Many drivers participating 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, entry into the classic French race itself will be a milestone as they become the first disabled teammates in the race’s history.
Bailly and Aoki are paralyzed from the waist down due to injuries from motorcycle accidents. Aoki was a Grand Prix motorcycle racer before being injured in a crash in 1998.
Bailly was injured in a motocross accident at the age of 14. Two months after the accident, he was racing in a go-kart again.
“The dream of racing, it’s been clear in my head for so many years,” said Bailly, now 31. “I’ve always watched Le Mans on TV. I just wanted to race.”
Cars previously only had one disabled driver, including Frédéric Sausset in 2016 and Jean de Pourtales from 2007. Bailly and Aoki will be driving France’s Matthieu Lahaye, who is not disabled. At Le Mans, they will share stints behind the wheel of a modified Oreca LMP2 prototype sports car that will allow Bailly and Aoki to shift and brake with their hands.
After participating in Belgian touring car events, Bailly came into contact with Sausset, who founded Sausset Racing Team 41, or SRT41, an academy for disabled drivers. He was the first quadruple amputee to race and finish at Le Mans.
SRT41 had planned to race at Le Mans in 2020 but postponed participation due to the pandemic.
“Going back this 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 towards inclusion in sport at a very high level by creating another great world first.”
Modifications have been made to the LMP2 car, which can lap the Circuit de la Sarthe at an average speed of 148 miles per hour. Bailly and Aoki accelerate, brake and use the clutch via the handlebars.
An additional paddle on the left side of the handlebar acts as an accelerator, while a joystick on the right is used to brake and downshift. When Lahaye is driving, he flips a switch to activate the regular foot pedals.
Bailly and Aoki have completed two races with the LMP2 car, competing in this year’s European Le Mans Series events in Barcelona, Spain and Le Castellet, France. But these were four-hour races. Le Mans will be six times as long, which presents a significantly greater challenge.
“The physical side, it’s OK,” said Bailly, who has focused on cardio, neck and arm strength to prepare for Le Mans. “The most complicated will be the mental side. That makes it more difficult.”
The SRT41 car enters the race through the Garage 56 project that allows innovative cars to compete outside of normal regulations. Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the race organizer, said the SRT41 project is close to our hearts.
“Le Mans is all about excelling yourself,” said Fillon. “History 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 drivers initiative to develop access to road safety training for young people with disabilities, using the SRT41 story as a source of inspiration. “It goes beyond the boundaries of the competition,” Fillon said.
The goal for SRT41 is to finish the race, but Bailly said he wanted to “prove to the world that we can race against other people.”
“We have to improve the way we are going to race without making mistakes,” he said. “It’s something difficult for us, but we’re going to do our best.”
Sausset has told his drivers to “enjoy every moment” of their debut at Le Mans, calling it “the greatest race in the world”.
“The main key to success is humility, never going beyond your skills,” Sausset said, “and above all, staying focused on the work and the goal: to cross the finish line at 4 p.m. on Sunday”