Inside Revolution: Road to Le Mans
Crossing the line to secure a class victory and third overall at the Spa-Francorchamps round of the British GT Championship in 2023 was a proud and emotional moment for Team BRIT. It marked the next step on a so-far seven-year long journey to level the playing field for disabled drivers in motorsport.
From the outside, the purple and blue McLaren 570S GT4 machine that took the chequered flag looked just the same as any other car on grid. Inside, however, it had one very unique difference: it was fitted with controls that have allowed disabled drivers Aaron Morgan and Bobby Trundley to race and beat their able-bodied counterparts fair and square.
Team BRIT has broken down barriers on track for those with disabilities. Last year, on top of the Spa success, two of its drivers became the first all-disabled pairing to win a national UK motorsport championship. But founder and Team Principal Dave Player quickly points out that its success is not just down to the team itself, but to everyone involved in UK motorsport.
“The landscape is changing rapidly, and that is thanks to more forward-thinking people at all levels of motorsport,” he says. “In the paddock, the drivers, teams, management, they are all very supportive. I like to say our drivers get treated just as badly as everybody else on the track! But people are happy to share in the success and when we won our first race in the Aston it was amazing race because people were just buzzing because of the battle we had.
Team BRIT has steered itself on a path to success thanks to its innovations in technology but also in philosophy. The ultimate goal on track is to lead an all-disabled team of drivers at the Le Mans 24-Hour race, the pinnacle of GT and Endurance racing. However, the actual brief has a far wider remit – to deliver success beyond the boundaries of the racetrack.
The team’s roots date back to 2010, when Player, a former Army Royal Engineer, set up KartForce to give injured troops – especially those who had suffered physical injuries such as amputees – the opportunity to get into motorsport. The aim, he says, was not just to get them in a car, but to make it possible for them to compete on level terms with their rivals.
“Right from the get-go, I wanted to make sure that we could race competitively,” he recalls. “This was not going to be just something to do for a bit of fun, to make up the numbers, to be some sort of therapy or ‘do good’ type of thing. It was purely to find people that were highly competitive and give them an experience that was not available to them.”
Player came up with an innovative hand control solution that provided a simple, low tech and low-cost way of adapting karts for different disabilities. It was a game changer, helping the team to run many ex-Forces amputees in endurance kart racing.
It was at one of those karting events when the seeds of Team BRIT were sown, and Player continues: “We were at a 24-Hour karting race at Le Mans and the group suggested that we set up a car racing team. I agreed, but only if we could develop the hand controls to be suitable for cars and allow us to compete competitively.
“The challenge was could we go through a chicane at the same speed as an able-bodied driver using the hand controls? All the actions that need to be made – accelerate brake, steer, throttle down – had to be done really fast to get through and come out at the same speed as any other driver. That was the benchmark I set everybody, and we did it.”
Team BRIT was ready to go. But before it did, Player had an important decision to make. Should he follow the KartForce approach and set up as a charity, or should he make Team BRIT a stand-alone business, competing on the same commercial and operational playing field as the other teams, whatever series they wished to compete in?
The answer was simple but defining. Player explains: “Ultimately, the philosophy behind all of this is that not everybody with a disability needs charity If you are able to be a racing driver, racing cars, then you are definitely not a charity case. So, we should be a limited company, and our drivers would earn their seats, just like every other racing driver does.”
The aim of the team, from that first conversation at Le Mans, was to return to that track one day and enter the world’s most famous 24-Hour endurance race. Humble beginnings, racing in one-off events including Britcar and the Fun Cup Championship, soon led to greater things, with an expanding pool of drivers competing in increasingly higher levels of racing.
Part of that rise was helped by a chance tie-up with lead sponsor, the aptly named Brit Insurance, which continues to this day, as Player recalls: “Back in 2016, they had a new CEO, and he heard an interview about us on TV. He emailed me saying he would be interested in sponsoring us. I think the fact we are exciting, brave, bold, relentless and have ambition to break barriers and make racing history, they loved that and so do all our sponsors.”
After Brit came onboard, Player decided that the programme could accelerate. The Fun Cup, while being perfect to launch the venture, was a long way from the ultimate target, so he set about searching for a way to step up. He decided the team needed a British supercar and spotted an Aston Martin GT4 car on the market. It was too expensive, but he had a plan.
“I said to the owner, ‘we’ll give you a deposit and pay the rest in March, if we don’t pay you, you can have the car back and keep the deposit’,” recounts Player. “Luckily, he agreed, and by March we had created such a buzz around getting this GT4 car that we managed to get all the sponsorship we needed to buy it and enough more to go racing with it.
“The same thing happened the year before last. We needed to make another big statement of intent, so in the March we announced we were aiming to race in British GT. To achieve that, we needed a car, and by August we had secured an agreement with McLaren with a similar approach. We are treated just like any other customer racing team, so we have to be bold, brave, and innovative, not boring and begging.”
Taking on that mantra, lead drivers Morgan, who was paralysed in an accident at the age of 15, and Trundley, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, took to the wheel of the McLaren last year and secured second place in the GT4 Pro-Am class of British GT, the pinnacle of GT racing in the UK, steering the team one step closer to that Le Mans dream. Player is now in talks with automotive manufacturers to secure a GT3 car for future races.
Building a Gateway
For Player, Team BRIT is as much about racing at the top level as it is opening the door to disabled drivers at any level. To that end, in 2019 the team widened its focus from forces personnel to anyone with a disability from any walk of life. It also set up a Racing Academy to encourage people to try out a track day, even if they did not want to race.
There is now a roster of around 10 drivers, all enjoying success at their respective levels. As well as Morgan and Trundley’s GT successes, Chris Overend and James Whitley became the first ever all-disabled pairing to win a national championship in last year’s Britcar Trophy, and a new four-driver team is taking on the Citroen C1 Series this year.
“So many people want to go racing, but they don’t have the funds,” says Player. “Some drivers just enjoy racing and stay at a certain level, while others have the ambition to go further. C1 is an entry-level opportunity with long races, so teams can have many drivers. That allows us to provide a competitive car with proper racing crew support.
“A lot of our drivers come to racing late, so we have had to teach them everything from scratch, from racing to everything else on track. They have to learn the art of sponsorship, social media, creating their racing profile, everything a racing driver needs. If you do not develop these skills, you will never be able to have longevity as a racing driver.
“I tell them all, do not use your own funds to go racing, learn the art of sponsorship. If you do not do that, you will run out of money, and you cannot go racing. Last year, our second team won the title in their debut season because they were so good at doing everything that we taught them – sponsorship, raising their profile, keeping the sponsors engaged.
“That sense of achievement, they never thought was possible, but they have earned that place on the grid themselves. Team BRIT has been a stepping-stone for lots of people in different ways. Some drivers have gone on to become their own independent drivers, and that is really one of the ultimate signs of success for us.”
Player puts a significant part of the success down to the “amazing team of equally dedicated people” around him. That includes commercial director Mike Scudamore, engineering director Al Locke, PR manager Lucy Sheehan and driver coach and team manager Jamie Falvey, as well as the wider crew of race team mechanics and media operations.
They are all driven by the dream of Le Mans, yet a huge amount of what the team achieves is not actually measured in lap times, trophies, or titles but in breakthrough moments of a different kind. Time and again, it has helped its drivers see that they can overcome their disabilities and sit as equals with their rivals.
However, Player strongly argues this just a “by-product” of the team’s on-track success and explains: “If supporting people was our main focus, which it would be if we were a charity, our by-product would be racing. For us, it is the other way around – our drivers’ success on track, smashing barriers, getting on the podium, winning titles, never in their life would they have thought that would be possible, but it shows it is possible. It just opens up their eyes to what can be achieved.
“Some of the people who come to us, after becoming disabled, have kind of lost the fire inside them. To be competitive in motorsport, you have to push yourself physically and mentally to be right on the edge. If you are not on the edge, you are not racing, but if you go over the edge, you get into problems.
“Often, they find they love that adrenaline rush, and everything comes with it, and it reawakens them. We have some fantastic stories of people who have spent some time racing with us and then gone off to set up their own businesses, something that they had never thought possible before. Motorsport just re-lit their fires, got their adrenaline going again and gave them self-confidence.
“Back in the Kart Force days, a veteran once told me he was on 30 pills a day but after going racing he got off the pills, got a site manager’s job, got promoted and headhunted, got a mortgage and bought his first house. He said, ‘It’s all because of you, David’ and I said, ‘no, it’s not me, it’s you. We just gave you the kart, and everything you have done, is you. Do not take away credit from yourself, you achieved that.’ And that is what it is all about.”
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