Alex Zanardi has completed his first test in the BMW M8 GTE as he prepares for the 2019 Rolex 24 At Daytona.
Zanardi has been racing BMW cars since 2003, but earlier this year – and essentially by accident – he began driving without his prosthetic legs. BMW M Motorsport has made extensive modifications to Zanardi’s cockpit, including a hand-operated braking system for the first time. Using the same modified in-car system, the 52-year-drove a BMW M4 to an emotional fifth-place finish in a August DTM race in Misano.
Zanardi drove over 400 miles this week over three days at Miramas in southern France. Despite some rain, Zanardi was able to familiarize himself with the M8 GTE while BMW M Motorsport evaluated how the specially modified car was functioning.
“I think I made huge progress during this test,” Zanardi said. “Particularly when you consider that the conditions were very tough. Miramas is not an easy circuit anyway, and then we had the rain to deal with too. It was a challenge getting to know the car in these conditions, and at the same time finding out what I need to do when whilst driving.
“However, it was a very productive test. My feel for the car improved all the time and I soon found out what I need to be doing with my hands and how I can control the car’s various electronic functions. We are now very well prepared for the next test at Daytona. I have to say, the BMW M8 GTE is a real beauty. It was a privilege for me to take it out onto the track and drive it for so many laps.”
Braking is performed using a lever, which he operates with his right arm. The special steering wheel allows Zanardi to accelerate using a gas ring and to change gear using shift paddles. The gas mechanism at the steering wheel, proven in DTM, has been adapted to the much more complex steering wheel in the BMW M8 GTE. The brake lever also has a button, with which Zanardi can shift down through the gears when braking into corners. Based on the knowledge gained at Misano, the system has been optimized for the BMW M8 GTE.
Another part of the test included practicing a driver change, as Zanardi will share the M8 with other drivers at Daytona. Zanardi practiced the procedures with BMW works driver and Rahal Letterman Lanigan IMSA driver Jesse Krohn (below).
“It is impressive what we achieved,” he said. “You have to bear in mind that, as well as the usual driver changeover, we must also swap the steering wheel. We consistently achieved that in under 20 seconds, and a few times we even managed the changeover in about 15 seconds.
“When you observe how quickly a ‘normal’ driver like Jesse jumps out of the car, it is a bit different when you then see somebody like me getting out. Undo the harness, remove the steering wheel, pass it to somebody and jump out of the car – all in less than three seconds. Then turn around, wait until Jesse is in, climb back into the car, hook my leg into the frame, help Jesse with the radio and harness, pass him the other steering wheel, close the net and get away from the car…It is really impressive and looks a bit like a dance. We will now continue to work on perfecting the driver changeover.”
The 24-hour endurance race will mark Zanardi’s first competitive race in the U.S. since the CART race on August 19, 2001 at Road America, a month before he lost both his legs at the Lausitzring.
BMW M Motorsport is working with the FIA, ACO and IMSA to gain approval for a car adapted to Zanardi’s needs for GTE races.