Racing Resilience: After Losing Both Legs, Billy Monger Returns To The Podium
Photography by Will Broadhead
It’s a fairly unremarkable day at Oulton Park, one of England’s many wonderful old racing circuits—grey and miserable, as April days usually are on this side of the Atlantic. The British GT championship is in town, with it’s expensive transporter trucks lined up on parade with the even more expensive Lamborghinis and Bentleys et al that partake in the series, hidden in the pit garages behind the trucks. The rest of the paddock is made up of the transporters and tents of the British Formula 3 championship, huddled against the chill that hangs in the damp air.
There is a gaggle of press and fans outside the awning of the Carlin team, nothing too remarkable about that either for an outfit that have genuine title aspirations, not to mention having a great history of winning races and championships at all levels of motorsport. But, there is a notable difference in the atmosphere about the group today. Four cars sit on the other side of the Tensa barrier separating the fans from the machines. They are car numbers 63, 88, 17, and, right at the front of the awning, 23.
A message crackles across the circuit’s intercom and suddenly everyone under the awning breaks into life. Mechanics bolt wheels to hubs and the cars are pushed to the holding area ready for the first race of the 2018 season. The driver of the #23 makes his way through the crowd to the holding pen and climbs into his vehicle, the helmet goes on, the race engineer communicates to his man, and then, the blue eyes descend into that stare that only racers know. 20-odd minutes later, and the Cheshire circuit erupts into applause as the driver of #23 puts his car on the third step of the box. Fans gather around parc ferme as the young man’s team and family embrace, tears are shed, and as the fresh-faced 18-year-old clambers out of his racing car and into his wheel chair the smile says it all. This is a fairytale return to action after what must have been a hellish year, as just under a year ago a horrific accident changed this young man’s life forever…
On the 16th of April 2017, another field of teenage racers took to the track in a British Formula 4 Championship race. Under the dull grey skies of another unremarkable spring day a series of split second events resulted in an extremely ugly scene. Things can change rather quickly in racing as we know, and the precarious line the drivers dance along is a narrow one. The signs are everywhere at the circuit of course, reminding us that motor racing is dangerous and surely part of the reason we are fans is to see these racers tread that edge of danger so brilliantly. No true motorsport fan though wishes to see anyone involved in an accident, never mind a serious one. The accident that occurred that day resulted in the then-17-year-old Billy Monger having both of his legs amputated. But this isn’t a story of woe I’m telling today, but one of courage and bravery and of one young man’s refusal to let even the bleakest outlook get him down. So, we will dwell no more on that April day—as you will learn, that just isn’t Billy’s style.
Messages of support flooded in for Billy after the event, with encouragement from the public as well as racers like Jensen Button and Lewis Hamilton. Despite the severity of it, interviews with family and with Billy since that day all tell the same story: that of a determined young man who was refusing to let the hand he’d been dealt get him down. I can’t even begin to contemplate the effect that such a trauma must have on a person, the anguish of the mental stress alone must be tremendous, to say nothing of the physical aspect. For something like this to happen to someone so young though with so much life left to live must be even more difficult to deal with, especially in the infancy of a career that is seemingly impossible to continue with such injuries. What I can imagine is that for most of us the priority would be to hang on to as much of a quality of life that we could, that we would be working on rehabilitating ourselves into a world outside of a hospital and, that it might take years. For young Billy though, that path was never going to be enough, he wanted to race again and realize his ambitions despite, or perhaps in spite of, his injuries.
As Billy made remarkable progress in his rehabilitation and recovery, his aspirations to race again became more than just encouraging goals of self-fortitude. The spirit and the mettle of the young man was relentless, and in photographs and public appearances after the crash he was always positive, always smiling. Of course, amputees have raced again—Alex Zanardi springs to mind with his return to action after similar injuries. For Billy, with the help of Carlin Motorsport, a car was developed that could run a hand-operated clutch on a specially adapted steering wheel. Early tests were encouraging. Billy was setting competitive times consistently and was eventually cleared to race. The impossible dream was fast becoming a reality, but to race, finish, and do so on the podium on his first time back out? Surely not even in his wildest dreams.
Out of what can only have been complete despair just twelve months previous, had come a story of courage and of hope. To return any sort of normality to life after such a trial requires guts, but to stare down your fears in quite such an indomitable way, well that requires something much more. Words can’t do justice to what this young man has achieved over this past race weekend and the last year. Don’t be fooled by the smile and that baby face, those eyes that pierce through the visor of the helmet hide a resilience and a determination, the like of which is not often seen. Congratulations on your third place Billy, I hope you know how inspiring this chapter of your story is to so many people. Good luck this season too, I look forward to seeing you battling on track across this year and many more.