The disability champion who conquered a tricky national series

It’s 20 years since a highly significant accomplishment for disability motorsports was achieved by a driver who was on the cusp of Formula 1 before a life-changing accident. Jason Watt reflects on his path back to racing, and winning the Danish Touring Car Championship title

The disability champion who conquered a tricky national series

If there was a round of an admittedly niche motorsport-themed Family Fortunes centred on racing heroes with disabilities, there would be a few figures you’d immediately target for the highest points. The late Formula 1 team boss Frank Williams would probably be the first on most people’s lips and followed not long after by his 1999 driver Alex Zanardi, whose exploits as a BMW factory driver prior to a serious hand-cycling accident in 2020 have included high-profile outings in the Spa 24 Hours and DTM alongside a race-winning spell in the World Touring Car Championship.

That the pinnacle of Jason Watt’s achievement came in the Danish Touring Car Championship – and on the same weekend as Ferrari’s botched attempt at manufacturing a dead-heat in the 2002 United States Grand Prix – would perhaps make him a less lucrative points accumulator in our made-up TV show round, but the scale of his achievement is every bit as significant.

Eight months before Zanardi made his emotional return to the Lausitzring in 2003 to complete his 13 ‘missing’ laps from the 2001 CART Indycar race in which he lost his legs, 20 years ago today paraplegic 32-year-old Watt wrapped up the 2002 DTC title at Denmark’s Jyllands-Ring to underline his credentials as one of the foremost flagbearers for disabled competitors in motorsport.

“The first paraplegic driver to win a major national series”, as Autosport put it, Peugeot 307 driver Watt denied BMW rival John Nielsen and Toyota man Kurt Thiim with a tidy drive to fifth in the opener. He then took fourth in race two, content to collect the points as team-mate Jan Magnussen swept to a brace of wins to cap a famous season for the DTC - which was merged with the Swedish series to form the Scandinavian Touring Car Championship for 2011.

Having won the last two International Formula 3000 races of 1999 to secure the runner-up spot in the standings, Watt was at the peak of his powers and in contention for an F1 seat when a motorcycle accident changed his life. After soaking up huge pressure F1-bound champion Nick Heidfeld in an expertly-judged victory at the Nurburgring, the 1994 Formula Ford Festival winner found himself paralysed from the waist down. Today, he jokes that he had a factory drive with Peugeot in the DTC before he could operate a wheelchair.

While still in hospital, he was inspired by a VHS tape of French Supertourisme racer Gilles Duqueine, sent to him by Formula Ford rival Vincent Vosse.

“I thought, ‘What can I do to help him?’ and I remembered this guy who I'd raced against in France,” Vosse told Gary Watkins last year. “I'd been racing against this Audi in French Supertourisme in a VW Golf at Magny-Cours and I couldn't believe it when I saw the driver get out of his car into a wheelchair in parc ferme. I was so impressed.

Watt was at the peak of his powers at the end of 1999, holding off Nick Heidfeld to win the F3000 finale at the Nurburgring

Watt was at the peak of his powers at the end of 1999, holding off Nick Heidfeld to win the F3000 finale at the Nurburgring

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“I got in contact through the French Federation and he sent me a full explanation of how he drove and a video, an old VHS. it was all in French, so I translated it as best I could into English for Jason.”

Watt takes up the story: “[Vosse] called me and said, ‘I’ve got this video tape, I don’t know if I should send it to you’. I said, ‘What’s on it?’ He said, ‘It’s a guy in a wheelchair who’s racing cars!’ And I said, ‘Get it in the mail!’

“[Duqueine] was explaining in French how he operated the car and all of that. And I thought to myself, ‘This is exactly what I want to do’. So I called up Jan Magnussen and I showed him the tape and said, ‘Would you do something like that?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m not too sure, but if anybody can do it, you can’.”

"The greatest feeling in the world was to jump from my wheelchair into my racing car, put on my helmet and think, 'Okay, now you’re as good as all the rest of them. And on a good day, you’re even a tiny bit better'" Jason Watt

Magnussen then made the introductions to Denmark’s Peugeot importer. It was happy to run Watt in the DTC, if he could source hand controls and get them installed himself. “And I said, ‘Yep, game on!’” Watt chuckles.

After overcoming his first major obstacle of his own self-doubt that he’d be uncompetitive – having tasted motor racing at the very highest level, he was wary that he’d be told “you’re so brave, good to see you, but get out of the way next time we’re lapping you” – Watt saw potential the first time he tested the car in June 2000.

“So right then and there, my worries disappeared about if I will be able to compete,” he explains. “I was always thinking, ‘If driving with my feet is 100%, then how close will I get to that doing it with hand-controls? Will it be 80%, 90% or 95%?’ And I immediately thought to myself, ‘Alright, we are close to 95% here’.

“Another thing I was worried about was, all racing drivers tell you feel the racing car with your bum. So I thought to myself, ‘Well I can’t feel my bum, so how will I be able to feel what the car is doing?’ But it felt exactly like it always had done.”

Watt benefitted from “massive exposure on my comeback to racing” that meant he could do some deals with companies to help him make the necessary adaptations. “They sold this as showing what they were able to do, so in the end I didn’t even pay for it,” he recalls. But he recognises that not everyone can be so fortunate.

“You could say, to be a disabled driver, then you are worse [off financially already],” he says. “Because to start racing, you need even more money than the average guy or girl needs.”

Watt made his comeback to racing with Peugeot in Danish tin-tops, and went on to win the title in 2002

Watt made his comeback to racing with Peugeot in Danish tin-tops, and went on to win the title in 2002

Photo by: Sutton Images

Watt encountered lots of well-meaning but patronising comments about his different requirements, but stressed that he wanted to be treated the same as anyone else.

“It was very important to me,” he says. “I didn’t want any handouts based on my handicap – ‘Oh, we’ll give him a plus-five grid advancement every time’ or whatever.

“I wanted to be a racing driver and to be acknowledged for what I can do behind the wheel, and that was it. The greatest feeling in the world was to jump from my wheelchair into my racing car, put on my helmet and think, ‘Okay, now you’re as good as all the rest of them. And on a good day, you’re even a tiny bit better’.”

Watt remembers that he resisted attempts from the DTC organisers to put a highly visible ‘H’ on his Peugeot’s rear window for the marshals to identify him as a driver with a handicap - a point he didn’t want to advertise any more than was necessary to competitors.

“I found that very discriminating,” he says. “I said, ‘You should tell all the marshals that car with Watt in the side window, that’s the disabled guy, that should be enough’, so I actually talked them out of it.”

At the organisers’ insistence, Watt became the first driver in Denmark to use a safety net in his side window, which he believes was inspired by a “need to do something to show that we’re doing something”.

Watt maintains that he would be “no harder to get out of the car than anybody who has been knocked unconscious”.

“Any marshal should be equipped and have the know-how to extract an unconscious driver,” he says. “There were a few raised eyebrows in Denmark early on, ‘How is he going to get out of the car if he crashes and the car is on fire’, but I always said ‘Exactly the same as if Jan Magnussen knocks himself unconscious and the car is on fire, he needs to rely on the marshals’. There’s no real considerations to take into account, just pull me out!’”

Watt went on to compete internationally again, pictured here in the European Touring Car Championship round at Donington in 2004

Watt went on to compete internationally again, pictured here in the European Touring Car Championship round at Donington in 2004

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

He won DTC races at Jyllands-Ring and Zandvoort in 2000, and also raced a David Price Racing-run Den Bla Avis Panoz in SportsRacing World Cup races at the Nurburgring and Magny-Cours. To get his international license, he asked a film crew to document him extracting himself from the car inside seven seconds, hauling himself up and onto a mattress on the workshop floor.

These early successes, using a pneumatic-operated sequential gearbox rather than the H-pattern that able-bodied DTC racers were using, brought some dissenting voices.

“I ended up – I would like to say on the top of the podium, but the podium was too narrow for a wheelchair!” he says. “I had to sit in front of the podium and they asked the second and third-placed guys to sit down beside me as well on their steps. Then there was a whole different atmosphere and attitude from a couple of my competitors.

"If someone says, ‘I want to be a racing driver using hand-controls’, nobody is going to say that can’t be done because it can. The world is much more open and certainly the sceptics, if there are any left, are very few these days" Jason Watt

“The organiser said, ‘You can use a sequential gearbox as well’ and they said, ‘No, it’s not in the rules’. And they said, ‘If you look up the handicap paragraphs, it says you can use a sequential gearbox in the case that you use a hand-operated clutch, brake and accelerator, and remove the pedals from the car. So you just choose Option A or Option B. Jason can only choose Option B, but you can choose whichever option you want’. And I thought that was a clever way of getting around that!”

After his 2002 title success, Watt had targeted a move into other series, but remained in the DTC – aside from cameos in the European series at Donington in 2004 and the WTCC at Oschersleben in 2009 – before retiring from professional competition in 2011.

Watt believes that matters are better now than when he commenced his comeback, with a top-down approach installed from the FIA through its Nathalie McGloin-led Disability and Accessibility Commission. This has introduced legislation to help disabled people get racing licenses, provides access to grants to help disabled participants access to the highest level of safety equipment and introduced a certificate of adaptations to ensure drivers aren’t excluded from running in their chosen class.

Watt, who is in the process of preparing a 1965 Mustang to race in historic championships around Europe, credits Zanardi’s achievements on the global stage with raising awareness and helping to increase momentum.

Watt credits Zanardi's racing activities with raising awareness on behalf of disabled competitors

Watt credits Zanardi's racing activities with raising awareness on behalf of disabled competitors

Photo by: Andreas Beil

“Especially Alex’s merits have done a lot for disabled drivers,” he says. “He was exactly the same, he didn’t expect any special treatment. And he just proved that if you’re a racing driver, you’re a racing driver. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a wheelchair or have legs or not, he has been the proof [that it can be done].

“If someone says, ‘I want to be a racing driver using hand-controls’, nobody is going to say that can’t be done because it can. You can win WTCC rounds with a hand-control car. The world is much more open and certainly the sceptics, if there are any left, are very few these days.”

But while Watt is optimistic for the future of disabled participation in motorsport, and is willing to help those wishing to follow in his footsteps, he warns that a series specifically for disabled drivers could put out the wrong message.

“It shouldn’t be about awarding trophies for the best disabled drivers,” he says. “I just wanted to be acknowledged as a racing driver and nothing else.

“It’s not that hard that we need our own category. If you can drive a racing car with hand-controls, you can compete against the best of them. Maybe you’re lacking 5%, but it’s not like we should expect a special treatment, to have a [separate] category or championship.

“I just hope that companies will get behind some of these young men and women who would like to prove that even though they are worse off in life in general, they can put on a crash helmet and be as good as anybody.”

Watt hopes that companies will back disabled drivers and help them to live their dreams as he was able to

Watt hopes that companies will back disabled drivers and help them to live their dreams as he was able to

Photo by: Drew Gibson / Motorsport Images

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