectators, providing ticket holders with the chance to watch the closing stages of the event.
At Games time, the venue will host up to 225 athletes – 155 men and 70 women – across road and track cycling from September 5 to 8 in what will be the only London 2012 event that takes place in Kent.
"As some of the world's greatest cyclists prepare here today with just 70 days to go, I'm delighted that we're bringing the Paralympic Games to Kent this summer," London 2012 director of Paralympic Integration Chris Holmes told insideworldparasport.
"With tickets now on sale for the best view of the races and medals available on every day of competition, I recommend that everyone take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see sport like never before in the garden of England."
"Paralympic cycling is a truly incredible sport and what we have seen here today has given an exciting taste of the dynamic, challenging and interesting sport we can expect to see in a few months," said London 2012 director of sport Debbie Jevans.
"It was very important that we created an opportunity for these world-class athletes and staff to see the venue, test the course and look around the venue at which they will challenge for medals in September."
At the Beijing 2008, Britain proved one of the dominant forces in the sport as they took home five of the 23 gold medals available and they will be hoping for a repeat performance at London 2012.
"There is obviously pressure on us to repeat what we achieved in Beijing 2008 but I think it is a good pressure to have in order to make us strive to be the best," said GB Para-Cycling performance director Gareth Sheppard.
"This is really our first real chance to get the riders out on the full track and the early signs are that it will be a good track for our riders."
Tickets for the road cycling at the Paralympics are still available on a first come first served basis by clicking here.
Contact the writer of this story at [email protected]
November 2011: London 2012 dream moves closer for Zanardi after New York City Marathon victory
December 2009: Zanardi - Competing at London 2012 Paralympics is my dream
November 2009: New UCI para-cycling World Cup circuit set to feature Zanardi
October 2009: Zanardi takes another step towards London 2012 with victory in Venice
September 2009: Former F1 driver Zanardi targets London Paralympic Games