The former racing-car driver and current Paralympian gold medallist Alessandro (Alex) Zanardi recently participated in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM). It was the Italian’s first appearance at the popular car series and his first time driving without his prosthetic legs. In order to participate, Zanardi adapted his BMW M4 DTM with a hand-operated braking system.
Achieving the dream
Prior to the race in Misano, he noted: “Yes, it was a dream to drive a DTM car. In my career I’ve been fortunate enough to drive beautiful cars, especially in my days in the United States. The single-seaters were probably the best in the entire motorsports history, I think.
“I’ve always looked at DTM as one of the things I want to do in my racing career. I’ve always been very much intrigued by the type of car that looks really sexy and performs incredibly well. I’m very glad and thankful to BMW for giving the opportunity to me,” he added.
He had the opportunity to test the vehicle at Vallelunga and shared his thoughts on the vehicle. “It’s made out of carbon fibre; it is created to perform. The suspension, brakes and engine are made for racing. The gearbox is incredibly fast and is manufactured the way you would manufacture a Formula One gearbox.
“Everything is purely made for racing and the car does perform like it. Around the turns, the BMW M4 DTM is capable of producing amazing speeds. You can brake basically in the blink of an eye. When exiting a corner, the car reaccelerates out of it very rapidly. It’s an impressive machine.”
Adaptations of the vehicle
This is not the first BMW vehicle adapted for Zanardi and the engineers learn with every modification. Along with the hand-operated brake system, a few other modifications were made to ensure that he could drive it without the use of a prosthesis.
Hand-operated brake system
In the past, Zanardi used an artificial leg to apply pressure on the brake pedal. The new system requires less effort and is easier to operate. The brake lever is located on the right of the driver in the centre console. The brake lines have been extended and laid from the footwell to this lever. As a result, the pedal box, with the throttle, brake and clutch pedals, is no longer necessary.
The footwell in the BMW M4 DTM is empty. The large brake cylinder has been adjusted slightly, meaning Zanardi need not apply quite as much pressure by hand as a regular DTM driver must with his foot to achieve the required braking effect. As with every BMW M4 DTM, his car also has a parking brake, which builds up preload pressure to allow the fastest possible start.
Like his fellow BMW drivers, Zanardi can operate this parking brake via a button on the steering wheel. However, he can also mechanically activate and release the parking brake via a lever on his handbrake. This also allows him to prevent the car from rolling.
In a standard DTM car, the drivers use a hydraulic clutch for the start of the race and for pulling away from the pit lane. In the adapted BMW M4 DTM, a fully automatic centrifugal clutch is used. This automatically opens and closes at certain engine speeds and is no longer operated by the driver.
The respective engine speeds are defined by BMW Motorsport engineers as part of their meticulous set-up work. For Zanardi, the system is a great advantage as he doesn’t need to use his hands to operate the clutch.
Zanardi can change gears via the shift paddles on the steering wheel, just like his fellow drivers. However, when braking is required and his right hand is occupied, he can also downshift using a shift paddle on the end of the brake lever.
The system enabling him to accelerate was adapted from the GT cars modified for him in the past. He accelerates by using his fingers to pull on a throttle ring on the rear of the steering wheel. The continuous ring can be operated with both hands, or just with the left or right hand.
The steering wheel, including the throttle ring, is basically the same as those used in the GT cars that he has driven in the past. Only the buttons have been adjusted for his guest appearance in the DTM, with new additions such as the drag reduction system (DRS) button.
In the case of an accident, it is important for the driver to be able to exit the vehicle safely and quickly. This was at the heart of the design behind the BMW M4 DTM. Despite driving without his prosthetic legs, Zanardi can exit his vehicle in the prescribed time limit after an accident.
“When an accident occurs, all DTM drivers must be able to get out of their car on their own. This cannot take longer than seven seconds on the driver’s side and nine seconds on the passenger side. This is to ensure that no-one has to wait for outside assistance if a fire breaks out on board, for example,” explained Christian Schmidt, technical delegate for the DTM.
During his various training sessions, Zanardi was able to exit the vehicle in around four and a half seconds.
“There are plenty of handholds in a DTM cockpit that I can use to pull myself out. I wouldn’t say that I am faster at getting out than the other DTM drivers, but I am certainly no slower,” he said, adding that he is at an advantage without his prosthetic legs as he can move much faster and there is no risk of the prosthesis getting stuck.
Schmidt noted: “We have come to know Zanardi as an unbelievably enthusiastic racing driver with a real eye for detail and we are sure that he meets all the conditions to drive a DTM car right at the limit – with the technical adjustments required due to his disability.”
On August 25 and 26, Zanardi competed in his Misano, Italy, DTM event with flying colours. He finished in a sensational fifth place, saying afterwards: “I leave Misano with a big smile on my face.”
He added that he thought his engineers were joking when they shared his position following the race.
“I did not expect that… I was very optimistic after my tests, but after the first session, in which I was a distant last, I feared that my fate this weekend may be to drive around well off the back of the field.
“Every time I took to the track, everything was different to the previous time. With that in mind, fifth place, together with good, competitive lap times, is obviously fantastic. It feels like a gold medal.”
Of the acrobatic hand movements required for him to drive the BMW, he explained: “I don’t have any alternative these days, so I adapted to it quickly. Once you have accepted the task, some things are not actually as difficult as you initially imagined they may be. I worked meticulously with the engineers in Munich to find the best possible solution for me, and I think we came up with an outstanding system.”
A warm welcome and plans for the future
At his first appearance, Zanardi felt the DTM family gave him a big welcome at Misano. “I was received very well. I am very grateful for that! As far as my BMW family and my team in particular is concerned, they gave me the feeling that they felt good about their job and that I was exactly the man they wanted to have in their car,” he said. “The goal was not to win the race, it was all about making the most of my opportunity and getting the best out of the car. Everyone in the team identified with that goal and that was priceless for me.”
In 2019, Zanardi plans to compete in the 24 Hours of Daytona – a 24-hour endurance race. He hopes to compete in the BMW M4 DTM or something similar. He concluded: “Thank you to everyone involved for their interest and ambition to make me an even better racing driver. I can’t wait to continue preparations for Daytona.”
Read more about Zanardi and his participation in the 2017 UCI Paracycling Road World Championships, which took place in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, from August 31 to September 3.