21 May 20

The former soldier who used motorsport to battle his demons

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us all to reflect on our mental health as much as our physical, but one former soldier has turned to motorsport to fight his internal battles.

Lionel O'Connor has faced severe trials after losing his left leg while on a tour of duty with the British Army in Iraq in 2006.

The vehicle O'Connor was riding in struck an improvised explosive device, which took off his left leg above the knee and killed two of his comrades.

"Although I had life-changing injuries, my friends had lost their lives and in my head, I was the lucky one," said O'Connor, who served with the Royal Anglian Regiment.

"Physically I did pretty well, it was the mental side that took me down as I was self-medicating, I was drinking and eating way too much and it started affecting my home life massively."

These problems eventually took their toll on his relationship with his family. At one stage, he got into a fight and was facing a possible prison sentence, but it was the realisation that he needed to make a drastic change in his life that put him into contact with Mission Motorsport.

"I found Mission Motorsport and that was where things started to change for the better," said O'Connor. "I was part of something where I felt like I belonged.

"It's given me that new sense of self-being and mental health is absolutely number one when it comes to well-being."

As coronavirus has forced many people indoors, mental health and well-being have been at the forefront of the conversation, but O’Connor is experienced at locking himself away.

"This lockdown for me hasn't seen a big change in my life if I'm being honest,” he said.

"In the injured side of my life I kind of self-isolated anyway and it's charities like Mission Motorsport that brought me out. For your mental health, you do need to get out and to connect with people."

Lionel O'Connor (second from right) with British racing driver Billy Monger (centre)

O’Connor describes his journey with Mission Motorsport as “quite surreal.” 

In 2015 he took over the role of car control and has been coordinating Mission Motorsport's stunt team, including entertaining more than 60,000 people at the Autosport show earlier this year.

Volunteering at Mission Motorsport also brought him into contact with Billy Monger, working with the talented British racing driver who lost both of his legs to amputation following a horror crash in a British Formula 4 race at Donington Park at the age of 17 in 2017.

"Billy would jump in the car and do it straight away, and this was months after his injury, not years," O'Connor remembered. "It was quite annoying that he was this good!"

O'Connor was inspired by the support Monger received from his family and the young racer's positive attitude throughout everything, believing that this support is key to making it through any life-changing event.

"It's different from what we've gone through but in the end, we're kind of on a similar path in terms of recovery and it's how you deal with that early on that sets yourself up for the future," he added.

O'Connor is the latest driver from Mission Motorsport to join the ABB Formula E Race at Home Challenge after Gareth Paterson's previous outings in the sim racing competition. 

After some tips and tricks from Paterson, O'Connor is ready to take on the world's fastest sim racers on the Challenge grid, saying: "As long as I'm sticking to how I should be driving then I will be happy because these drivers aren't novices, they know what they're doing. I'll just try and stick with them!"