Technology

24 Hours of Daytona: Against all Odds

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Tags: Motorsport

Race driver Alex Zanardi has lost both legs in an accident, but is still competing in the Rolex 24h race in Daytona. A centrifugal clutch from ZF supports his ambitions.
Moritz Nöding, January 25, 2019
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Moritz Nöding spends much of his time at international race tracks. He is working as Press Officer for motorsports at ZF and is in charge of internal and external motorsport communications for the company.
Alessandro Zanardi is a phenomenon - and living proof that there are no limits to tackling a challenge with passion and enthusiasm. 17 years ago, the former Formula 1 driver and two-time ChampCar champion lost both legs in an accident. But that was not the end of his career, but the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his life. Today he is not only successful in motorsport and as a para-athlete, but also idol and inspiration for people around the globe. Next weekend (January 26/27), Alex Zanardi will contest the 24-hours of Daytona (USA) in the BMW Team RLL BMW M8 GTE. For Zanardi this means the transition between very different challenges: from sprint to endurance races, from the BMW M4 DTM to the BMW M8 GTE and from racing alone to a shared start with teammates.

A new definition of Car-Sharing

A new definition of Car-Sharing

At the 24-hour race at Daytona he will be part of a quartet and take turns at the wheel with his colleagues John Edwards (USA), Jesse Krohn (FIN) and Chaz Mostert (AUS). “At Misano I had a touch of independence and self-centredness to satisfy my ego,” he said grinning. “Now it’s time to prepare for this fantastic new adventure. I know that it will be a great deal of fun to share the car with other drivers”
And what does Zanardi have to say about his vehicle for the 24 Hours of Daytona? “The BMW M8 GTE is a fantastic car, perhaps the most sophisticated that I have ever driven in my career – and a real beauty. The handling is terrific and the engineers in Munich did an impressive job when they integrated the systems designed especially for me into the car.”

ZF centrifugal clutch provides full control

ZF centrifugal clutch provides full control

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 needs no longer to 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.”

Innovative modifications

Innovative modifications

“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 racecars 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.”