By Jason Cullen
What does it take for an amputee to drive a racing car? Three things: technology, innovation and bravery.
You may have seen the story of Billy Monger – a teenage racing driver who had to have both legs amputated after a horrific high-speed crash – getting back into the cockpit of a racing car.
This heroic feat is nothing short of inspirational. A true testament to internal fortitude and the human spirit, to get back out there after such an extreme accident in Formula 4 and race again.
His and Team BRIT’s (short for British Racing Injured Troops) aspirations to become the first all-disabled team to race in the iconic Le Mans 24 hours event will be nothing short of spectacular when it happens.
However, it takes more than just the human spirit. It also requires a lot of technological and engineering innovation to get to the point of getting an amputee up to this racing pace. And with that, two questions come to mind:
- What is this technology?
- Could the technology put amputees behind the wheel of Formula 1 cars?
Imagine the meteoric change in Formula 1 if this happened. Currently, the driver’s championship is very tightly contested between Vettel and Hamilton – with the latest F1 betting odds reflecting this, with Vettel at 6/5 and Hamilton at 4/6. But opening the grid to equally talented amputee drivers with the right technology behind them would add a new layer of interest and spectacle to the sport.
However, is Formula 1 ready for this change? Let’s start by looking at what it takes to get an amputee back on the racing line.
It’s all in the hands
This shouldn’t be too surprising to know, but all the controls for a car move up to the hands with a custom-built steering wheel. Developed by Team BRIT, the wheel has separate paddles for the clutch, accelerator and brakes alongside your standard on-wheel gear shifts.
Developed with the help of Slovenian motorsports expert Marko Mlakar, these controls required certain reinventions of car functionality – including the introduction of an electronic braking system, to help make racing easier and safer for drivers unable to use their legs.
The in-car technique takes a while to master, as an act that can usually be spread across four limbs now needs to be done with two. But with time and practice (along with testing different steering wheel paddle layouts) the sweet spot can be found and true racing pace achieved.
Do amputees have a future on the international racing stage?
All things considered, the future looks very bright for the likes of Billy. With the progression of this technology and the driver’s mastery of said tech, it’s fair to believe he could get to the point of matching the pace of competitors around him.
As for whether we could see an amputee in Formula 1, there would be no problem technologically. All it would take is a compression of the steering wheel tech and the cockpit customisation to suit. But this would also require plenty of planning from the FIA, to accommodate for a new class of driver and balance the field between all competitors.
While an injury like this may put your odds of winning a race at a slight disadvantage, the technological and engineering innovation shown in putting amputees back behind the wheel could be used throughout any and all motorsports.
In fact, a further question would be that of these drivers actually having an advantage. One study shows the human reaction response time being faster with hands compared to feet, potentially giving drivers who have mastered this specialised steering wheel an unfair advantage!
So the simple answer to this is a solid “maybe in the future.” While Formula 1 is quite the slow-moving juggernaut of a motorsport in terms of changing the rules, Team BRIT’s goal to enter Le Mans’ historic endurance event would be sure to send shockwaves of change throughout this motorsport.