Alex Zanardi, age 51, is an Italian racing driver who was a CART champion and also raced in Formula One in the 1990s. For most of the new millennium, he has been racing in various other formats, particularly in touring car championships and has also been successful as an athlete. Oh, he is also a double-amputee above the knee. He lost both his legs in a racing accident in 2001.
Post his amputation he competed in touring car events with a modified car and used a prosthetic where needed. He also took to handcycling and competed in various global competitions and marathons, winning some too. His tally includes medals in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London and the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio in his respective categories.
It’s 2018 and Alex Zanardi is gearing up to start in the DTM and at the 2019 Daytona 24 Hours (USA) with BMW Motorsport. For Zanardi’s guest appearance in the DTM at Misano, BMW has developed a new, modified cockpit for the Italian racer and he’s been busy testing it out.
Not being the most mechanically familiar, I’ll be quoting directly from BMW for the most part. Here’s a look at some of the crucial modifications done to the controls:
Hand-operated brake system
A newly developed hand-operated brake system replaces the combination of brake pedal with a permanently attached artificial leg previously used by Zanardi. The idea is to make it less stressful and easier to operate. Now, the brake lever is located to the driver’s right in the centre console area with the brake lines having been extended to this lever. This is an innovative first in the modification of a brake system for a hands-only drive.
The brake cylinder has been adjusted which means Zanardi doesn’t need to apply as much pressure by hand as a regular DTM racer would by foot to achieve the required braking effect. The BMW Motorsport engineers had to scratch their heads for this one. While a brake pedal in a normal M4 DTM exerts tensile force on the brake cylinder, it’s the handbrake lever in Zanardi’s car that applies pressure to the cylinder.It still has a parking brake which can be used via a button on the steering wheel.
In a standard DTM car, the drivers use a hydraulic clutch mainly for race starts and driving out after a pit stop. Alex’s car is fitted with a fully-automatic centrifugal clutch which automatically opens and closes at certain engine speeds and is not operated by the driver at all. It is the meticulous task of the BMW Motorsport engineers to set up the system and define the engine speeds for the clutch.
Technically, there shouldn’t be much modification needed here as shift-paddles on the steering wheel are standard without the need to use a clutch in any modern DTM car. But since Zanardi is using his hands for everything else as well, he could use a little help to make it less complicated. So, the right shift paddle allows him to go up the gears and the left allows him to go down the gears. But since down-shifting is usually associated with braking, for which Alex would take his right hand off the wheel, he can also downshift using a shift paddle on the end of the brake lever.
This system is similar to modified GT cars Zanardi has raced in the past wherein he accelerates by using his fingers to pull on a throttle ring on the rear of the steering wheel. The ring can be operated using either hand and uses the same sensors as the standard throttle pedal.
On a personal note, how hard would it be to program and modify a DTM car to use accelerator/brake controls built similar to the trigger controls on a modern gaming controller? Surely, someone must be working on bridging the gap between video games and real racing for the handicapped? If not, someone should.
Probably the least modified part on Zanardi BMW M4 DTM, the steering wheel is the same as his previous GT cars with buttons being readjusted. Only a DRS button has been added while knobs used to configure driver aids like ABS in GT cars have no role to play in the M4 DTM car.
Alex Zanardi has already completed 249 laps in testing at Vallelunga in his modified BMW M4 DTM race car to prep for his guest appearance at Misano. “The test was great; all went really well and we are heading in the right direction. A lot is new, but I am coming to terms with it lap by lap. Thanks a lot to BMW – we´re getting ready for Misano,” was one of Zanardi’s first comments after his initial test laps in the BMW M4 DTM.
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