Alex Zanardi grew accustomed to pain while racing with prosthetic legs. Applying heavy pressure on the brake pedal hundreds, maybe thousands of times during an endurance event meant the Italian’s leg and its contact points in the prosthesis were being battered.
Like a boxer whose hands are numb and raw after a prize fight, Zanardi’s sacrifice with his lower limbs — made in the name of performance — had become an accepted part of driving after returning to the sport following his stomach-turning IndyCar crash in 2001.
Through his ongoing relationship with BMW, the German manufacturer’s Motorsport division sought to solve the problem by moving the braking function to a tall vertical lever within easy reach of his right hand. Further improvements were also made to the custom steering wheel that uses an acceleration ring in lieu of a throttle pedal.
With turning, shifting, and control of the twin-turbo V8 engine covered by his left hand, plus braking and the ability to shift as well from an electronic trigger atop the lever, Zanardi’s legs have been freed in the BMW Team RLL M8 GTE he’ll share this month at Daytona with John Edwards, Jesse Krohn and Chaz Mostert.
“Those controls were really thought and realized for endurance racing, because in 2015 I took part to the 24 Hours of Spa, with Bruno Spengler and Timo Glock in the BMW Z4,” Zanardi said. “That was a magnificent experience for me. I think I was fast through the course of the race. I was not the weak, let’s say, link in the chain in my team, but I have to admit I was not in the position to put up the same quantity of driving in comparison to my teammates because of some physical issues.
“At the end of that race, I had an opportunity to take a trip to Munich, sat down with the engineers, and the question was, ‘Alex, how can we make you a better endurance driver? Because if there is something we can do, we want to develop it, and maybe when we have another opportunity we can be better prepared.’
“My answer was immediately, ‘Well, guys, we should really study a set of controls which would allow me to keep my prosthetic legs in the motor home, and jump into the car without them.’”
Rather than rely on Zanardi for the initial tests, BMW went in a different route.
“They developed this set of controls, which was first tested by able-bodied drivers early last year. The reason was that if anything could go wrong, they would still have the control of using the normal pedals … where that of course would have not been an option for me,” he continued. “Of course, the feedback they received from the driver was, ‘I don’t know whether I’m going to be able to drive the entire distance of a race, because it’s pretty hard physically to work this lever with your arm.’ But all the drivers who had the opportunity to test the car, they basically said, ‘Yeah, it’s better than we thought it would be.’
“When I finally had a go in it, I was very, very pleased from the very beginning. The job was very well executed. Prior to that point, I only had the possibility to have a feel of it in a sort of a mock-up in the shop, in order to give the engineers the last input — feedback to do the fine tuning, let’s say, as far as positioning the levers at the controls on the wheel and so on.”
BMW was presented with a unique requirement to consider while preparing its M8 GTE for Zanardi and his teammates at this weekend’s Roar Before The 24, and later this month for the big Rolex 24 At Daytona. With his previous pedal-based setup, Zanardi could take part in endurance races while using the same controls as his co-drivers, barring the acceleration ring mounted behind the bespoke steering wheel.
But with the shift to the new brake lever, his tools for making speed, slowing the car, and balancing it through the corners with nothing more than his hands left the engineers at BMW Motorsport and BMW Team RLL with two distinct sets of needs to appease their drivers. Adding an additional step to the process, Edwards, Krohn, and Mostert will drive the car using a standard steering wheel and all of the pedals; when Zanardi is strapped in, he’ll have his custom steering wheel installed.
As three of the drivers work on throttle response characteristics and tuning of the BMW’s braking performance through the use of their feet, the BMW factory effort has Zanardi’s steering wheel and brake lever to tune and suit his needs in the cockpit.
It’s two chassis engineering streams to manage, all with the goal of giving the quartet the ability to turn lap times that are identical, despite the different controls in action.
“It was cool, for sure, because to test those instruments in a car where the job is to squeeze every ounce of performance out of the car, you want to be competitive in that field,” Zanardi says of refining the systems that would go into the M8 GTE.