What It's Like To Drive A GT Racing Car With Hand Controls

Team Brit aims to be the first all-disabled team to enter Le Mans using incredibly clever hand controls, which I was given the chance to try on a GT4-spec Aston Martin...

“How long ago did you get your racing license?” I’m asked. “About three weeks ago,” I reply. Suddenly, Graham Horgan, Team Brit manager and driver coach, who insisted moments before he wasn’t worried, now looks worried. Having my first experience of slick tyres using an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 would be daunting enough, but this isn’t any normal racing car. I’ll be driving it using hand controls.

There’s a good reason for this: this unconventional motorsport outfit is aiming to eventually be the first all-disabled team to enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Taking on GT races including some from the British GT championship and the Aston Martin GT4 Challenge is an important move, and soon Team Brit hopes to have an FIA GT3-spec machine which will act as a stepping stone to the World Endurance Championship’s GTE field.

The paddles at the rear operate the throttle and brake, while each of the silver buttons can take care of both upshifts and downshifts
The paddles at the rear operate the throttle and brake, while each of the silver buttons can take care of both upshifts and downshifts

Where it gets complicated is the range of disabilities in the teams: the car will be driven by able-bodied people, so the pedals have to work as normal. Some drivers have either one or both legs missing, so there needs to be hand controls for the brake and throttle. Finally, not everyone in the driver line-up has the use of both arms, so that’s why there are gear shift buttons on both sides, each of which shift both up and down.

Since the Vantage GT4 already has an electronic throttle, sorting the hand-operated accelerator was relatively easy, Graham tells me. The brakes however, were another matter. The left paddle has a rotational position sensor, which sends a signal to control box, before being sent on to the seven ECUs that control the brakes. The master cylinder is then pressed via a pneumatic actuator, operating the brakes. In some ways it’s actually better to brake via the paddles, Graham explains. “Physiologically your hand is more sensitive than your foot, so in the Aston you can modulate the brakes with your fingers much more accurately,” he says.

In the event of an electronic failure, any driver unable to use the pedals has a backup in the form of a rallycross-style handbrake that can operate the front or rear brakes.

Team ambassador Damon Hill talks us through the controls, which have been developed between Team Brit and a Slovenian firm
Team ambassador Damon Hill talks us through the controls, which have been developed between Team Brit and a Slovenian firm

With my head just about wrapped around the tech, I tentatively release the brake paddle, and gently squeeze the throttle control to move away from the pit box. There’s a slight judder as we get moving, which is probably more to do with the sequential gearbox’s race clutch. At the end of the pits is a queue of cars waiting to get on track (we’re taking this Aston out on a busy public track day), with a rather new-looking Porsche 911 Turbo at the back. I start to pull back on the brake pedal nice and early, not wanting to shunt an expensive GT4 car into the back of an expensive road car.

The queue quickly clears and we’re waved onto… Brands Hatch. Yep, just to add an extra bit of stress into the equation, I’m driving this thing at Brands, home to Paddock Hill bend, a real trouser-ruiner of the motorsport world. It’s really not for the faint-heated.

Photo credit: David Archer, Kingsize Photography
Photo credit: David Archer, Kingsize Photography

But I’ve been worrying about nothing - the progressive nature of the throttle pedal makes managing the 4.7-litre, naturally-aspirated V8’s power incredibly easy. The first lap I’m braking early and easing on the gas out of each corner, but as we exit Clark Curve and come onto the back of Brabham straight, I wind on full throttle for the first time. The cabin fills with angry, internally combusted noise as I chop through several cogs. Using my right-hand fingers for the throttle and my right-hand thumb for the gear selector feels much more natural than I expected it to.

On our first hot lap, I’m getting a little more greedy with the throttle, although the Vantage’s vast rear boots remain unflustered. I can thank Team Brit’s ambassador Damon Hill for taking the car out before me and driving properly - the slick tyres have plenty of heat in them, allowing for extraordinary grip.

Photo credit: David Archer, Kingsize Photography
Photo credit: David Archer, Kingsize Photography

Coming up on Paddock Hill Bend once again, I brake later and harder…and still completely underestimate the power of proper race-spec brakes. But that’s when the modulation Graham talked about earlier comes into play - it’s incredibly satisfying being able to have this much control over brake pressure.

Ducking into the pits at the end of my run, I realise something: I stopped thinking about the fact I was using hand controls about a lap and a half ago. The system feels natural to use and is very easy to get used to. Maybe all those years playing Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo with console controllers helped me, but all credit has to go to Team Brit for this amazing system. So how did they get to this point?

What It's Like To Drive A GT Racing Car With Hand Controls - Features

The first step was KartForce, set up by Dave Player - himself disabled following a spinal injury suffered in 1991. KartForce kicked off in 2010, with the aim of arranging endurance kart races for injured troops.

Team Brit was set up by Dave in 2015 as the next logical step, with a crucial difference - unlike KartForce, it’s not a charity; everything is funded by sponsorship here. Space-frame based Fun Cup racers were used as a starting point, with the team expanding this year into GT4 for the first time with one Vantage, which will eventually become two.

Already, the organisation has attracted drivers from a wide variety of backgrounds, each with their own unique challenges to tackle. Ollie Maxwell for instance already had extensive motorsport experience when he lost his left leg following a motorbike accident last year. “I was phoning around to try and get the hand controls suitable for me to use in my racing car, and eventually I was handed on to David Player,” he said. Dave could have sold the tech to Ollie, but he instead opted to offer Ollie a drive.

In the Fun Cup cars Ollie has to use a hand-operated clutch, but in the Aston with its automatic clutch, he can drive in a conventional manner. “I’ve only lost my clutch foot. If you’re going to lose your leg, lose your left leg - remember that!” he concludes…

What It's Like To Drive A GT Racing Car With Hand Controls - Features

Ash Hall was led to Team Brit via KartForce. In 2010, he lost both of his legs after being hit by an IED in Afghanistan while serving in the Royal Engineers. For him, it’s about the thrills racing can offer. “I was a bit of an adrenaline junkie,” he admits, and in his post-forces life, motorsport provides just about the biggest high possible. “With the cars adaptations, being able to jump in and do the same kind of lap times as able-bodied people is awesome.”

"It gave me the focus, the adrenalin buzz and the team spirit. Everything I had while I was in the army, and missing." - Martyn Compton, Team Brit driver

He uses the full set of hand controls, and will be completing a whole season in Fun Cup, as well as participating in a handful of GT races with the Aston. Beyond motorsport, Ash competes in wheelchair rugby to great success - last year he bagged a silver medal at the Invictus Games in Toronto.

Martyn Compton is one of the founding KartForce drivers, and spent some time racing VW Golfs before returning to Team Brit recently. In Afghanistan in 2006, his Household Cavalry patrol was hit by an ambush, during which his vehicle was hit by an IED and rocket-propelled grenades.

What It's Like To Drive A GT Racing Car With Hand Controls - Features

Martyn was left with 75 per cent burns and gunshot wounds, and has endured hundreds of hours of operations since then. “I was at Headley Court, the army rehab centre, and my operations dried up,” he recalls, adding, “I was in a dark place and eventually my wife said ‘something’s not right with you’, and I was diagnosed with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. From there I found motorsport.”

He quickly took to racing, and soon fixated on the quest to go quicker. “It gave me the focus, the adrenalin buzz and the team spirit. Everything I had while I was in the army, and missing,” he says.

What It's Like To Drive A GT Racing Car With Hand Controls - Features

Driving a GT4 car in such an unusual way is an experience I won’t be forgetting for a while, but that’s not the real story here. The main takeaway from my day at Brands Hatch is the grit and determination of these guys, and just how effective motorsport can be when it’s used as a noisy and exciting form of rehabilitation. Life has thrown enormous challenges at all of Team Brit’s drivers, but they’re so clearly a tough bunch.

Speaking to Dave before I leave, he assures me that they don’t just want to be an also-ran: they want to win. I wouldn’t want to bet against them.