How bad timing sidelined rallycross’ disabled trailblazer

DirtFish explains the fascinating story behind disabled RX racer Mats Öhman's complicated 2020 season

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There is no rallycross hall of fame. Not yet at least. The names that would conceivably be there are fairly obvious; Kenneth Hansen, the most successful driver of all time and now also a world champion as team owner; Martin Schanche, Per Eklund, Will Gollop and Sverre Isachsen are also dead-certs. Johan Kristoffersson and Petter Solberg are easy picks from the world championship era.

So too is Mats Öhman. He’s not a world champion, and he’s not a European champion either. But for the past two decades, he’s been ever-present in rallycross paddocks all over Europe, breaking boundaries simply by competing.

Öhman is paralyzed from the waist down. In his younger days, Öhman competed in Snowcross – racing snowmobiles, basically – but a freak accident ended his career in 1998. By 2001 he was in rallycross, piloting a Volvo S40 with a bespoke hand control system.

By 2010 he was driving the fastest rallycross machines in the world, Supercars, and beating lap records previously set by three-time European champion Isachsen in similar equipment. Fast forward to 2020 and Öhman has more experience behind the wheel than almost every single one of his rivals in Euro RX.

But when the Euro RX circus rolled into Riga for round two this season, Öhman and his car were nowhere to be seen. JC Raceteknik had applied for a waiver for Öhman to miss the event at the last minute, citing the FIA not giving his team the required permission for Öhman’s adapted car to run in time.

His car had risked being declared illegal as the team packed up and left for Latvia, despite using a control system that had remained fundamentally unchanged for almost 20 years. This hadn’t been an issue in 2019 with the same car in the same championship.

How did this happen?

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Photo: Andrea Ivares Berglind / JC Raceteknik

Keeping it under control

Öhman’s control system is an unusual one, even considering the nature of bespoke hand control systems. There’s no steering wheel; instead, a lever controls the car direction, which is operated by Öhman’s left arm. Nor are there any pedals; almost everything that’s not related to pointing the car left or right happens through Öhman’s right arm.

Pulling back hard unleashes his Audi S1’s 600bhp, while pushing forward slams on the brakes. Pushing his arm to right changes up gears; a push to the left sends the S1 back down the gears. And a flick of the wrist leftward replicates a quick grab of the handbrake; a must-have in rallycross. He’s using one limb to do what the able-bodied among us have the luxury of three limbs for.

During his 19-year rallycross career, Öhman’s hand control system has been fitted to a variety of top-spec Supercar vehicles; a Ford Focus to start with, then a Volvo S60, and now he’s using an Audi S1 that’s near-identical to those JC Raceteknik are currently leading World RX’s teams’ championship with.

But while his control system hasn’t been significantly redesigned in that time, the requirements for adapted cars to compete have been.

Enter scene left, FIA.

The establishment of an FIA Disability and Accessibility Commission is, on the face of it, a step in the right direction. It’s allowed drivers like Billy Monger to legally compete in championships with special modifications that otherwise wouldn’t be allowed to participate. Said commission’s biggest change so far has been the introduction of the Certificate of Adaptations.

“All competitors are required to comply with the sporting and technical regulations. In cases where a car is modified for a disabled driver, we want to make it possible for those modifications to be formally recognized and approved,” Adam Baker, FIA Safety Director, explained to DirtFish.

“This is not a ‘requirement’, rather a pathway to facilitate the participation of disabled drivers who have specific needs related to their installation inside the cockpit and the control of the car, and who would otherwise be denied the chance to compete as the car no longer complies with the rules of the event.”

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Photo: RallyX Nordic Media

Let’s agree to disagree on the “not a requirement” bit. If the car’s not compliant with the rules of the event due to the required hand controls being in place, and it needs a separate certificate to bypass that issue, then having a certificate is a requirement. But otherwise it make sense.

Before – and even during the first year of – CoAs, not every competitor recognized the FIA would want to look over hand control systems to check that they’re fundamentally safe before rubber-stamping them to compete. Rally driver Fabrice Giorgi learned this to his cost last year, when he showed up to Rally Corsica with a wheel-mounted throttle and brake system.

Giorgi hadn’t requested a CoA before presenting the car to scrutineers the Wednesday of the rally, and while the FIA had tried to find a solution to the situation, there was no time to convene the Adaptations Working Group, which ultimately decides whether an adapted car gets the required paperwork to compete in FIA events or not.

Öhman and JC Raceteknik, however, did not make this mistake. They went by the book. And they still missed a round due to the CoA process anyway.

Solving the Latvia mystery

Öhman’s no-show in Riga, the second round of the Euro RX season, was bizarre considering his car had been declared legal to compete by stewards at the opening round of the year in Sweden. How can a car go from being legal to illegal without changing specification?

This is where it gets tricky. By the book, Öhman’s car is still illegal as per the Euro RX technical regulations, and will probably always be so. That’s what the CoA is for; giving the car a free pass for being illegal in specific areas that have been changed to allow a disabled to driver to pilot the car properly. In most cases, it’s also used to get around these modified cars not complying with the car’s original homologation.

Remember Hyundai getting a fine for a part on Dani Sordo’s Rally Italy-winning car not matching the homologated specification? The FIA doesn’t take kindly to specification mismatches. That particular headache is the main reason the CoA exists.

But this didn’t apply to Öhman’s car. His Audi was an edge-case. It wasn’t homologated, and it didn’t need to be either. But it still needed a CoA regardless, as JC Raceteknik team principal Joel Christoffersson was given a heads-up to before the season began.

I think Mats is very frustrated and I don't think he's so keen to do any FIA event either Joel Christoffersson

“We got the message from FIA that for 2020 they will require homologated systems for handicapped drivers. If you have to install a special system if the driver is paralyzed, it needs to be FIA approved,” Christoffersson recounted to DirtFish.

“We started to discuss with them in May and sent them pictures and everything about it, and they sent an inspector from Germany that checked the car here in July. He couldn’t see any big problems. There were some bolts that we needed to change but nothing major; we needed to go from M6 to M8 bolts in some places.”

Thus begins the blame game.

“Although the request was received in good time, the biggest delay was the car being unavailable for inspection for a period of one month,” retorted Baker.

“The technical report was received five days after the inspection and since then we have worked hard to support the team in making the changes we have requested. The feedback from the inspection process was sent by the FIA via email to the team on August 13 and consisted of 10 key points requiring either action or further information.”

That presented a headache for Christoffersson. The first round of the season at Höljes would kick-off on August 22. JC Raceteknik had nine days to get the car up to spec, minus the packing up time at the factory and build-up time at the track.

Rallycross is not Formula 1. Teams don’t have budgets into the hundreds of millions, nor do they have personnel counts into the hundreds or thousands.

“We needed to make a leak-proof box around the hydraulic systems, we had to make some sharp edges on the hand controls for the right arm [smoother], which they thought was a little bit too sharp and we had to change it; the steering wheel was too aggressively pointing to him and it was some things here and there,” explained Christoffersson.

“So we basically tried to fix all of these things, except the seat and they approved us to do Höljes.”

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Photo: Jakub Nitka / JC Raceteknik

There was a caveat, though. Öhman was in the show for Höljes, and for Höljes alone.

“The team were able to address seven of the 10 points [requiring action] prior to the Höljes event in Sweden,” Baker stated.

“As we wanted to do everything possible to facilitate the participation of the driver in the event, I proposed that the AWG [Adaptations Working Group] take the unusual step to issue a CoA for a single event, noting the three points that still needed to be addressed. The members of the AWG agreed and the CoA was issued.”

The FIA had done the one thing armchair fans repeatedly accuse it of never doing; it had used common sense. Öhman went on his merry way, qualifying seventh in the Euro RX season opener and ultimately finished only one position short of making the weekend final. A tidy enough weekend, all things considered.

But when the team packed up and drove back to its base a few miles north of Karlstad, Öhman’s Audi lost its eligibility to compete again. The CoA had expired. A new one would be needed.

Christoffersson: “Before the Riga race we had discussed with them [the FIA] and said we need to find a solution. Two weeks before Riga we sent them an email saying in the amount of time left we don’t have time to make it ready for Mats and that it’s quite a big job to make a seat fit for Mats, because of how important the way he sits in the car is, so that he gets as much strength in his arm as possible.

“After that we asked them kindly if we could get going with the seat as it has been for the last 18 years – the same system – for Riga and Spa, but they didn’t approve the seat so we couldn’t race.”

That last point is key. Everything was now fine bar the seat support. Of those 10 items previously mentioned, nine were sorted. But that last point is where the the FIA and JC Raceteknik hit an impasse.

Remember, almost every facet of Öhman’s driving happens through his right arm, aside from steering and the launch control on-switch located above the windscreen. He’s putting most of his body weight and force to one side, not distributing it about equally like every other driver using the same seat.

“Why this is the problem I cannot understand really, why they’re struggling to approve the car,” admitted Christoffersson.

“The seat is approved for FIA, it’s no problem, the only thing we have made is an extra side support, but it’s not bolted in or anything, it’s just a side support for Mats because he has no strength in his stomach, so he really needs as much support as possible in the side for him to not end up out of the seat.”

JC Raceteknik applied for a new CoA for Riga. Come Monday morning, the team had packed up its World RX kit and was getting ready to head for the circuit. Still no word from the FIA.

The call was made; Mats was staying at home.

But, a plot twist was in the works. The approval did come through. But the team had waited as long as it could without risking missing the ferry across the Baltic Sea to Riga. It was too late.

“We got the email on Monday afternoon but the trucks have already left for Riga at that point, so we had decided before getting this email that we are not going [with Mats’ car] because it’s too risky.”

Was the FIA sleeping on the job? Not so, says Baker.

“Following the event, the team addressed two of the remaining three points and requested for another CoA to be issued for the next event. This second review by the members of the AWG was completed in four working days, which was apparently too late for the team to know the result before leaving for the event.”

And there’s further intrigue. The FIA was willing to wave Öhman’s through with another temporary CoA even if it felt the seat support might be unsafe. But it accused the team of telling fibs.

“Had the team made the modification with the approval of the seat manufacturer, we would have been able to approve the change, knowing that the seat manufacturer is familiar with the physical properties of the seat and is able to determine whether additional loads applied in a specific area will pose a problem,” Baker explained.

“During the inspection the team indicated that the seat manufacturer had approved their modification, however after further investigation we found this was not true.

“Despite several written and verbal exchanges regarding possible improvements to the seat, the seat modification the team is using is still unchanged from that presented during the inspection on August 5.”

The FIA wasn’t happy it’d been told a white lie. Was it a simple miscommunication, or deliberate?

It’s one person’s word versus another, so there’s no point going into that. Ultimately, nobody got what they wanted. Rallycross’ disabled racing trailblazer found himself sitting at home due to paperwork.

Everyone lost.

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Photo: RallyX Nordic Media

Happily ever after?

Despite the impasse and finger pointing, neither side showed any desire to fight. Going back and forth on CoAs that weren’t being signed-off was causing delay after delay, so JC Raceteknik had already given up.

When Christoffersson called up to the stewards’ room in Riga to explain Öhman’s absence – a permanent competitor required to show up at every round as per the sporting regulations – he filed for a waiver citing exceptional circumstances. But that waiver was filed to cover both Latvia and Spa.

They’d effectively asked to be exempt from competing in the rest of the season.

“The things we need to change also is like, OK, they want to do it but it’s a bit picky, it’s not big things. It feels like they want to point on something,” said an exasperated Christoffersson.

“For me this is not big things they are pointing. If they are saying the car is too light, OK, but in the safety reasons I cannot see any problem.

“I think Mats is very frustrated and I don’t think he’s so keen to do any FIA event either because they are always putting him backwards after he is doing everything he can do to be in the car. Only if you look how handicapped he is and he can drive the car perfectly and everybody is happy he is there, but then someone is just pushing him away again, so he’s getting quite frustrated about that.”

Or so it seemed at least. Then, a reprieve came along. The FIA still wanted a material from an approved list of options used to manufacture the vital seat support. JC Raceteknik still felt those options wouldn’t handle the load effectively.

But, such was the disrupted nature of the 2020 season, Belgium was set to be the last meeting in a three-round season. Sidelining a disabled driver on purpose over a disagreement on the manufacture of an essential seat support that allowed him to drive was never going to be a good look. And for the team, implementing a fix didn’t make sense either.

“What we wanted to avoid, because it unfortunately dragged on for a little bit, we didn’t want to require them to do a big effort and update which would have then been useful for only one event,” explains Baker. “Then all of that work would have been wasted as it were and they’d have had to do the update anyway.”

Instead, the FIA sent the World RX of Spa stewards a letter, co-signed by FIA technical director Gilles Simon, asking them to accept the technical infringement to the seat a CoA would otherwise have been needed to cover. A few days on, that request was accepted. If Öhman’s Audi passed regular scrutineering, they’d ignore the non-compliant seat support.

Öhman will be back on the grid in Belgium if the event goes ahead. Which – if the ongoing ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 which Belgium risks drowning in continues – is looking increasingly unlikely.

But regardless, the problem was solved. Öhman would be racing again. A happy ending! Isn’t that wonderful?

Not so fast.

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Photo: Jakub Nitka / JC Raceteknik

Starting from zero

As mentioned already, Öhman’s Audi was given a wave-through on the points where it doesn’t meet the tech regs based on the impracticality of investing time and money on a one-round fix. The need for Öhman and JC Raceteknik to jump through regulatory hoops to get back on track hasn’t gone away. It’s only been postponed.

On the plus side, they’ve now got months – at least five, perhaps more if the traditional April season-opening date gets pushed back by COVID-19 again – to come up with a permanent fix for the seat conundrum.

It’s all change for 2021; the new seat is going to be bolted into a new chassis.

“We have to change it anyway. But as I’ve explained to all the guys, the biggest job for us was changing the seat to get everything to fit with Mats’s hand controls and everything,” said Christoffersson.

“We need to modify the center tunnel and everything so now we have plenty of time. We will probably be changing to the new chassis for Mats next year, so then that one is smaller and we don’t need to do such big modification for the new chassis. I hope that will help us to make it ready for Höljes next year.”

That changeover in seat-spec also helps solve the headache over lateral support; the very thing that led to the disagreement over the seat support design.

“The reason the update is significant is the seat itself is quite different and it offers in its base configuration more lateral support, or certainly more options to have an increased level of support for the driver,” explained Baker.

“So I’m hopeful and confident that will prove to be a much better base for them to start their work to get him comfortable inside the car and to give him the level of support in the seat that he needs. There will hopefully be a lot less reliance on traditional bracketry as is the case now.”

To create the process is quite a lot of work; the regulation changes involved need to be approved by several commissions Adam Baker

But the headaches have not gone away. A new problem has emerged; Öhman’s type of physical impairment – paralysis from the waist down – is going to make it harder to get out of the car quickly in an emergency, as Christoffersson explains.

“I think the most difficult thing with the new 8862 seat is that it’s so deep for the driver to get into it, so it will be very difficult for a paralyzed driver to get out of it. But that’s another question and I think that’s the next thing to work out with the FIA, how to make it safest for the paralyzed drivers.

“We will make it work but as Mats is saying, for him it feels safer when he knows he can get out of the car by himself.

“A lot of FIA drivers don’t need to get out of the car by themselves, the FIA said. If they have the handicap sticker [on the car] they [marshals] know that they need to pull the guy out. So for sure we can drive and it will be safety and everything will be good.

“But there’ Mats saying for him it doesn’t feel safe that sitting that deep in the car, that he will not get out of the car. In this case he drives now he knows that he will get out of it.”

The future

Right now the FIA using a one-size-fits-all model for Certificate of Adaptations; one process for all cars that need changes to suit disabled drivers of all kinds, no matter the changes and how it impacts their legality to compete internationally.

That ultimately caused some of the difficulties involved in Öhman’s case. The process involved in getting a car with adapted controls signed-off for participation in FIA events is almost as rigorous as that of original homologation. Typically only constructors – whether that’s a F1 team, a car manufacturer or a specialist manufacturer like M-Sport in WRC – need to homologate vehicles produced for competition.

Öhman’s Audi S1 exists in a weird grey area. The S1 is not homologated, and as mentioned back in chapter two, it doesn’t need to be. Any team could conceivably build a Kia Rio, Mazda RX-8 or even a Lada Kalina Supercar and run it in World or Euro RX without needing to have it homologated by the FIA.

CoAs were not originally created with this scenario in mind. The general idea makes sense; yes, getting adaptations signed-off is lengthy and detail-oriented, but the intention was for that to be happening with manufacturer support of some kind, as Baker explains.

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Photo: RallyX Nordic Media

“Our initial preference was to work with the manufacturer of the car in each case and have them support these competitors and ideally they would offer a little bit of design advice and guide the team because manufacturers do this for a living, they have a huge resource and designers that are very good at coming up with clever bespoke solutions for specific cases.”

That idea, however, didn’t work in practice. If you’re buying a brand-new, off the-shelf Hyundai i20 R5 to go rallying let’s say, you could ask the customer racing division to build the adaptations in at the very beginning of the process and get support by that route.

That’s now how these instances tend to come around though. Especially with Öhman, who was using a hand-me-down S1 built and used by EKS earlier in its life with other drivers at the wheel.

And therein lines the problem. Preparation firms and manufacturers are not necessarily the same thing. Especially when it comes to rallycross.

Right now there are no manufacturers in top-level rallycross. There’s a bit of support on the side from Ford and Citroën with the new Projekt E cars of each marque but that’s about it. Team Hansen won both world titles last year with only 15 personnel. When you don’t have hundreds of employees, modifications like this take up a lot of valuable lead time that rallycross teams don’t have.

“The technical dossier submitted during the CoA application process is similar to the technical dossier submitted during the homologation of a car,” explained Baker, the point being the same level of detail is needed both for original homologation and subsequent adaptations.

“As the modifications are typically made by a team who lack competence and experience in the design and validation of mechanical and electronic systems for competition use, and without the support of the manufacturer of the car, the FIA has a duty to ensure the modifications are acceptable in all respects.

Surely then, with no homologation involved, there’s a case to be made for changing how all this works. Why insist on all the extra effort?

“To my knowledge this is the first time – it’s not been very long that we’ve been running this process but I don’t believe we’ve had a car come to our attention where there’s only been technical infringements,” Baker responded.

“We’ve had either cars where there’s been no technical infringements and the modifications of the car have been independent of any tech reg problems. Or if there has been infringements to the tech regs, it’s been in addition to change to the homologation. So in that sense, it’s been an unusual case.

“With this single case, on the face of it you would think the answer is yes, [there needs to be a separate process]. But to be honest, I have to balance the value of the work that we do and if it’s only a single case in two years, I don’t want to create a specialized, optimized process for something that in fact happens very rarely.

“To create the process is quite a lot of work; the regulation changes involved need to be approved by several commissions, a lot of stakeholders need to be consulted, so it’s a significant effort.”

For disabled racers hoping to work their way up the motorsport hierarchy and compete with the world’s best drivers, the thought that a mound of paperwork adds an additional barrier to entry beyond their physical handicaps must be a disheartening one.

But on the plus side, Öhman’s sidelining is a genuinely unusual case.

For most drivers who haven’t made it to the top level yet, the laborious CoA process isn’t going to get in the way. In RX Nordic for example, a series Öhman also frequents with the same car as on the European scene, he doesn’t need a CoA. It’s a regional series sanctioned by the Swedish national federation, so the issue surrounding allowing adapted controls falls to them, not the FIA.

Go further down the ladder and there are even fewer obstacles. Folkrace is a great entry-level class for aspiring rally and rallycross racers that’s highly popular in Scandinavia, in which the technical regulations are fairly basic.

For drivers hoping to emulate Öhman or any other high-profile disabled racer, this shouldn’t serve as discouragement. The opportunities are there to compete, so long as you can afford to of course; that’s the same headache for everyone regardless of their physical abilities.

Vehicle adaptation for professional motorsport is also a young process. The CoA has only been around for around 18 months. Enabling disabled drivers to compete at the highest levels of motorsport is still in its early days. There will be bumps in the road.

For Öhman, those bumps should be from landing over the two jumps around the Höljes rallycross track next year.

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