Alex Zanardi in artificial coma after horrific head injuries in bike crash

Ex-Formula One driver Alex Zanardi has been placed in an artificial coma, but remains "in a stable condition" on Saturday after suffering horrific head injuries in a crash while competing in a handbike race in Italy.

Zanardi, who had both legs amputated in a motor racing accident almost 20 years ago before going on to become a Paralympic champion, was participating in the 'Obiettivo tricolore' relay race in Tuscany on Friday when he lost control of his bike and crossed into the path of an oncoming truck.

The 53-year-old Italian was airlifted to hospital in Siena where he underwent emergency surgery for serious facial head injuries.

"Zanardi underwent a delicate neurosurgical intervention and (was) subsequently transferred to intensive care, he has stable hemodynamic and metabolic parameters," the hospital said.

"He remains intubated and supported by artificial ventilation while the neurological picture remains serious."

Neurosurgeon Giuseppe Olivieri told the AGI news agency that Zanardi's condition could stabilise "in a week or 10 days. Then he can be awakened and evaluated".

Zanardi was a 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.

On Saturday, news of the Italian icon's accident covered the front pages of all three sports national dailies on a day when Serie A football returns after a three-month coronavirus-enforced absence.

"Alex's drama," headlined the Gazzetta dello Sport.

"No Alex, no!" wrote Corrierre dello Sport, with Tuttosport headlining "Alex, Italy!"

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

"Fight as you know how to do it, Alex. You are a very great man, courage," tweeted in Italian Charles Leclerc, the Monegasque driver of the F1 Ferrari team.

- 'Truly inspirational' -

Zanardi's life changed forever on September 15, 2001 when he crashed at 320kmh at Lausitzring while taking part in a CART race.

But what could have been the end of the sports career for the former Lotus and Williams Formula One driver from Bologna proved to be the start of another.

Zanardi adapted to his prosthetic legs and was back competing in the final race of the European Touring Car Championship at Monza in 2003 driving for BMW.

In addition to his Paralympic medals, Zanardi also competed in the gruelling Ironman triathlon in Hawaii in October 2014.

He had been due to compete in the Paralympics in Tokyo this summer before they were cancelled until next year.

His most recent feat was last September when he achieved a new Paralympic triathlon world record time at the Ironman of Cervia, Italy of 8 hours, 25 minutes and 30 seconds.

It was a record which he achieved a few days after winning two golds and a silver medal at the world championships in London.

"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.

"Alex has already had his share of bad luck, which he transcended with a mighty determination and spirit to win again," said former F1 driver Martin Brundle.

"Let's hope he's fine and this is nowhere near as serious as it sounds from reports."

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.

Zanardi's passion remained motor racing and he had just announced he would drive a specially-adapted BMW in the final endurance round of this year's Italian GT Championship at Monza in November.

"I can't wait to get back in a car," he said.