What's MotoGP ever done for us? Pt.2

Following on from looking into how Grand Prix racing has revolutionised the very bikes we ride, here’s how the riding kit the fastest racers on the planet wear has shaped what we use today

For early pioneers in any discipline, safety has never been of primary concern. The Wright Brothers first took to the air in flat-caps and bowler hats on an aircraft made of string and box cartons, while the very first submarines had wooden hulls covered in greased leather. The early steam locomotives in the late 1800 used to explode with alarming alacrity if too much pressure was allowed to build, and who can forget the American John Stapp, who in 1947 subjected himself to 46g on a rocket-sled while testing ejector seats, detaching his retinas and permanently bursting blood vessels in his head in the process. Being the first at anything is always a slightly hit and miss affair.

And it has been no different with motorcycle riding kit. The first racers around the Isle of Man did so in plus-fours and brogues. When they crashed (which they did, frequently) they left large portions of themselves on the road. In those days they would doubtless have laughed their horrific injuries off as “a mere flesh wound” and carried on, but in today’s totalitarian state, such gentlemanly behaviour isn’t even allowed any more and the demands for ever-better safety kit rolls on.

But here’s the thing: does Valentino Rossi’s ‘brisk’ Sunday afternoon ride with 20 of his mates actually mean that a while later the kit we wear has improved quantifiably? Barry Sheene’s era in the 1970s and 1980s saw some big leaps forward in protection – notably for Barry himself – while on the road most of us just wore a crash helmet (‘cos we had to) and whatever gloves we could find. Goal-keeper gloves were a favourite in summer. But as bikes improved and our tastes turned to sportsbikes, our penchant for clothing has gone that way too. And leading the way in terms of development are the racers of the MotoGP class. They are – in effect – crash-test dummies for you and me.

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Helmets - Refined to protect

Helmets - Refined to protect

A quick look at the development of the earliest Arai helmet into today’s Corsair show’s that today’s helmet is a refinement of the same basic design that stems back more than 20 years, back to Freddie Spencer and his 1983 Astro. “Over the last 20 years helmets have become lighter, more aerodynamically shaped but at the same time considerably stiffer and more rigid,” says Arai Europe’s Ingmar Stroeven. “New shell materials, Kevlar composites, and new constructions are important in this respect. Another aspect in which enormous progress has been made is the ventilation, essential for the riders’ comfort and therefore safety. Racing gives us high-speed data and experience in wet and misty conditions. On the track we learn how to make sure that optimum ventilation is guaranteed, visors don’t mist and helmet fit is comfortable.”

As well as the basic design, fit, visor and de-misting qualities, racing has also led to the development of various tints of visors, high-definition rain visors and tear-offs. The days of ‘Korky’ Ballington racing in his clear visor with tinted Gerry Rafferty shades beneath his lid are thankfully long gone. Perhaps most importantly, racing over the years has also helped helmet manufacturers analyse the forces involved in a crash.

In 2004 Shinya Nakano crashed his Kawasaki MotoGP bike at 200mph at the end of the Mugello straight when his rear tyre disintegrated. “A crash like that is hard to forget and I still remember it very well as I wasn’t knocked out,” says Shinya. “I remember thinking ‘this is very fast!’ I knew then that I had been very lucky and I couldn’t say enough about the leathers and helmet I was wearing. Both these items helped save my life. I know that the helmet is still being used in the USA for technical seminars and it was exhibited in Europe a few times.”

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Leathers – From wafer-thin to bulletproof monks

Leathers – From wafer-thin to bulletproof monks

Geoff Duke was one of the trailblazers for leathers. “I wore the first ever one-piece suit at the 1950 TT,” says Geoff today. “That suit had no armour whatsoever but then I started having them padded at the shoulders and the elbows. My thinking was that you’re not supposed to fall off, so I didn’t worry about the suit’s protective qualities. A lot of injuries could have been saved if we’d had modern riding gear but it was more up to the rider back then – if he made a mistake then he paid the consequences and he learned from the experience.”

The introduction of armour into leathers has come hand in glove (arf!) with advances in materials. Cowhide has been used in the main, but traditional ‘leather’ has now been joined by kangaroo, backed up with other materials such as Kevlar, titanium, plastic and even stingray skin. Double stitching has also given way to triple, quadruple and even five-layers of stitching in some suits. Thread has been improved to the likes of today’s Oxley thread, which is super-strong and abrasion resistant. The overall design of suits has also changed. Fewer panels means fewer joins and stitches, therefore less chance of the seams bursting. Brian Sansom of BKS knows about leathers. He’s covered the arses of Carl Fogarty, Michael Rutter and Phillip McCallen. “Like all suits ours benefit as a direct result of MotoGP racing, and James Toseland’s input is crucial to our development program. Our off-the-peg range is the culmination of a number of years’ hard work putting the deal together as well as James’ direct input into the leathers and both their safety and style features.”

Toseland himself has been working closely with Sansom since the Frank Thomas take-over of BKS. “This year has been a bit of an eye opener for me,” admits James. “There’s a huge amount of work involved in getting a set of leathers just right. Being the sole BKS rider, all efforts are focussed on what I want. Let’s be honest, I’ve done my fair-share of crashing so far this year but they’ve kept me safe. I even crashed three times at Donington in the same suit and I didn’t damage myself. Could you have gotten away with that 15 years ago? It’s doubtful.”

Style is a big ingredient in leathers. In the 1960s the boring black suits were beginning to give way to coloured suits, resplendent with sponsors’ logos on them. When he started with Frank Thomas on the BKS project, Toseland knew the leathers had to be stylish. He says: “This is such an important factor. We know the Italians are good at it, but I wanted to be able to stand next to Valentino in his Dainese and for him to look at me in my British-designed BKS leathers and think; ‘Wow! They’re good!” Humps made an appearance on leathers in the early 1990s. Some say for speed, some say to protect the neck. And then there’s the ‘inner boot’ system that Dainese still use today, where the leathers go over the boot. This system was first tested in the late 1990s by Rossi. Carl Fogarty who used the system said: “To be honest I thought it looked a bit daft at first, but apparently it helped with aerodynamics. Who knows?”

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Boots – Science in a size 10

Boots – Science in a size 10

Look at a pair of 1970s race boots and they look more like wellies. But things progressed fairly rapidly. Material such as leather was originally used, but this has been replaced in many boots by Lorica, a man-made replacement. Armour was soon found on the shin and ankles, mainly from PU – or polyurethane ‘plastic’ - while strengthened soles were developed in the 1990s to counter the number of ‘crush’ injuries that racers were sustaining.

Colin Edwards and Aaron Slight helped develop the Sidi Vertebra boot that were popular in the late 1990s, named for its ‘backbone’ of protective plates along the rear of the boot. Colin also went on to help with the design of the Vertigo boot, which is one of the most popular boots in the UK today, featuring a series of adjustable ‘cords’ that tighten the fit of the boot to suit the user. Edwards says: “You can tell the guys back at the factory what works and what doesn’t. I think it was something like 2001-2002 that I was developing the Vertigo with Sidi. What we find out on the track when we get it all wrong filters back down to the guys on the street.”

Few people can claim they’ve developed a boot that won them a championship. Apart from Kenny Roberts Junior: “I would say that my Alpinestars boots made the difference between me winning or losing the 500cc World Title in 2000. The inner was constructed from a cast of your foot in carbon fibre and the outer was traditional leather with sliders fitted. At Assen in 2000 my RGV500 seized on the first lap and I went over the high-side at more than 100mph. My feet were body-slammed to the ground, as was the rest of me. I was pretty sore afterwards, but there were no broken bones. I’m convinced I would have broken my foot if it wasn’t for those boots.”

And the likes of toe sliders have been developed over the last two decades. Mike Hailwood would grind the toes of his boots to atoms at the TT and on the rostrum you would see the chamfered pinkies still bleeding beneath. Modern race bikes – and road bikes for that matter – are capable of amazing lean angles, so therefore a well-positioned and sturdy toe-slider can not only act as a gauge for how far over you’ve got the bike, but also keep your little right toe safe.

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Gloves – Tougher than leather

Gloves – Tougher than leather

Back in the 1970s, race gloves were more like the sort of Victorian supple leather gloves that Raffles the gentleman thief would leave behind as his calling card. Things swiftly moved on, with padding and later armour being used in the construction of the gloves, as well as extra layers of palm leather, Kevlar inserts and today the likes of carbon and even specific scaphoid protection. Keeping the gloves on in a crash was a problem, but in the 1980s wrist Velcro straps joined the cuff straps to help the gloves stay put in a spill. The general design of ‘hard knuckle protection’ that is now prevalent on race gloves and came first with Dainese’s gloves from the mid-1990s.

These were made-to-measure for the racers of the day – Carl Fogarty being a notable user. Casts were made of the riders’ knuckles before the shape was woven in carbon fibre. Pretty soon road versions were released (for an extortionate £199 at 1999 prices) but soon other companies – such as Belstaff – were producing almost identical items called the ‘Max Carbon’ for just £89.

Fashionable although they may have been, the ‘reinforced knuckle’ designs did the job, as KRJR can testify. “I was wearing Spyke gloves once, with the hard carbon and Kevlar knuckle protection in the back. I crash tested them at Barcelona, right at the end of the long Catalunya straight… my hand was trapped under the handlebar briefly and it’s then that you think the worst. I got up and I didn’t get a scratch.”

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Armour – Safe like a battletank

Armour – Safe like a battletank

In 1976 Bazza Sheene had leathers which featured a hard-plastic outer and a soft foam inner so they absorbed impacts – this was the first use of body armour. The back-protector is another Sheene innovation. Originally developed by Barry at home using three-quarter inch foam, the design developed further when he handed the design over to Dainese. Barry once said: “Some guy gave me a jockey’s back protector in 1973 and that was the start. I modified it, formed some helmet visors onto a plastic plate and made it so it would bend forwards rather than backwards. I then gave it to Dainese in 1977 to make it.” The same general design is still with us today.

Geoff Travell was a part-time club racer in the early 1980s and full-time upholsterer. One day, he was lying in his hospital bed after an incident at Snetterton on his TZ250 when he decided enough was enough. Using his experience in both racing and upholstering armour specialists ProTek were born. Geoff says: “There I was with a transit van full of armour in 1981, selling it to the public, when in the queue waiting to buy was Wayne Gardner!” Recent research (the MAIDS 2004 report into accidents) show’s that only 1% of riders suffer neck injuries in a collision compared to 12% affecting the spine and thorax, or chest area, meaning that head, spine and chest injuries are biking’s biggest killers.

That’s why for some armour specialists such as KNOX, back and chest protection is the priority, not the new neck braces that many people are looking at. Travell says: “We’ve had research into helmets and back protectors, and now we know that protection of the chest, or thorax is important. But we need to look more at neck injuries, so we need to look at neck braces and air-bags. While there’s been a strong response to neck braces from motocross riders, the majority of road riders don’t use a back protector, so we’ve still got some way to go.”

Colin Edwards has experience of using chest protectors. He says: “It’s strange, but when you’ve never used it, you don’t miss it, but now I feel naked without one. I’ve crashed and got caught up with the bike and you get a heck of a thump to your torso but the chest armour takes that shit for you. Nothing’s fool-proof but I want the best in safety and any advance like this I’m going to use.”

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So, what's MotoGP ever done for us?

So, what's MotoGP ever done for us?

As it turns out, bloody loads. Bike racing is the ultimate test-bed for new product and since the 1970s, there has been a steady stream of race-bred technology wafting down to us mere plebs. In summing up the development of riding kit through decades of racing, here’s what Steve Parrish has to say on the matter.

“Quite honestly, the stuff we wore at the end of the 70s and even into the 80s, you’d have been better off wearing jeans. The leathers were so lightweight they were a joke and there was zero armour in them. Barry used to experiment with bits of plastic bowls and suchlike to provide make-shift armour. We never even had knee-sliders, just layers of tape on our knees. I had a set of TRIM leathers and down I went at Mallory Park. As I stood up the things literally fell off me and I was standing in front of the fans in my underpants. The speed of the crash had burned them away to nothing, leaving me with scars I still have today. The sheer level of protection and comfort today is huge. Gloves too. I’ve got carbon protection on the knuckles, Kevlar on the palm, but my old gloves were only good for playing golf in. I can honestly say that the average Joe in the cheapest kit he can get hold of is safer and better off than we were 20 years ago. No question.”

The next step is air-bag systems and neck braces, already used successfully in MotoGP and now filtering down to mainstream use as their expense comes down. So say a big ‘thank you’ to the world’s best racers. If it wasn’t for them, you’d be cradling a lot more than a bruised ego every time you went down.

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