Five and a half hours into the 2016 Le Mans 24 hours race, the cameras cut to the garages to show the rather unusual sight of a driver being hoisted into his car with the assistance of his mechanics.
The man in question was Frédéric Sausset and he was about to make history by becoming the first quadruple amputee to compete in the iconic race. Not only did Sausset manage to finish the race, with the help of teammates Christophe Tinseau and Jean-Bernard Bouvet, but he also had the privilege to be on the podium in front of tens of thousands of fans.
It demonstrated one of the unique aspects of motor racing – it is the only sport in the world where disabled athletes compete on the same playing field as all others. Sausset is now a member of a new FIA commission that aims to encourage more disabled racers to do just that.
The FIA Disability and Accessibility Commission is focused on improving accessibility for all in motor sport and ensuring that people with disabilities can compete fairly and safely.
Nathalie McGloin, a paraplegic driver who races in the Porsche Club Championship in the UK, has been named as the Commission’s first president and is aiming to remove the barriers faced by disabled drivers in their bid to compete. “The FIA overall has been very aware and on top of the need to set standards for disabled drivers competing in motor sport,” says McGloin.
Motor sport has become a major passion in McGloin’s life after she was severely injured in a road accident in 1999 when studying for her A-Levels. She was a passenger in the car of a friend when the driver lost control and collided with a tree. She spent a year in hospital and suffered paralysis from the chest down.
Soon after being discharged from hospital she was determined to remain active and took up wheelchair rugby as a hobby, eventually going on to play for Great Britain. It was one of her teammates who introduced her to racing with a track day at Bedford Autodrome.
“I fell in love with the concept of driving your car at any speed that was safe, or any speed that you dare around a racing circuit,” says McGloin, “I then took it up as a rather expensive hobby outside of my rugby training and it just kind of blossomed from there really.”
As McGloin started to take the sport more seriously she was soon faced with the UK’s Association of Racing Drivers Schools test (or ARDS test) to gain a competitive racing licence. She had to pass all of the same parameters as other drivers but in addition she had to complete four hill-climb or sprint events and demonstrate she could exit a car within seven seconds unaided.
“The main challenge for me was getting my head around whether I could actually get out of a racing car with a cage, racing seats, a (six-point) belt and driving position within seven seconds considering I’m paralysed from the chest down. The hill-climb and sprint events were fun to do, but time-consuming and costly.”
One of the first changes McGloin hopes to achieve in the commission is to standardise the test worldwide and ensure the requirements are not a barrier to entry.
Matt Speakman is another disabled driver who races in Porsche Carrera Cup Australia, and he endured similar challenges when obtaining his licence to race from the Confederation of Australian Motorsport.
“The hardest thing was actually obtaining a license from CAMS to compete in circuit racing as I am the first paraplegic in Australia to race,” said Speakman to ourridelife.com. “Then in 2011 when I did get the license it was frustrating trying to get a drive and I actually lost a year waiting for the other series organizers to get back to me. So to prove my point I took a 1975 Toyota Celica rally car, converted it into a circuit racer, and in 2012 won the Queensland Improved Production Championship. This performance is what led to Porsche taking me seriously.”
At the moment the FIA has a standard but not all championships in individual countries are FIA-certified at club level, as they are governed by National Sporting Authorities (ASNs) such as the UK’s Motor Sports Association.
“If we can set up a model that we can pass down to ASNs to implement in their own countries, that would be a big bonus and one of the missions of the commission,” says McGloin. “We have the responsibility to make sure that the ASNs have the knowledge to conduct their tests in a safe but fair way.”
A major factor for the recent emergence of disabled racers in top-level racing is the development of technology. Many of the solutions that Sausset came up with for his Garage 56 entry to Le Mans were innovative in this field.
“My handicap forced me to think, to come up with solutions,” Sausset recently told the FIA. “I can’t bear coming up against a problem I can’t solve. Nothing could be simpler than the things I ‘invented’ like extensions for the pedals. I didn’t know if it would work, but it seemed the simplest solution to come up with; the ‘ejector seat’ so that I could get out of the car in an emergency, the connecting rod instead of the steering wheel.”
The connecting rod is part of the steering system, which he would attach to his artificial carbon arm and allows the seat to link to the accelerator and brake by a crosspiece that brings the pedals up to his leg stumps.
“The engineers, technicians and mechanics on my crew did everything they could to refine my suggestions and put my ideas into practice.”
McGloin uses similar methods to work around her paralysis, most notably the use of a ‘radial control’, which helps with the transition between operating the brakes and accelerator.
“Because my fingers are affected by my paralysis I don’t have the dexterity to use the paddle shift system,” she says. “I race a PDK Cayman, which is a double-clutch gearbox, clutch-less car, so the car changes the gears for me. I have a radial control, which allows me to operate the brakes and accelerator.
“It’s not anything that’s wired into the car, it’s just a simple mechanic system. Almost like an extension of the brake and the accelerator into one pedal that sits nicely by the steering wheel. I push forward on the leaver towards the dashboard to operate the brake, and I push down towards the feet to operate the accelerator.”
Speakman uses a similar system in his specially modified Porsche Carrera Cup car, however the brake is on a handle rather than combined with the accelerator. This handle pivots off the steering column and connects to the original brake peddle.
This type of technology is now making its way over to single seaters. British driver Billy Monger, who had both legs amputated after an accident in an F3 race at Donington Park in April, is leading the way.
With support from the Motor Sports Association, Monger managed to successfully change an FIA rule that had previously prevented disabled drivers from competing in international single-seater categories. The 18-year-old then tested an adapted British Formula 3 car at Brands Hatch as he continues his comeback.
Despite the development of technology to help disabled drivers, McGloin is determined not to let it go too far as it would be detrimental to create an uneven playing field.
“Recently, a Paralympian long-jumper showed he could jump much further than an able-bodied athlete because of the spring in the technology of the artificial limb,” she said. “In motor sport we need to ensure absolute parity whereby the technology in the car allows us to compete but always on the same level.”
As such, the commission aims to make sure that any adaptations made to cars for disabled drivers are facilitating them to compete in a different way, rather than giving away any sort of advantage over able-bodied competitors.
Champions of the Cause
McGloin hopes that with the influx of disabled drivers into the sport it will not be long before we see race winners and champions.
“I think that Billy (Monger) has got a strong chance of doing really well, and I would love nothing more than to see him champion of the F3 grid,” says McGloin. “It’s an exciting time for the sport, especially in terms of a young driver who is really able to show what’s possible, and I think with the support of the FIA we will get it right so that it is fair, it is safe, and it works.”
McGloin’s aim is to help improve opportunites for disabled racers worldwide, and if this can bring more of them into the sport and they become successful then it will have a snowball effect
“I think the more we have disabled people competing in motor sport and doing well, the more it’s going to advertise to other disabled people that this is a sport for you, this is something that is possible. It’s only a matter of time before we have someone win a championship with a disability, and I for one can’t wait for that day.”
The reason McGloin embraced the sport is that once she was in the car, she was just the same as everybody else which was a liberating experience for someone in a wheelchair. Now she wants as many other disabled people to experience that feeling as possible.
“The whole beauty of why I fell in love with motor sport is that I was on the same level as everybody else when I was out on the circuit. The only difference that I had compared to the able-bodied participants was that when we got back into the pit lane I would get into a wheelchair and push myself into the café whilst they would walk in.
“I think that’s why I loved it so much, that kind of parity as able-bodied people being able to do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time.”