Top speed 127mph
In the footwell of the seat I’m strapped into is a sign that reads: “If the driver’s legs fall off, press here!” That must sound ridiculous to you, but then you aren’t being driven hell-for-leather round the historic Goodwood racetrack by a man with no legs…
Davie Birrell is an ex-boxer and former corporal in the Black Watch whose life changed in an instant on 10 April 2010. While on patrol in Helmand, Afghanistan, his interpreter, walking a few yards to his left, stepped on a buried pressure pad which detonated an IED. In that instant, the translator lost his life – and Birrell lost his legs.
Earlier, over a coffee, I’d been unsure whether to ask him about his injury. He was joking about in the pit lane in full racing gear, with his helmet on his lap and a pair of prosthetic legs propped against the table. Finally curiosity got the better of me and I just came out with it. “So, Davie, what happened to your legs?” He happily launched into the story, recounting all the horror of the attack as if it was just a big adventure. He’s a great talker and has an astonishingly unsentimental approach to losing his legs. It’s obviously a mental strength that has got him through the dark days and months of his long rehab.
“Once we got hit by the IED, we came under fire straightaway,” he says. “I was screaming my bloody head off so the boys knew I was still alive. All I could feel was this terrible burning in my back. My right leg was absolutely annihilated. I only had one tourniquet, so I tied that on and jabbed in the morphine. When the medics got over to me they jabbed me with more morphine…” he rolls his eyes and laughs. “Rounds were flying all over the place. One went right through the stretcher! The boys were brilliant. They had me back to Camp Bastion in 25 minutes. I was conscious through the whole thing…”
Davie is nothing if not a man who relishes a challenge. Working with Mission Motorsport, a charity which aids in the recovery and rehabilitation of those injured in war, he has not only realised his childhood dream of becoming a racing driver but has set his sights on becoming the first double amputee to compete in the British Touring Car Championships.
He shows me the prosthetic legs he uses to drive. “They’re the same as my walking ones,” he says, “but much shorter and lighter, so I can get a sense of the pedals through my stumps. I used to be over 6ft, but in these I’m only 5ft 5in. The only thing I can’t do in the car is heel-toe!”
He’s currently racing a Mazda MX-5 which isn’t modified to his needs in any way. It has a full roll cage and racing suspension – and on the front is a sticker that says @DavieNolegs. “I walk and drive like everyone else,” he tells me. But I know that’s a lie. Yes, he walks perfectly well, but his driving is anything but ordinary.
He offers to give me a few passenger laps of Goodwood. It’s terrifying. The car shrieks round each bend at the limit of its tolerances. Why isn’t it bouncing end over end across the grass? Davie, meanwhile, passes the wheel through his hands like a Zen master. He’s totally calm and unflustered, almost bored. He says he’s “not pushing it”. Racing drivers don’t feel fear like the rest of us – and a racing driver who is also a war veteran and former boxer is clearly not going to be bothered about going sideways at 100mph on a wet track. Maybe if someone started taking pot shots at us his pulse might spike up to 73 or something… but I’m not sure.
After half a dozen laps, I’ve had enough (a combination of fear and nausea) and we blast back into the pits. We clamber out of his race-prepared Mazda and go and look at the new MX-5 parked nearby.
It’s the world’s bestselling roadster and has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. We love them here in Britain – in fact we buy more than half of the MX-5s sold in Europe. I like what it says about our national psyche that we have so taken this little two-seater to our hearts. There are plenty of cars out there which are posher, more powerful and more imposing. But when it comes to likable, affordable, roof-down thrills, nothing comes close.
This is the fourth generation of the MX-5 – and the best thing about it is that it’s so very like the first. It exudes an irresistible joie de vivre. The controls are straightforward. The roof is old-school fabric and has a simple, easy-to-use mechanism. There are no fancy-pants gadgets here. It is what it is.
This latest model is lighter, shorter, lower and wider than the outgoing one and has the lowest centre of gravity yet. All of which gives it a dynamic edge on the road. It’s powered by a 1.5- or 2-litre engine which is nippy rather than fast, and the handling is nimble and responsive. You really do feel at one with it.
The design has been sharpened. Pointy headlamps and a chopped rear now make it look like an old Alfa Spider. Peering through the windscreen your view of the road rushing towards you is perfectly framed by the twin front wheel arches. It’s exhilarating and makes you feel like James Dean. (Note to self: buy another polo neck.) The cabin is comfortable and despite its modest proportions has a plump fulsomeness to it. The boot, though, is still a bit crap.
One thing, however, that really has changed is the price. When it was launched in 1990, it cost £14,249 (that’s £31,687 in today’s money), yet 25 years later, with vastly more standard equipment, it costs just £18,495. No wonder we Brits love it so…
Elvis is in the building: win tickets to see Presley’s pink Cadillac at the O2 in London
Elvis’s pink Cadillac has arrived at the O2 and we have five pairs of tickets to give away. One of the world’s most iconic cars, the King’s Pink Cadillac is on display at Elvis at The O2, having been shipped over from Graceland especially.
Bought by Elvis on 7 July 1955, the car was originally blue with a black roof, but he had the body painted pink to replace his first pink Cadillac, which was destroyed after the brake lining caught fire and set the car alight while Elvis was driving back from a gig on 5 June 1955.
With over 300 artefacts from the Graceland archives, the exhibition includes other automobiles, personal items, historical documents, stage costumes, guitars, photography and gold and platinum records.
To win one of the five pairs of tickets, send an email with your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first five to arrive will be the winners.
The exhibition runs until 10 January 2016, from 10am to 8.30pm, seven days a week. For more details and to buy tickets, go to elvisattheo2.com
Terms and conditions available on request.