Many drivers who compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans want to make history by winning the race or setting records.
But for Nigel Bailly from Belgium and Takuma Aoki from Japan, taking part in the classic French race will itself be a milestone as they become the first disabled teammates in the history of the race.
Bailly and Aoki are paralyzed from the waist down from injuries in motorcycle accidents. Aoki was a Grand Prix motorcycle racer before being injured in an accident in 1998.
Bailly was injured in a motocross accident when he was 14. Two months after the accident, he was back in a go-kart.
“The dream of racing has been clear to me for so many years,” said Bailly, now 31 years old. “I’ve always seen Le Mans on TV. I just wanted to race. “
Cars previously had only one disabled driver, including Frédéric sausset in 2016 and Jean de Pourtales from 2007. Bailly and Aoki will ride with Matthieu Lahaye from France, who is not disabled. At Le Mans, they share stints behind the wheel of a modified Oreca LMP2 prototype sports car that allows Bailly and Aoki to shift and brake with their hands.
After participating in Belgian touring car events, Bailly got in touch. on sausagewho founded the Sausset Racing Team 41 or SRT41, an academy for disabled drivers. He was the first quadruple amputee driver to race at Le Mans and cross the finish line.
SRT41 had planned to start at Le Mans in 2020, but postponed due to the pandemic.
“Coming back to that time with a crew consisting mainly of drivers with disabilities and as a team principal is a new challenge,” said Sausset. “It’s a new way of working on inclusion in sport at a very high level by creating another great world first.”
The LMP2 car has been modified to be able to circumnavigate the Circuit de la Sarthe at an average speed of 148 mph. Bailly and Aoki accelerate, brake and operate the clutch via the steering wheel.
An additional paddle on the left side of the wheel is used for throttle, while a stick on the right is used for braking and downshifting. When Lahaye drives, he flips a switch to activate the normal foot pedals.
Bailly and Aoki have completed two races with the LMP2 car and this year competed in the European Le Mans Series events in Barcelona, Spain and Le Castellet, France. But those were four-hour races. Le Mans will be six times as long, a much bigger challenge.
“The physical side is fine,” said Bailly, who has focused on cardio, neck and arm strength training to prepare for Le Mans. “The most complicated thing will be the mental side. It will be more difficult for that. “
The SRT41 car will be in the race over the Garage 56 Project that enables innovative cars to compete outside the normal regulations. Pierre Fillon, President of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the organizer of the race, said the SRT41 project is “close to the heart”.
“Le Mans is about outdoing yourself,” said Fillon. “His story is full of heroic stories, and let’s not mince words: Frédéric Sausset is a hero.”
The club has partnered with Sausset as part of its junior driver initiative to provide young people with disabilities with access to road safety training, using the SRT41 story as inspiration. “It goes beyond the limits of the competition,” said Fillon.
The goal for SRT41 is to finish the race, but Bailly said he wants to “prove to the world that we can compete against other people”.
“We have to level our race without making mistakes,” he said. “It’s a little difficult for us, but we’ll do our best.”
Sausset has told his drivers to enjoy “every moment” of their Le Mans debut and calls it “the greatest race in the world”.
“The most important key to success is humility, never going beyond your abilities,” said Sausset, “and above all concentrating on the job and the goal: to cross the finish line at 4 p.m. on Sunday.”