‘I don’t see myself as disabled - I've achieved so much’: How racing driver Billy 'Whizz' Monger overcame the odds
A horrific accident nearly ended Billy Monger’s dreams of being the next Lewis Hamilton. But, as he tells Michael Hodges, he’s far from giving up
"I think you’ve crashed,” says Billy Monger, and it can’t be denied. The steering wheel has twisted out of my hands and the front of the car is embedded in the track safety fence. Monger, a 19-year-old Formula Three racing driver with the Surrey-based Carlin team, balances on his prosthetic legs, leans into the cockpit of the racing car simulator and holds the wheel steady as I extricate myself.
Monger knows all about crashes. On 16 April 2017, he was racing at a rainy Donington Park in the British Formula Four championship when he smashed into the back of Finnish driver Patrik Pasma’s car at 120 miles per hour. Pasma walked away from the crash. Monger, who was still 17, lost both his legs: the right leg below the knee, the left above the knee.
Monger had been racing since the age of six when, like his hero Lewis Hamilton before him, he joined the karting circuit. “When you’re that age and you’re able to drive at 50mph it feels like you’re flying,” he says. Monger rose through the ranks to F4, earning the nickname Billy Whizz for his daring and speed. Those attributes are apparent if you watch video footage taken from Monger’s cockpit camera in the moments leading up to the Donington Park crash.
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He prowls behind other drivers, awaiting his chance. Then, in a horrifying moment, Pasma’s apparently stationary car is suddenly revealed directly in front of Monger’s. “I was coming through traffic,” Monger says. “I overtook someone at the corner then came up the hill trying to get past other people. He [Pasma] had spun and stalled but there were two cars in front of me, blocking my view. Everyone else could see him but I couldn’t. He was actually rolling back slightly, because it’s uphill there.”
The front of Monger’s car crumpled into the back of Pasma’s. It took an hour and a half to get Monger out of the wreckage. “At first, I didn’t feel any pain because of the adrenaline,” Monger says. “Gradually I came out of shock, realised what my injuries were and started to panic. I remember people giving me injections and my sister Bonnie being there. That was reassuring – a voice I knew rather than a load of strangers looking at me in a bit of a horrified way, because they knew how bad it was, but I didn’t.”
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His parents, Rob and Amanda, were back at the paddock. “At first, they told Mum and Dad that they thought I’d broken my legs,” he says. Knowing Bonnie was by Billy’s side, Rob stayed with Amanda at the paddock. In the documentary, Driven, Amanda reveals that she and the other drivers’ mothers at the track on race days would constantly fear the worst. Now something very like the worst had happened.
Monger was evacuated by air ambulance and put in a coma by doctors at the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham. The severity of his injuries was immediately apparent to the team treating him. “The doctors made the call for me,” Monger says. “If I’d been conscious and they’d said, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to have to do,’ for anyone to hear that sort of news, they would just panic and say, ‘No, I don’t want you to amputate my legs.’ My parents were given that news at hospital. They were going through all the emotions; it was a lot more stressful for them. I was just asleep.”
As he slept, something remarkable happened: the F1 community gathered round. Drivers like Lewis Hamilton who had come up the same way as Monger, through karting and Formula Three, knew it could have been their younger selves ying in intensive care. Hamilton, who has 5.41 million Twitter followers, tweeted his support for Monger, and former Formula One world champion Jenson Button posted an appeal on Instagram. Within 24 hours, £500,000 had been raised towards his recovery.
Now, only 18 months after the crash, Monger is back at the wheel regularly. Not just of the room-sized simulator with a racing car in the middle in which Monger has been tutoring me (we agree that I’m not a natural), but also a Formula Three car, one stage up from F4 and adapted to allow him to compete in the British championships. In his first season of F3, which ended in October, Monger gained four podium finishes and finished sixth over all. He’s now looking for £350,000 sponsorship for next season. “I don’t see myself as being a disabled person,” he says. “That’s what people label people with my injuries, but there is so much stuff I have managed to achieve in the past 18 months. I don’t really know how to describe it.”
After the crash, when Monger was still in a wheelchair but determined to continue his racing career, he was invited by childhood friend and team Carlin driver Jamie Caroline to come to the Carlin HQ and try out the simulator. Almost immediately, Monger starting posting better times than the able-bodied drivers using it. “At that point, I was doing everything with my hands because my leg injuries were still healing,” he says. “I didn’t know whether I could use my right leg at all.”
Carlin adapted a car for Monger. The clutch, gear-change and accelerator are all on the steering wheel (this requires him to do exercises to keep his hands and fingers strong) and the brake pedal was moved from the floor of the cockpit closer to the driver so he can reach it with a specialist prosthetic he wears for driving.
Talking to Monger, it’s easy to forget how young he is. Not yet 20 and he’s been through a life-changing trauma, yet he has the emotional balance and determination of one twice his age. Looking back, he feels he rushed into his recovery and underestimated how tough it would be. “You think, ‘OK, I’m going to do this. I’m going to walk again and drive.’ You’re just going to tick these things off. But other things get thrown in your way that you’ve got to overcome. I was being a bit overambitious, but I would rather be like that than a bit underambitious.”
He seems to have gained his biggest boost from the involvement of Hamilton who, to Monger’s delight, wins Formula One’s World Championship the day before we meet. “Lewis has been my idol since I was eight,” he says. “When I was first racing go-karts, he was winning his first World Championship in F1 and I was looking at that as my inspiration. He’s a really nice guy and invited me to spend the weekend with him at the British Grand Prix. Lewis told me a lot about his F1 car, how it worked.”
At the mention of Formula One, there’s a flicker in his eyes. Is it possible he could drive an F1 car one day? “I don’t want this to be an excuse, I don’t want to think, ‘I could have been an F1 driver if I hadn’t had my accident.’ I think most people when faced with adversity discover they can’t cope with it, or they find that extra little bit. It was a brutal situation and, thankfully, I found that extra little bit of strength.”
Driven: the Billy Monger Story originally aired on Sunday 18th November on BBC3 and on Monday 19th November on BBC2. You can catch it now on iPlayer.