MOTORSPORT: Horrific accident didn’t stop Billy Monger from returning to the driver’s seat

Autosport International Exhibition. National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, UK. Friday 12th January 2017. Billy Monger preparing to go into the Live Action Arena with Terry Grant. World Copyright: Joe Portlock/LAT Images ref: Digital Image _L5R9203 SUS-180122-074611002

Billy Monger is self evidently a remarkable young man.

Ten months after losing both legs in one of British motorsport’s most chilling accidents, the 18-year-old double amputee is headlining at the Autosport International show at the NEC in Birmingham at the wheel of a 500bhp Jaguar F-Type in concert with equally inspirational members of the Mission Motorsport team.

Billy Monger will partner Terry Grant and the Mission Motorsport team performing a series of nail-biting stunts in the Live Action Arena across all four days at the NEC SUS-180122-074507002

There will come a time when the trauma of that April day at Donington is no longer the point of departure for conversations with Billy.

He simply wants to talk motor racing, wants the discussion to frame him as a great driver not a great driver with no legs.

The no legs bit is just detail. It does not define him, and he is utterly determined that it shall not be a limitation to his ambitions to land in the upper echelons of his sport.

Billy is already targeting Formula 3 this season.

Autosport International Exhibition. National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, UK. Friday 12th January 2017. Billy Monger in Terry Grant's Jaguar F-Type Live Action Arena. World Copyright: Joe Portlock/LAT Images ref: Digital Image _L5R9276 SUS-180122-074528002

Sourcing the necessary backing, not his condition, is the tricky element for the teenager, who is from Charlwood.

Ultimately he wants to be in F1, a station for which he appeared to be heading before slamming into the back of an unseen stationary car at high speed during that fateful F4 meeting.

That he is here at all is a miracle given his critical condition and the lack of air ambulance landing facilities at the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham, which meant that his parents arrived at the hospital before he did.

Six months after entering the ward with his life in the balance he returned on prosthetic legs, as he promised he would, to present the staff with a gift to say thank you for the care he received.

The gesture typifies Billy’s unremitting determination and positive outlook, features of his recovery that have pulled the rest of the family with him.

You can only imagine what it was like for his parents and sister to witness a catastrophic event like this.

“The whole family was there,” Billy’s father, Robert, explained. “We were in the pit lane. They shut the big screens down straight away but I knew it was quite bad with the amount of medical cars going out of the pit lane.

“They came back and said he has broken his leg, does one of you want to come down to the car? My wife was in a state. I couldn’t leave her. My daughter, who was then 16, said I’ll go. She went down, sat on the car and held his hand. The doctor told us a couple of days afterwards: ‘We never saved his life, your daughter did.’”

The drama did not end there. “When we got to the hospital we had to wait an hour.

“For the helicopter to land and load him into an ambulance took an extra 20 minutes.

“That could have been a matter of life and death. And it was close to it,” Robert added.

The hospital has since been granted planning permission to build a helipad and the Mongers have already done a karting fundraiser to contribute towards its construction.

The surgeon who performed the operation was the same doctor who operated on Mission Motorsport’s lead driving instructor Lionel O’Connor, who lost a leg ten years ago while on routine vehicle patrol in Basra a month into his first deployment in the army.

His two colleagues were both killed when their Land Rover was struck by an improvised explosive device.

Billy’s involvement with Mission, an armed forces charity dedicated to the rehabilitation of injured servicemen and women through motorsport engagement, has played a central part in his recovery.

The association has been good for Mission, too, since Billy’s rising profile has brought welcome visibility to the work they do in turning around devastated lives.

“They are the real inspirational figures,” Billy said. “They have all been through similar situations, they know what I’m going through and treat me as a normal person.

“They don’t see me as someone who has something wrong with me, someone missing two legs. They treat me like I’d want to be treated and I’m so thankful to be part of this show with them.”

Billy was hospitalised for five weeks. When he came out of the induced coma his first communication was via a question scribbled on a piece of paper. It read: “Who won the race?” That same, intense level of motorsport immersion remains, though Billy understands his status has changed.

“I still love motorsport as much as I ever did but now there is more pressure on me to be a role model. As a young racing driver you just want to go out and race and do what normal 18-year-old boys do.

There is more pressure on me but I’m going to carry on trying to be the person I am and do things positively. I’ve been around motorsport since I was seven. To give it up after one setback, I’d be disappointed later in life if I just went, well, that happened, and left it at that without giving it my best shot.”

One of the first phone calls Billy took from the racing community came from Alex Zanardi, who suffered the double amputation of his legs 17 years ago following a similarly horrific accident in the American Cart series. “I have spoken to him a couple of times. He explained what he went through after his accident, and said if I had any questions away from racing, like the prosthetic side of things, he would be happy to answer them.

“That is an aspect people don’t really consider. Obviously they know I have lost my legs but they don’t know about the hardship and hard work that goes into learning to walk again, which is a massive part. Although I love my motorsport, we need to get that bit right because I want to be active in everyday life not just at weekends when I go racing.

“Alex explained how things would work and that I just had to keep going with things. He said it wasn’t a short process but eventually I would get there. Us racing drivers, we want everything done as quick as a flash. He explained it wasn’t that kind of challenge. It was an eye-opener and good to hear that from him early on.”

Billy’s Autosport gig this weekend is, he hopes, a step along the way to full re-integration in the sport he loves. The aim is to fulfil the potential spotted by Alex Hawkridge, who gave Ayrton Senna his first opportunity in a single-seater with Toleman, and who tapped Monger Snr on the shoulder at a karting event.

“‘Is your boy left-handed?’ he asked me,” Robert said. “‘Ayrton was left-handed. All the best are. Your boy has really got something.’”

He has, and way more than Hawkridge imagined when he offered his encouragement. Billy has an inner reservoir of the right stuff, a latent human resource that drives him on. “Most people know me from what happened, but I want people to know me for my ability as a racing driver, not only from before but now as well,” Billy said.

“The ambition is to compete in some sort of single-seater racing. I have a rough idea what I want to do but it is about figuring out a budget, working with our current sponsors and finding new ones to raise the budget to do it.

“It is all very well me being this inspirational character, people wanting to see me race, etc, but without budget, you can’t get too far.”

Clearly, we have not heard the last of Billy Monger.

More from Sport