BMW:Top-notch BMW engineering, know-how and passion: the development of Alessandro Zanardi’s driving systems, from 2003 to now.
Munich. When BMW works driver Alessandro Zanardi (ITA) climbs
behind the wheel of the BMW M8 GTE at the 24 Hours of Daytona (USA,
26th/27th January), he will embark on the
latest chapter of his unprecedented career
Zanardi has enjoyed success in BMW race cars for many years.
Just two years after his crash in a CART race at the Lausitzring,
which resulted in the loss of both legs, he was back driving a
specially modified BMW 320i in the 2003 European Touring Car
Championship. Since then, he has raced for BMW M Motorsport in
various series. In the process, he and the BMW M Motorsport
engineers have been continually perfecting the systems that allow
him to race. From the BMW 320i, the BMW Z4 GT3 and the BMW M6 GT3 to
the BMW M4 DTM and the BMW M8 GTE: an overview of the continual
further development of the modifications to Zanardi’s BMW race cars.
“When I woke and realised that I no longer had legs, I did not ask
myself: What am I going to do without legs? Instead, I thought: Okay,
what do I need to do to be able to do everything I want to without
legs,” says Zanardi, recalling the time immediately after his crash on
15th September 2001.
His plans included a speedy return to racing. He did initially
encounter a degree of scepticism regarding his comeback plans. After
all, a double leg amputee was something new in the world of
motorsport: “People were afraid that something could happen to me.
However, if I break a leg, all I need is a screwdriver to repair it,”
he explains, with his typical self-deprecating humour. “When I had to
do the medical checks to get my licence, they performed countless
examinations. I felt like they were just looking for an excuse to say:
‘Sorry, you can’t do it’. When they examined my head, I told them:
‘Hey guys, I lost my legs in the crash, not my head!’”
But not everyone was sceptical. In Munich, Zanardi was welcomed with
open arms. “I was fortunate that a fantastic company like BMW was
interested in the project. They were really interested in doing
something more than just showing how technically advanced their
methods were, and how good their cars are. It was about what a person
needs. And the rest is history – here we are now.”
BMW 320i and BMW 320si – ETCC and WTCC.
The story began in 2003 with the BMW 320i. Together with BMW
Motorsport and BMW Team Italy-Spain, which belonged to touring car
legend Roberto Ravaglia (ITA), Zanardi planned to race at the season
finale of the European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) at Monza (ITA).
“At first, I thought that I would have to do everything with my hands.
With the first system, I was braking with a ring on the steering
wheel. I used another ring to accelerate and operated the H gearbox
with my right hand. My fingers operated the clutch, via a button on
the gear lever. I was basically steering using just the ball of my
thumbs,” he recalls. “That was definitely too much. When I came back
to the garage after the first test, I said to the guys: ‘I have so
much to do, I am turning with my arms and hands – but if you could put
a little brush between my legs too, then I could also sweep the cockpit.”
And so it was that Zanardi suggested using his artificial legs: “The
engineers were a little sceptical, but I was sure that I could apply
enough force to the brake pedal if my artificial leg was attached to
it and I could use my hips to apply downward pressure. All we had to
do was to develop a brake pedal to which my artificial leg could be
permanently attached. That proved to be a very efficient solution. I
noticed in the very first test that I could not only apply the
necessary pressure, but was surprised by how well I could control the
pressure and feel the brake pedal.”
The system was decided upon: a ring on the steering wheel was used to
accelerate, the brakes were operated via his artificial leg and the
brake pedal, and the H gearbox was managed with his right hand. This
system was then used in competition: in the ETCC from 2003 to 2004 and
then from 2005 to 2009 in the FIA World Touring Car Championship
(WTCC), in which Zanardi claimed four race wins in the BMW 320i and
BMW 320si. Over the years, the system was consistently optimised and
made more efficient.
BMW Z4 GT3 – Blancpain GT Series.
Having focussed solely on his second passion, paracycling, for
several years after 2010, Zanardi announced his return to motor racing
in 2014. He competed for Ravaglia’s team in the Blancpain GT Sprint
Series – this time in a BMW Z4 GT3. “We transferred everything we had
developed for the BMW 320i to the BMW Z4 GT3. It all worked
perfectly,” says Zanardi. One of the few differences was that he no
longer changed gears using the H gearbox, but via shift paddles on the
However, circumstances then resulted in another big step forward: in
2015, Zanardi raced alongside Timo Glock (GER) and Bruno Spengler
(CAN) in the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps (BEL). He was now sharing
the cockpit with other drivers – and the BMW engineers were faced with
the task of modifying the BMW Z4 GT3 to allow both Zanardi and his
non-physically impaired team-mates to drive the car. The result was a
“very, very clever solution,” to quote Zanardi.
“I showed the engineers in Munich my artificial leg, which is a
hollow tube, and suggested that we could replace the brake pedal with
a system, in which a kind of pin was slid into the prosthesis,” the
Italian reports. “They embraced the idea and developed a very thin
brake pedal for me, which was fitted to the very right of the pedal
box. Timo and Bruno used the normal accelerator and brake pedals in
the middle of the pedal box.”
The two brake pedals were linked and moved simultaneously. The clutch
pedal was also removed completely from the pedal box and replaced with
a clutch-by-wire system. This system was controlled using two clutch
paddles. Instead of the clutch pedal, a footrest was fitted to the
left of the pedal box for Zanardi. This gave his body extra support
when braking. Zanardi’s steering wheel was also completely new at Spa.
It was based on the steering wheel he had used previously in the BMW
Z4 GT3, but had been optimised in many areas.
BMW M6 GT3.
When Zanardi made his debut in the BMW M6 GT3 in 2016, the system was
improved yet further. The clutch actuator was replaced by a
fully-automatic centrifugal clutch, which was developed by ZF, Premium
Partner of BMW M Motorsport. This opens and closes automatically at a
certain engine speed and need no longer be operated by the driver. For
Zanardi, the system has the major benefit that he no longer needs to
operate a clutch lever with one of his hands.
However, that is not the only reason that Zanardi is impressed by the
centrifugal clutch: “It is astonishing how well this mechanism works.
This clutch is extremely reliable. The wear is minimal and so there
are fewer problems with this solution than with a standard clutch.
Since we installed it in the car, it has done its job perfectly for
us. When you set off again after the pit stop, it is impossible to
stall the engine. Plus, it doesn’t matter whether the tyres are cold
or warm. Whenever you set off, this clutch can manage the grip –
probably better than a standard system.”
Zanardi’s debut in the modified BMW M6 GT3 was a great success: he
took a highly-acclaimed victory in Sunday’s race at the season finale
of the Italian GT Championship at Mugello (ITA).
BMW M4 DTM and BMW M8 GTE.
“The system we had in place at that point allowed me to be quick,
even for a number of laps. But to be honest, it was really difficult
to sit in the car for a long time, to really be of any assistance to
my team over the duration of a 24-hour race,” says Zanardi. As he has
no legs, he lacks important extremities, which help to cool the body
through blood circulation. Furthermore, the close-fitting shafts of
his artificial legs do not allow any perspiration: “Every time I
climbed out of the car, I was thoroughly baked through.”
It was clear to Zanardi that he would be able to drive for far longer
and feel more comfortable in the car without his prostheses. As such,
he sat down with the BMW M Motorsport engineers in Munich and came up
with a completely new system: a system, that would allow Zanardi to
operate everything with his arms and hands. This would have been an
issue in the BMW 320i in 2003, due to the H gearbox, however, the
modern transmission in today’s GT race cars and the now established
centrifugal clutch opened up new possibilities. This was initially
tested in the BMW M6 GT3 and then given its first acid test, which it
passed with flying colours when Zanardi made a guest appearance in the
DTM at the wheel of the BMW M4 DTM at Misano in August 2018. All of
this was leading up to one goal: Zanardi’s start in the BMW M8 GTE at
the 24 Hours of Daytona.
The brake pedal was replaced by a brake lever, which Zanardi pushes
forward with his right arm. This is mounted on the transmission tunnel
and connected to the brake. Zanardi accelerates using a throttle ring
on the steering wheel, which he predominantly operates with his left
hand. He can change gear using a shift paddle on the steering wheel.
At the same time, a switch is also attached to the brake lever, with
which he can shift down through the gears when braking into corners.
Thanks to the hand braking system in the BMW M8 GTE, the physical
problems Zanardi has struggled with in the past are no longer an
issue. “If the regulations allowed it, I could do a 24-hour race on my
own now,” he says, chuckling. “I am really comfortable in the car
without my artificial legs. It is obviously a little bit more
complicated, because I have so much to do with my arms and hands – but
from a physical point of view it is like chalk and cheese.”
Passion is the key.
From the initial drafts in 2003 to the hand braking system in the BMW
M8 GTE – development never stands still in the Zanardi project. For
the Italian, being able to drive a GT race car without his prostheses
is like “winning the race”. However, Zanardi is keen to stress that
none of this would have been possible without the tireless efforts of
the BMW M Motorsport engineers: “It obviously takes skill and effort –
but above all that, you need passion. When the engineers are taking
their work back home with them to their families, that shows how
passionate they are. What we have here is the result of an enormous
amount of commitment and passion, coupled with immense expertise.”
The hand braking system in the BMW M8 GTE also opens “a new
dimension,” he emphasised. “BMW has introduced another real innovation
with this. This system also works for others. Anyone who is unable to
use their legs but has two arms could drive this car.”
When he wanted to race again after his crash, he was met with great
scepticism. That would not be the case today – and Zanardi and BMW M
Motorsport have been instrumental in changing this attitude: “It has
been a long road, but I believe that what we have achieved has also
created new possibilities for others. No longer does anyone ask
whether a disabled driver can race. Take Frederic Sausset: he had both
his legs and arms amputated and still raced in the 24 Hours of Le Mans
in 2016. Or Billy Monger. The only thing people want to know nowadays
is how good a driver you are. Disabilities do not matter, as they know
that you can overcome them with special solutions.”
An overview of Alessandro Zanardi’s driving systems.
BMW 320i and BMW 320si (2003-2009): Modified brake
pedal, attached to the artificial leg; steering wheel with ring for
accelerating; gears changed using H gear lever, operated with right hand
BMW Z4 GT3 – Blancpain GT Series (2014): Modified
brake pedal, attached to the artificial leg; steering wheel with ring
for accelerating; gears changed using shift paddles on steering wheel
BMW Z4 GT3 – 24h Spa (2015): New, very thin brake
pedal added to the pedal box and inserted into the prosthetic leg like
a pin; steering wheel with ring for accelerating; gears changed using
shift paddles on steering wheel; clutch-by-wire system with clutch paddles
BMW M6 GT3 (2016): Thin brake pedal, similar to 24h
Spa; steering wheel with ring for accelerating; gears changed using
shift paddles on steering wheel; newly-developed centrifugal clutch
BMW M4 DTM and BMW M8 GTE (2018-2019): Hand-operated
brake lever for braking; steering wheel with ring for accelerating;
upshift via paddle on steering wheel, downshift via button on brake
lever, centrifugal clutch
Original Press Release