Enlarge / Zanardi in the paddock. He is almost as fast in this chair as he is in the race car—I’m surprised he hasn’t been given a penalty for speeding in the pit lane!Elle Cayabyab Gitlin reader comments 8 with 8 posters participating, including story author Share this story Share on Facebook Share on Twitter…
Although we usually cover our own travel arrangements, in this case Rolex flew me to Orlando and provided two nights in a hotel in Daytona Beach.
One of the biggest buzzes at this year’sRolex 24 at Daytonawas the presence of one Alex Zanardi, racing in one of the two BMW M8 GTEs. Racing fans will remember Zanardi from his time in single seaters. There was a spell in F1 with the Williams team, but he’s primarily known by the racing crowd as a double champion in the open-wheel CART series (in 1997 and 1998). In 2001, after returning to CART, he lost both his legs in a horrific crash at the Lausitzring in Germany in 2001. Other sports fans may well know him for his post-crash success in handcycling; he’s won multiple marathons (Venice, 2009, Rome, 2010, New York, 2011) as well as gold medals in the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics.
Oh, and he’s kept driving, too. First in the World Touring Car Championship from 2004-2009, with wins in 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2009, then more recently in the Blancpain Sprint Series in 2014, all with BMW. But this year’s Rolex 24 saw him added to BMW’s roster for the #24 BMW Team RLL M8 GTE, where he was just one of the car’s four drivers (the other three of whom were all able-bodied).
Ars was fortunate enough to get some time with Zanardi before the race, to find out a bit more about how a double amputee is able to compete at the same level as his able-bodied rivals. The first thing I wanted to know was whether he thought motorsport was getting better about inclusivity:
“Yes, but it depends what you mean when you say ‘inclusive.’ Because I think as far as will, motorsports has always been inclusive. The people in charge had nothing against disabled drivers attempting to do this or that, but ignorance is what creates fear. So for instance what I think I’ve been able to accomplish with BMW has changed the perception up to the point where people like Billy Monger orFrederic Sausset—a few years ago he drove at Le Mans without any limbs, and I don’t think the FIA would have ever considered studying his case if it hadn’t been for what we did with BMW before. I remember the very first day of work, how concerned everybody was. After three hours of testing I spun into the gravel and four fire trucks and two ambulances showed up, it was like ‘Boy, he’s dead!’ There’s no reason to die from a simple spin [into a gravel trap], I mean it’s technically possible but it’s not more likely that it’s going to happen to me.
“The point is this: normally you look at a guy who is disabled and you think he’s more vulnerable than someone else. But then I explain that I’m not any more vulnerable, because if I break one of my legs it only takes a 4mm screw to fix it, you know? And actually when I’m driving I don’t even wear [the legs] anymore.”
Previously, when Zanardi raced he used a combination of a hand throttle on the back of his steering wheel, and a prosthesis that connected his leg to the brake pedal. But for this race, the #24 BMW M8 GTE had a new set up. For the other three drivers, the vehicle featured the usual combination of brake and accelerator pedals, plus the multifunction steering wheel.
But for Zanardi, there was a modified multifunction wheel, with a hand throttle behind it, and an elongated grip on the left side to give him a bit more leverage in tight corners when he needs to steer one-handed. That’s because he now brakes the car with a hand lever, pushing it forward to apply the brakes. The brake lever requires about the same pressure as the brake pedal—there’s no power assistance allowed. The car also features a centrifugal clutch from ZF, and there’s a trigger on the brake lever which initiates a downshift. (Upshifts are via a paddle on the wheel.) The new control arrangement probably makes for faster driver changes, since Zanardi just has to jump into the car and get belted in like any other driver, instead of having to situate a prosthesis properly. Still, the reason for the change was more fundamental, as he explained:
“It was purely down to my physical capability to endure my driving action into the distance. We’re talking about long-distance racing, and in my previous experience at Spa-Francorchamps in 2015 I was certainly the weakest link in the chain. Applying pressure to the brake pedal with my prosthetic leg was not so difficult for one lap, not so difficult for two laps, but by the third one it started to be hard. Now you think about staying in the car for two or three hours—I was done. So at the end of the race the engineers asked how they could turn me into a better endurance racer and I said “guys, we should really take advantage of all these features we have in modern cars, especially semiautomatic gearboxes”—you can put a trigger behind the brake lever so I could the downshifting where in my previous experience like in touring car racing (in a BMW 320i) that wasn’t possible.
“So, we went home to develop a new set of controls, and the first day I drove the car—boy, I went until we ran out of daylight without a single problem. As far as the perception I get physically speaking, I could drive the 24 hour race on my own if I wanted to! Its like night and day, night and day. Of course, over a single lap maybe the old solution would still be marginally faster, because it was still natural for me to always have my hands on the steering wheel. Maybe in the middle of a corner the car would understeer and I could apply a little bit of brake pressure [to the pedal via prosthetic], get the nose down, put a little bit more lock on and drive around the problem, whereas now I’m always rushing to put my hand back on the wheel. And when I get some understeer it’s now impossible to take my hand off the wheel to apply more brake pressure because you’d be too late [with the input]. So this is why I’m saying I still haven’t mastered the technique as much as I can, but I’m about to have 24 more hours to practice.”
I was curious how long it took for the new control scheme to become as natural as driving with hands and legs was previously:
“The race I did back in August unexpectedly in DTM helped a lot, because we were preparing for this event. But other than that, I got to test the car at the Roar and in the first few sessions this week. Bear in mind that I’m a very flexible individual as far as mental flexibility, because to live a life disabled every day, even at the grocery store you find obstacles that you didn’t see as an able-bodied person, and you have to find a way around. So you become a lot more flexible than you would otherwise. We all have the talent to do that, but most of these talents remain very primitive. But I had to develop them. I stepped into the car, drive a few laps, and get 95 percent of what I could.”
Unfortunately for Zanardi, 2019 was not his year to win the Rolex. His car—shared with John Edwards, Jesse Krohn, and Chaz Mostert—ran into trouble just three hours into the endurance race. During a driver change, the car was dropped on the airjack prematurely, bending the pins on the connector between his steering wheel and the steering column. Fixing that cost the car eight laps. Overnight the four drivers battled back up the order, but Krohn had an accident around hour 13 that required more repairs and took them completely out of contention.
“I feel incredibly sorry for everyone who worked so hard on this project, both in Munich and here in the USA,” Zanardi said. “We really tested countless possible scenarios in the run-up to the race, and then something happens in the first pit stop which has never happened before. But that is motorsport for you. We just have to accept it. That aside, my appearance here at Daytona, with all the fantastic reactions from the fans, colleagues, and opponents has been like a fairy tale. I would like to say a big thank you to BMW Motorsport and BMW Team RLL for one of the best experiences of my life,” he concluded.