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Nathalie McGloin: Disabled racers are “doing incredible things”

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Nathalie McGloin is a disabled woman who races on equal terms against able bodied men in Porsches. As a teenager she broke her spine as a passenger in a road accident, now the car has brought her a new purpose.

However, her influence on international motorsport is far greater than her own racing career; Nathalie is President of the FIA Disability and Accessibility commission, tasked with getting more disabled people into the sport at all levels.  In recent years we have seen great examples like Alex Zanardi, Billy Monger, Robert Kubica, Nic Hamilton (brother of Lewis) and Le Mans hero Frederic Sausset overcome huge obstacles to compete.

For the latest #ThinkingForward interview, McGloin spells out her clear vision: where a disabled child can watch an F1 Grand Prix and say, “I want to do that one day” and for it be possible.  

Nathalie McGloin, FIA Disabilty and Accessibility Commission, Alex Zanardi, BMW M8 GTE

Nathalie McGloin, FIA Disabilty and Accessibility Commission, Alex Zanardi, BMW M8 GTE

Photo by: BMW AG

Natalie, you're the living embodiment of the challenging spirit of motorsport, but to my mind also a proof point that our sport truly is unique. Because once you're in the car with a helmet on, there's no way to tell from the outside whether it's a man or a woman, able bodied, or disabled and no other sport can say that.   How empowering is that for you, and for your mission to get more disabled people into our sport?

Yes, like you say motorsport is the only sport in the world where a subcategory for disabled drivers does not exist. As a disabled driver that ambiguity of leaving my disability in the pits, if you like, when I'm in a racing car, is the reason I fell in love with the sport. It's the reason I get so much from it. A lot of disabled drivers will tell you the same; being in control of something so powerful, a racing car, on a racing circuit competing alongside predominantly able-bodied men is huge. I describe it as a freedom; I'm free to just do what I can in that car, to the best of my ability, in terms of my bravery, my skill level. My disability is completely irrelevant. And the reason I work so hard to try and make motorsport more accessible is because I want people to experience what I love about motorsports.

Nathalie McGloin, FIA Disabilty and Accessibility Commission

Nathalie McGloin, FIA Disabilty and Accessibility Commission

Photo by: BMW AG

You've spoken eloquently about the feeling of driving a car. In your case, it was a car that took so much away from you with the road accident, but it's also a car that's giving you the chance to do this. How do you feel about that dynamic?

Yeah, it's a weird conflict, I guess. I really don't associate how I broke my neck in a road car with racing on a circuit purely because I was a passenger. I didn't have a driving licence when I was involved in that accident. So, I think the lack of control from being a passenger and breaking my neck to having control of a car on a racing circuit, I don't struggle with the comparison. Paralysed from the chest down and becoming a tetraplegic, a lot of things were taken away from me. But I found that 16 years after that, when I competed in my first race a lot of what I had been missing in life was given back to me. And it was it was mainly that feeling - the best way I can describe is like riding a bike with no hands when you're a kid. It's that ability to just be carefree and in the moment. And racing gives me that; I'm completely in control of those cars that I drive. I'm in control on the edge. The confidence, accepting my injury, the feeling of being accepted; it gave me so much back that I'll be forever grateful. I get so much from it every time I sit in a racing car.

Nathalie McGloin, Porsche Cayman S

Nathalie McGloin, Porsche Cayman S

Photo by: Ebrey / Motorsport Images

Jean Todt, the FIA President made you the president of the FIA Disability and Accessibility commission in 2017. What does that brief entail and what progress have you made so far?

Jean made it very clear to me when he offered me the position this wasn't a token gesture of ticking some boxes, he really wanted to make some progress in the sport for disabled people. So far, we've done a lot, but there is obviously much more to do. The first year, we concentrated on getting the legislation for disabled people to be granted competition licences. Although there was a bit in the international sporting code to facilitate disabled participation, it had been drafted years ago, adapted for individual drivers. You could see clauses in there that was specifically to allow Alex Zanardi to compete after his accident. So we put in modern legislation that allows disabled people to compete without compromising on safety.  As well as looking at ways where we can encourage more people into the sport, for example, through the disabled drivers grants, which gives people who are disabled and racing at club level competition, access to the highest level of safety equipment because we wanted to make sure we demonstrated that disabled racing was safe racing. A Certificate of Adaptations was created, because although cars were being accepted into competitions with adaptations, there was a grey area; homologated cars through being adapted were running outside of their homologation papers, so were entered into a separate class, which is not the point of disabled participation in racing, we all want to race on level terms. The certificate of adaptations was put in place, so disabled competitors can now compete in the class that they are intended to.

Nathalie McGloin, Porsche Cayman S

Nathalie McGloin, Porsche Cayman S

Photo by: Ebrey / Motorsport Images

We’ve seen that drivers like Billy Monger can have an accident, like the one he suffered in F4 and come back at a higher level in F3 and win, which couldn't happen in any other sport. If you're a rugby player you can play wheelchair rugby after an accident, but it's nothing like the same as playing in the Six Nations. Our sport is also unique in that sense…

Yes, and although before the Commission, this environment did exist, it wasn’t to this kind of level. It was almost like disabled racing was ignored slightly; competitions knew that it was it was the right thing to do, but didn't really know what the legislation was or where they sat on insurance. The Commission has allowed this to be shouted about. The door has always been ajar. Now it's fully open. The next stage is to show people who have disabilities and the ambition of a place in motorsport, whether that's as a driver, a volunteer or official, a team member, that we can help show them the right pathway in.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1, 2nd position, shakes hands with Nathalie McGloin on the podium

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1, 2nd position, shakes hands with Nathalie McGloin on the podium

Photo by: Joe Portlock / Motorsport Images

And what has your work and that of people like Zanardi, Billy Monger, Nic Hamilton and Robert Kubica, done to encourage disabled people to compete in motorsport?

One of the biggest things, for which I'll always be grateful to David Richards, the chairman of Motorsport UK, and Jean Todt, was allowing me to present Kimi Raikkonen with the trophy at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 2018 [and shake hands with Lewis Hamilton, above]. Because the visibility of that got more interaction from disabled people who weren't already involved in the sport, it got them looking at the FIA web page, and the legislation about disabled motorsport, it got them looking at my profile, Billy's profile, Alex's profile and thinking,' There's a route in for me, I'd like to find out more about this.'  The Commission now has its own Instagram account and disabled drivers have got in contact, told their story and then reached out to other disabled people, showing them what is possible in motorsport. And they're starting to make enquiries about what's available for them in their own countries.

#84 SRT41 by Oak Racing Morgan - Nissan: Frédéric Sausset, Christophe Tinseau, Jean-Bernard Bouvet

#84 SRT41 by Oak Racing Morgan - Nissan: Frédéric Sausset, Christophe Tinseau, Jean-Bernard Bouvet

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

We've talked so far mainly about people who've been disabled by some form of accident. But obviously the cohort also includes people who carry a disability from earlier in their life. Do you feel that Frederic Sausset's successful completion of the Le Mans 24 hours in 2016 is the is the greatest achievement by a disabled driver?

It was an incredible achievement. But I think that there are a lot of incredible achievements by disabled drivers. What Frederic did was remarkable, especially in terms of his lack of experience in motorsport, prior to Le Mans. Yes, the visibility was huge. But I think equally, if you look at someone like Nicholas Hamilton, who was born with cerebral palsy, and driving at a very high level in the British Touring Car Championship, and driving a non-adapted car as well. His visibility in the sport helps me with my vision for the commission: that in however many years’ time, disabled kids watch the Formula 1, and have ambition to become a racing driver, because that is a reality. I hope that the work of my commission has gone so far, that that's actually feasible. At the moment, disabled children don't look at Motorsports and think it's for them, because there are so few disabled people competing in the public eye. If they don't see someone that looks like them, the ambition to achieve is not on their radar. So Fred Sausset, Nicholas Hamilton, other drivers who are lower profile, but doing incredible things, if we start to shout about all these people, the message will spread more quickly. Then my ambition and my vision for the commission will be realised.

Nathalie McGloin and Jean Todt, FIA President on the grid

Nathalie McGloin and Jean Todt, FIA President on the grid

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

You mentioned that motorsport doesn't have the equivalent of the Paralympics, because you're able to compete equally. But is there a desire - a bit like the W series -  to create for disabled motorsport its own showcase series to develop more talents?

I think things like the W Series are fantastic for inclusivity in the sport in terms of women, and I don't see any reason why disabled drivers can't follow suit. What I'd really like to do is something like the Women in Motorsport Commission did with the Girls on Track initiative. In other words, reaching out to young disabled drivers, and showcasing in different cities across the world what they can do, and having a competition where the top two go through to race at Le Mans in a 24-hour kart race. I don't see that as something that would be working against the inclusive nature of Motorsports. Because I think like the W Series, the more visibility we have of women, of disabled drivers in the sport, the more it's going to grow.

Nic Hamilton, Motorbase Performance Ford Focus

Nic Hamilton, Motorbase Performance Ford Focus

Photo by: JEP / Motorsport Images

There's been a real shift towards sport needing to have a wider sense of purpose than just competition and entertainment. But do you think motorsport is actually credible as a platform for good causes? There are all the positive things we've been talking about that it offers. But also there is another negative side to the way it's perceived by some of the public.  So how important to its future is credibility as a platform for good causes?

I do think motorsport is a credible platform for promoting especially the EDI (equality, diversity and inclusion) subjects that companies are promoting at the moment. Because of the inclusivity of our sport, because we don't discriminate; men and women compete together, disabled drivers and non-disabled drivers together, I think we have almost a bigger role to play for disabled people in society in showing that we are classified in the same way as non-disabled people. Because there are a lot of societies that maybe aren't so proactive with disability discrimination legislation. I do feel like we can we can have a social impact by simply competing on a level playing field. We do have a bigger role to play than simply facilitating disabled participation in motorsport.

Beitske Visser, Jamie Chadwick and Alice Powell celebrate with trophies on the podium

Beitske Visser, Jamie Chadwick and Alice Powell celebrate with trophies on the podium

Photo by: Carl Bingham / Motorsport Images

And finally, Natalie, and just on a broader topic, what do you feel about the progress of women in motorsport? There have been a number of initiatives; Girls on Track, Dare to be Different, W Series we've spoken about, are they making a difference? And how does the future look?

I think it looks really positive. I think the W Series has been instrumental in that change. Anything that needs change: it comes from a younger generation.  This is where change will effectively happen, if it's going to be permanent moving forward. The younger generation needs to see people like them doing it. The Girls on Track programme is absolutely fantastic, getting young girls thinking about STEM, thinking about engineering roles, thinking about karting, that is great, but outside of that platform there wasn't anything to  encourage them. Look on TV now, we've got the W Series – they see women like themselves racing single seaters. What it also did was show that these drivers, in terms of lap times and driving ability, they're not females, they're just they're just very quick racing drivers that happen to be female. The more joined-up thinking with promoting diversity, whether that's women, disabled, ethnic minorities within motorsport, the more success they will have long term.

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Author James Allen