Eastbourne Paralympian sets sights on Le Mans

A Paralympian skier from Eastbourne, who is ranked number five in the world, has joined a team that aims to be the first all-disabled group to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Tuesday, 21st September 2021, 1:44 pm
Updated Tuesday, 21st September 2021, 1:51 pm

James Whitley, who lives in Eastbourne but is originally from Northern Ireland, has become the latest driver to join Team BRIT.

Twenty Four Hours of Le Mans is a sports car race held annually in France where the winner is who covers the greatest distance in a day.

Mr Whitley, 23, was born without fingers and has undergone more than 30 operations to improve his hand function, many of which were carried out before he was five.

James Whitley next to the Team BRIT car. Picture from Chris Overend SUS-210921-112608001

At the age of six he was involved in a serious boat accident while on holiday with his family which resulted in multiple broken bones, internal bleeding and months in hospital.

After being in a wheelchair for almost a year, he was encouraged to contact the GB Paralympian ski team to improve his leg strength and help his recovery.

Having skied since the age of three, but losing confidence in adrenaline sports after his accident, he went along to a meeting of the development squad and by the age of 10 was invited to join the team.

At 13 he was promoted to the senior GB elite squad and began skiing in World Cup events.

James Whitley skiing. Picture from Team BRIT SUS-210921-112557001

In 2014, at the age of 16, he was ranked number two in the world U18s and was selected to represent Great Britain at the Winter Paralympics in Sochi and Pyeongchang, and at four World Championships.

Now in his final year of studying international relations with politics at Oxford Brookes University, Mr Whitley remains number five in the world in super-combined slalom and super-G skiing.

Having been a passionate fan of cars since he was a child, Mr Whitley began to look for opportunities to start racing himself.

Earlier this year he discovered Team BRIT and went to meet the team’s crew at its Dunsfold base.

After being assessed at track days he was offered a place as a rookie on the team and has now secured his official race licence.

Mr Whitley aims to compete for the first time later this year in the team’s BMW 118i.

He said, “I’ve discovered over the years that each apparent set back and disaster has only served to re-double my determination to overcome obstacles and to turn them into something positive.

“Having a disability has often meant that people would give me sympathy and be really surprised when I’ve been able to perform as well as or better than an able-bodied person, and it just pushes me on to want to be the fastest.

“I’ve always found adrenaline and speed to be an amazing source of stress-relief and having been obsessed with cars since I was a child, I was counting the days before I could get behind the wheel, and was go-karting when I could barely see over one.

“I’ve been attending track days with my own car for a couple of years but I’ve never raced and I’m so excited to get on the race track competitively for the first time.

“Thanks to ski racing, I have an athlete’s mindset and an eye for the racing line so I know I have as much chance of success as anyone else on the grid.

“For me, it’s about attention to detail and finding the marginal gains that will add up to a real advantage. I’m 100 per cent committed to this new challenge and every race will be about pushing for the podium.

“Longer term, I want to be with the team at Le Mans and there’s no reason why we can’t get there and be seriously competitive.”