Feature: Anthony Davidson – From patient to fighter again

There are some drivers in motorsport who face unbelievable adversity in racing, only to come back stronger each and every time. Anthony Davidson is certainly one of those drivers. It’s one thing to come back from a team closure, but Davidson came back from much more.

Formula 1 - BAR, Minardi & Super Aguri

The Brit began his motorsport career with the crosshairs firmly on Formula One, picking up the BRDC Young Driver Award on the way. He joined British American Racing as test driver in 2000, a role he would hold for much of the decade. He also did two Grands Prix with Minardi in 2003, replacing Alex Yoong. Another Grand Prix start followed in 2005, this time with BAR Honda as he filled in for Takuma Sato.

The Briton looked at other options, with Williams being the most notable, but Davidson’s break into Formula One came when Honda-backed Super Aguri signed him to partner Takuma Sato. The team, founded by Aguri Suzuki and Mark Preston, one-time podium finisher with Larrousse in 1990 and former McLaren tech chief respectively, was basically created to keep the popular Sato in the sport.

Davidson's only full season in F1 came in 2007

The team did not exactly set the world in fire, but Davidson occasionally showed his strenghts, most notably with an impressive qualifying performance at the Turkish Grand Prix. Super Aguri folded halfway through the 2008 season. Davidson would not secure a race seat again, although he continued to be involved with Brawn GP and later Mercedes after Honda left F1 all together.

The switch to endurance

Out of options in F1, Davidson turned to sportscars. Davidson's new life in sportscars began with an appearance at the 2009 24 Hours of Le Mans with Aston Martin, although he did compete in the 2003 24 Hours of Le Mans with a Prodrive-entered Ferrari 550 GTS.

After Aston Martin, Davidson moved on to Peugeot, signing on to drive their 908 HDI FAP in the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, helping the manufacturer secure the title twice in a row.

Davidson helped Peugeot to two titles before the doors closed

“My first sportscar race was in 2003, in the GT class with Prodrive. But my first full season was 2010, with Peugeot, when it was still the ILMC, the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup,” Davidson told Motorsport Week.

Unfortunately, Peugeot pulled on the eve of the new FIA World Endurance Championship when it hit money troubles. With Peugeot out of the picture, Davidson turned his attention back to the Land of the Rising Sun and signed with Toyota, who were making their long-awaited endurance return in the first season of the FIA WEC.

“It was thanks to the FIA and the ACO that turned a great championship into a world championship. It was really nice to compete in that era, where you had Porsche, Audi, Toyota all doing battle without any Balance of Performance or any Success Ballast or success handicaps. It was pure racing.”

Disaster at Le Mans

Things finally looked in order for the Briton, who had a factory seat in a strong prototype program, backed by one of the largest automotive corporations on the planet. But then came the 2012 edition of Le Mans.

Davidson was lined up to drive the #7 Toyota TS030 Hybrid in the French endurance classic.  In hour six, disaster struck. Davidson attempted to pass the #81 GTE Am Ferrari of Pierguiseppe Perazzini as the pair entered Mulsanne corner.  For whatever reason, the two fail to give each other enough room and the Ferrari’s right front clips the left rear of the much quicker hybrid prototype.

Marshalls on the scene in the aftermath of the crash

“So basically, it was an overtake going into Mulsanne Corner, the kink into Mulsanne, so turn thirteen,” Davidson said as he retold the crash from his perspective. “I passed the car almost, and basically, he didn’t see me, tagged my left rear wheel, car took off into the air at 180 miles an hour. 

I remember going upside down, the engine stalling, basically thinking I was going to die, but I was completely calm. Completely calm, it’s like the body releases some kind of drug to calm you down, it’s really odd.

I had an almighty impact and I knew that my back was in trouble straight away. Sort of quickly got myself out the car, but knowing that I had really damaged my back and then just laid on the bodywork and waiting for the marshalls to come round.”

Davidson is able to climb out of the wreck himself before requesting assistance. He is transported to a local hospital, where the news is far from good. The eleventh and twelfth thoracic vertebrae in his back are broken, and he is flown home to begin a recovery process, expected to take multiple months.

“It was pretty scary stuff. But the road to recovery was almost as scary as the crash itself.” 

The road back to racing

Such a significant injury could easily spell the end of a career for a lesser individual. But Davidson bounces back, recovers and returns to the team for the 2013 season and goes on to the 2014 FIA World Endurance Championship alongside Sebastien Buemi.

“2014 was obviously the year I won the championship and it was my favorite,” Davidson says while recalling his Toyota memories. “2012 certainly wasn’t, because that was the year I broke my back at Le Mans. And to recover from that and come back and win the championship was a nice moment, really. 

To battle my demons at the same track at Le Mans year after year… It took a lot of courage, I must say, and to be rewarded by winning the championship after such a hard time in your career… it’s something I can be really proud about.”

The Briton won a world title in 2014 with Toyota

It’s hard not to be impressed by Davidson’s comeback. To return to racing at all after such a crash is one thing, but to return to the same track and go on to become world champion is a truly laudable achievement.

When asked to shine a light on what it took to return to Le Mans, he explained: “You’ve always got to learn from your mistakes, or other people’s mistakes and it’s part of what gives you the experience to go on and drive a good championship and a good Le Mans without making any kind of error, or watching out for other people’s errors, it’s a big part of it. 

It’s what gives you that experience to do well in the future. So that was the first thing: to learn from any mistakes and put it right.“ 

At the FIA Hall of Fame ceremony in Paris, where Davidson was inducted for his 2014 title victory, he pointed out how gruelling it had been to recover from such an enormous setback.

“But the biggest thing really was overcoming the injury itself. You know, a 25% compression in your vertebrae is not messing around, serious stuff, and it still gives me a bit of jib today. And it’s that courage, you need to get back from an injury, the will to get back into the car. To go from feeling like a patient, or being a patient, to being a fighter again, is a long road.”

The Hemel Hempstead native also elaborated upon the mental aspect of his road to recovery. “And it’s not just the scar tissue healing that means you’re okay to do battle again. The longer fight is in your head. Anyone who’s had an injury in racing or any sport and come back from it to recover, to go on to success knows what I’m talking about. We see it a lot in our sport and it’s never to be underestimated.”

Life after Toyota

After the high of 2014, Davidson continued to race with Toyota for three more years. In that time, he came heartbreakingly close to a Le Mans win in 2016 and had a strong 2017, taking five wins en route to third in the championship before he was moved aside for the incoming Fernando Alonso. He transitioned into a test and reserve role before making the switch to LMP2, joining Dragonspeed at Silverstone in 2018 en route to a podium in Sebring and a win in the crazy 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps.

He then joined JOTA alongside Roberto Gonzalez and Antonio Felix da Costa, where he has so far taken a win in Shanghai and a podium last time out in Bahrain. At the Hall of Fame ceremony in Paris, Davidson said how much he has been enjoying life in LMP2.

“I’m having such fun in LMP2. It’s a breath of fresh air after my time at the end of Toyota when it was turning a little bit sour, if I’m honest. Not from their side, but mostly from my side. And to do LMP2 is a real breath of fresh air and I’m loving racing again.”

If there is one thing that can be taken away from the career of Anthony Davidson, it’s certainly to never give up. Through injury or just plain bad luck, the now 40-year-old Davidson has forged a path for himself that brought him a world title and a Hall of Fame induction, ensuring his spot among motorsport’s all time greats.