It’s the best seat in the house: crouched low behind a woven wall of discarded rubber; one eye trained deep into the corner, waiting for a familiar flash of colour, whilst ears strain, listening for the roar of pedal on metal. It’s what we do; ‘wait. compose. capture. repeat’.
Most of the time trackside, you’re photographing for a team, or a particular driver, or, in my case, for a future feature, but every so often, a car comes into view that draws your focus and shouts ‘shoot me’. This was my first experience of Billy Monger.
The day everything changed
I was at Donington on that fateful day. I was there for the touring cars, but had just arrived at Redgate, hoping to add to my F4 portfolio; and then the red flag came out.
Immediately, you could sense that this wasn’t a typical stoppage. The marshals were, as ever, keenly alert, but there was also an ‘edge’ as they listened intently to the barrage of radio transmissions. And as time drew-on, and the gathering crowd fired questions and concerns, the responses, that “the medical team are in place and doing a careful job”, though reassuring, also led to a growing silence of speculation. Some time later, and as the air ambulance and its passenger left the circuit, and the wrecked cars were removed, little did we realise just how much this talented young man’s life would change.
A case study in resilience
If making progress on track appeared to come naturally to Billy Monger, having to adapt to life off-it has been an altogether more punishing challenge (and one, undoubtedly pressured by having to undergo his rehabilitation in full view of the public gaze).
Yet with a maturity beyond his years, the pain and trauma of having to learn to walk with artificial legs has been countered by an over-riding sense of expectancy; not, simply, that he would one day move around again, independently and with ease, but rather, that he would resume a promising career as if challenged by nothing other than the usual budget constraints.
When I spoke to Billy just before Christmas, there was no waiver from his steely determination to race again, and more commendably, to do so from a position of ‘this is where I would have expected to be’. He has no interest in looking back, only on how he can progress. It’s just one of an abundance of qualities infused by years of careful nurture. But then in the eyes of Billy Monger, whenever he looks in the mirror, all he sees is a racer, eager to return to the driving seat.
So, what happens next?
Ever since Billy was racing karts, the Mongers (dad Rob, and mum Amanda) have had to face their own battles, working relentlessly simply to find the budget to fund Billy’s presence in the paddock. Making the transition into cars (with Ginetta Junior) was a huge step, then to F4 and the realisation of just how much families of better-funded drivers were spending on pre-season testing; there have been many long and sleepless nights to give Billy the chance to shine.
As I researched this article, someone asked me how I thought the 2017 British F4 season might have looked had Billy Monger competed at every round?
At first, it seemed like an impossible question to answer, because I can’t and won’t take anything away from Jamie Caroline, or Oscar Piastri, or Alex Quinn, Logan Sargeant, or Oli York . . . There’s been an abundance of talent on this grid since its inception as ‘MSA Formula’ in 2015. But then it came to me:
“Imagine Formula One without Max Verstappen?” That was all I needed to say.
OK, it’s Jamie Caroline too, or Ash Sutton, Colin Turkington, Seb Morris, Oli Rowland, Dean Stoneman, Lando Norris, Sam Bird.. and Lewis.. and Max. Their ‘swagger & bounce’; they are champions for a reason: it’s about their presence, and how they use it, whether leading from the front or challenging for a position. They’re the reason the grandstands are filled and the reason sponsors keep returning.
And this is why we need Billy Monger back in single-seaters, and back on the path to the podium. He is, after all, still our very own #BillyWhizz.
He’s had to do it the hard way too; without the luxury of endless hours on the simulator, or out in Spain, lapping for day after day and gaining the familiarisation that often leads to an early advantage. But these experiences have all combined to forge a fighting spirit; Team Billy know how to win.
For most young racers, a successful season in British F4 might lead straight into Formula 3, or perhaps one of the well-supported European single-seater series.
Billy is no different. Despite his season being curtailed at the second round of the 2017 F4 season, Billy is looking forwards.
For Billy, right now, motor racing means single-seaters. He sees no reason to compromise long-held ambitions. Yet before he could even imagine re-starting his life behind the wheel, he found himself embroiled in the most unlikely of fights.
For some very odd reason, the FIA employed a ruling that disallowed ‘disabled’ drivers from competing in single-seater, open-wheeled cars. So whilst battling the pain of learning to walk again, ‘Team Billy’ also had to confront the might of the FIA and secure a much needed rule change.
I’ve not always had good things to say about the Federation, but here, I applaud them. Recognising that we live in a world where the word ‘disability’ has been removed from most right-minded thinking, the rule was changed and the permission-slip granted. All the Mongers have to do now is to find the budget to go racing again… If only it was that simple.
Billy is, of course, no longer just another young talented racer; he’s now a national treasure, and the Mongers don’t only have to find the funding to put Billy on to the grid, they need to find a team that will let his talent shine against a fiercely competitive field.
When we spoke, Billy made it clear to me that when 2017 started, Formula 3 was a target if the results came their way. Well as far as I’m concerned, what I saw at Brands Hatch in April is enough to convince me that he should not only progress, but that he can do so as a genuine contender. And what a great way to give something back to the fans that have, so absolutely, taken him to their hearts.
In one of the European series, he’d be lost; lost to sponsors and fans alike. So my hope is that very soon, we will hear the news that a deal has been struck to take a competitive seat in BRDC British F3, and that Billy’s talent will be given the chance that it unquestionably deserves.
Team Billy, behind the scenes
As remarkable as the tale of Billy’s recovery is, little of the progress made since his accident would have been possible without the exceptional support of his family and friends. And just as importantly, the support received by the family from the wider motorsport community.
When I saw him in and around the paddock at Oulton Park, and later at Brands Hatch, he was always surrounded by a close group of quite extraordinary people keeping him ‘grounded’ and helping him to move around in the buggy that Mark and Senna Proctor adapted for him to use. His sister Bonny, racers Jamie Caroline and Devlin DeFrancesco. These and others did more than they will ever know by just being there and treating Billy as the friend they had always known rather than a victim.
I spoke with his mum, Amanda, about the impact of the crash on all of the family’s lives, and the value of the support that they received, from so many people, from all over the world. Her words are far more meaningful than mine;
The real story
Many words have been written about the horrific crash that led to Billy’s appalling injuries, and much attention has been (rightly) shone on the support he’s received from leading personalities within the sport, such as Lewis Hamilton. But for me, the real story here is how a family overcame adversity through the love they received from their sport.
The Mongers live and breathe motor racing. Before Billy was old enough to talk, the family would spend nights and weekends at the oval, watching and cheering dad, Rob, as he hammered his way around the stock car circuit. And then, as with so many racing families, the inevitable purchase of a kart (for Billy) and more long nights and weekends as father and son initially raced for fun, and then for so much more.
As the Mongers moved into car racing, they made yet more friends, often staying in the paddock overnight, and always at the heart of late night gatherings and early morning brews. If you think motor racing is about qualifying on Saturday and a race or two on Sunday, it’s not! It’s about families coming together and making huge sacrifices in their pursuit of shared dreams. They win together, they lose together, and when something goes wrong, the same people that you’re trying each weekend to beat are the first ones to stand by your side and offer a hand.
Some people think that motor sport is elitist: trust me, it’s not! It’s driven by families, for families, and all credit must be given to the paddocks from karting to F1 for keeping it alive in this way, and for supporting the Mongers in their determination to return. It’s something we all want, and it’s something I’m sure we will see in 2018.
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