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Just outside Chichester, West Sussex, a lone Ferrari is plying its way around the Goodwood Motor Circuit. This is where Jackie Stewart was discovered, and where Stirling Moss’s career was to end in a crash against one of the merciless earth banks.
The scarlet supercar has been going quite slowly but is now picking up speed as its driver gains confidence. At the exit of the chicane he opens the throttles wide and passes the pits, the Ferrari’s V8 engine howling in approval.
A lap later he peels off the track and into the paddock, killing the motor as the car rolls to a halt. He sits in silence while his wife rushes up to meet him – but then he smiles, turns to her and says, “I’m not getting out.” Another pause. “Ever.”
It’s something anyone might say having just driven a Ferrari at Goodwood but for 47-year-old Jonathan Percy the experience has greater meaning. He is a multiple sclerosis sufferer and wheelchair user who has not driven any car anywhere for almost two years. His return to the hot seat has been made possible by a Ferrari believed to be the first supercar converted to hand controls for use by disabled drivers at “track-days”, where driving enthusiasts are let loose on celebrated racing circuits.
“We’d like to take the credit,” says Chris Taylor of Mithril Racing, which owns and converted the F355 Ferrari, “but Jonathan is the real reason we decided to make the car. We’d been thinking about having a car with hand controls because we knew many people with disabilities are also thrill-seekers who may have become disabled while serving in the forces or riding motorbikes. But it was only when Jonathan got in touch and asked if there was anything he could drive at Goodwood that we decided to go ahead.”
For Percy, coming to Goodwood was more than merely an entertaining way of passing the time. “My health had not been good for a while and it meant I was unable to drive. My wife Debbie had to do all the driving while also being my carer. But now I feel ready to get back on the road and this is the first step.”
Some step. Although the Ferrari is fully equipped for anyone who can drive a conventional car with hand controls, getting all 6ft 2in of Percy into its small, low cockpit is not easy, especially as he’s not exactly keen on being helped. For a moment it looks as if his legs won’t go past the steering wheel, whose vertical adjustment had to be sacrificed to fit the hand controls. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’m a determined bugger and if I decide to do something, usually I’ll find a way of doing it.” In this case it involves removing the Ferrari’s entire targa roof panel so he can grab the top of the windscreen and pull himself up before dropping back down behind the wheel.
With an instructor to show him the controls and the way around this challenging circuit, Percy eases the car smoothly out on to the track. Despite all that time off the road, having driven only once with hand controls (fitted to a Nissan Micra) and never having so much as sat in a Ferrari, within three laps he has the F355 singing.
When it’s all over, his first instinct is simply to stay put. “I’d have been pleased just to see a car like this, and delighted to be able to sit in it. But to be able to drive it at Goodwood – well it kind of takes your breath away.”
The timings of Percy’s first and last laps were so different that they could have been driven by two people, so quickly did he master car and circuit. “I’ll just have to come back and do it again,” he says. “This has made me more determined than ever to get back on the road.” From the look in his eyes, you know he means it.
I ask Percy to sum up the experience in one sentence: “It’s pain relief on wheels,” he says.
Driving experiences in the converted Ferrari start at £119 for three laps, see www.mithril.co.uk