Many drivers entering the 24 Hours of Le Mans want to make history by winning the race or setting records.
But for Nigel Bailly of Belgium and Takuma Aoki of Japan, competing in the classic French race will itself be a landmark as they become the first disabled teammates in the history of the race.
Bailly and Aoki are paralyzed from the waist down as a result of injuries from motorcycle accidents. Aoki was a Grand Prix motorcycle racer before he was hurt in a crash in 1998.
Bailly was injured in a motocross accident when he was 14. Two months after the accident, he was back racing in a go-kart.
“The dream of racing, it’s been clear in my mind for so many years now,” Bailly, now 31, said. “I’ve always watched Le Mans on TV. I just wanted to go and race.”
Cars have previously had only one disabled driver, including Frédéric Sausset in 2016 and Jean de Pourtales starting in 2007. Bailly and Aoki will drive with Matthieu Lahaye of France, who is not disabled. At Le Mans they will 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 competing in Belgian touring car events, Bailly got in 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 its entry because of the pandemic.
“Going back this time, with a crew mainly made up of drivers with disabilities and as team principal represents a new challenge,” Sausset said. “It’s a new way of working on inclusion in sport at a very high level by creating yet 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 steering wheel.
An extra paddle on the left side of the wheel serves as a throttle, while a stick on the right side is used to brake and downshift. When Lahaye drives, he flicks a switch to activate the regular foot pedals.
Bailly and Aoki have completed two races with the LMP2 car, entering European Le Mans Series events in Barcelona, Spain, and Le Castellet, France, this year. But these were four-hour races. Le Mans will be six times as long, posing a significantly greater challenge.
“The physical side, it’s OK,” said Bailly, who has been focusing on cardio, neck and arm strength work to prepare for Le Mans. “The most complicated thing will be the mental side. It’s going to be tougher for that.”
The SRT41 car is entered in the race through the Garage 56 project that allows innovative cars outside of the normal regulations to compete. Pierre Fillon, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, the race organizer, said the SRT41 project was “close to our hearts.”
“Le Mans is all about excelling oneself,” Fillon said. “Its history is full of heroic stories, and let’s not mince our words: Frédéric Sausset is a hero.”
The club has formed a partnership with Sausset as part of its junior driver initiative to develop access to road safety training for young people with disabilities, using the SRT41 story as inspiration. “It goes beyond the bounds of competition,” Fillon said.
The target 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 level up the way we’re going to race without making any mistakes,” he said. “It’s something difficult for us, but we’re going to do our best.”
Sausset has told his drivers to “savor every moment” of their debut at Le Mans, calling it “the biggest 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 job and the goal: crossing the finish line on Sunday at 4 p.m.”