Rallycross star reveals secrets of hand control

by Hal Ridge |

The announcement that Mats Ohman will contest the FIA European Rallycross Championship, alongside his nephew Emil in a two-car Citroen DS3 team, puts the Swedish driver and his specially adapted racecar in the public eye..

Ohman was formally a Snowcross racer, enjoying success at Swedish, European and World level. However, a freak accident in 1998 left him paralysed from the waist down. Never losing the urge for competition, Ohman turned his attention to rallycross. In 2001, he started to compete in SuperNational, driving a Volvo S40 converted to use hand and arm controls. Four years later he graduated to the Supercar category in a Ford Focus, before upgrading to modern machinery in 2010 with the ex-Ludvig Hunsbedt Volvo S60. Since embarking on a career in rallycross, Ohman’s determination to compete and succeed in his latest adventure has been incredible. The Swede’s team has developed a control system that enables Ohman to drive with the same precision and control as any other driver, and to compete for top results. “I have had many good moments in rallycross so far, but a definite highlight was at the Swedish championship round at Strangnas in 2010,” says Ohman. “I set the record for the track, beating [triple European champion] Sverre Isachsen in the same race. That record still stands!”

Another major highlight from Ohman’s rallycross career is an obvious one for European championship followers; making it to the main event at his home round of the series at Holjes in 2012, finishing sixth overall. “For sure Holjes is the highlight of the year anyway, and to be able to get into the final in front of the Swedish crowd was pretty amazing. That was the perfect weekend.” While onlookers may well consider Ohman’s results all the more impressive given his physical situation, the man himself doesn’t see it that way, and admits to not getting satisfaction from beating drivers that have the full use of their limbs; “I don’t feel like I’m less able than anyone else. I want to race in the same conditions as the other guys and I don’t feel satisfied just because I beat guys who are not handicapped. That’s not why I’m racing, I’m racing for myself.”

Ohman’s team has put vast amounts of work into the bespoke controls that he uses to operate his rallycross machines, and like any mechanical component in any elite racing car, the system is being constantly developed, and is carried over from each vehicle that has been used. Most impressive about the system that Ohman uses to drive, is that aside from steering, which is done with a special steering arm, he controls almost every aspect of the car with his right arm. With his hand holding a joystick, Ohman’s arm sits in a cradle that is moved backwards for throttle and forward to brake. Pushing the elbow away from the body gears up, pulling the elbow towards the body gears down. All this is accomplished using micro-switches. The handbrake is operated by turning the wrist to the left. Below Ohman’s left elbow is a clutch lever, a mechanical clutch that gives exactly the same feeling as the pedal operated version. The launch procedure that is so crucial in rallycross is instigated by a switch above the windscreen which is then operated by pushing the right wrist down; after which Ohman holds the car on full throttle and handbrake ready to react to the starting lights. The windscreen washers and wipers are on a switch panel right next to the right hand, so they are easily accessible when required.

“We are always trying to make the system better,” says Ohman. “To make it quicker and more stable, it’s always work in progress; about about ten years of work, so far. It has taken a lot of time, thinking and determination. When I drive, I don’t feel like I’m paralysed. I feel like my hands and feet are working, the system works so well I don’t feel like I’m handicapped.” With the latest technology at his disposal for 2014 the possibility of good results for Ohman should not be underestimated, despite feeling that he was unable to show his true form in 2013; “Things didn’t go so well for us at the European events [last year]. We had an engine failure in Holjes, and a gearbox problem in France, so we didn’t really have the chance to show what we can do. Semi-finals are always the first goal of course, and then anything can happen in rallycross.”

As with almost anyone who has been fortunate enough to drive a rallycross Supercar, the pleasure hasn’t worn off for Ohman; “Racing a Supercar is the same great feeling every time, it puts a big smile on your face, every time!” As the sport becomes ever bigger, with greater commitment from teams and more media exposure than ever, those sentiments from the most inspirational of rallycross drivers on driving these most extreme machines should never be forgotten.




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