Each category of motorsport carries its own dangers, although few are as risky as motorcycle racing. Unlike Formula 1 or IndyCar, MotoGP riders are completely exposed on the track, with no survival cell shell or Halo for protection in the event of an accident.
That was even more apparent at the 2020 Austrian Grand Prix, when after a collision between Franco Morbidelli and Johann Zarco on the way to Turn 3, both flew into the gravel at speed. Meanwhile, their bikes nearly took out Valentino Rossi and Maverick Viñales, who narrowly avoided serious injury.
Given the risks, every aspect of a pilot’s outfit has been designed to give you the best possible protection. While not all types of accidents are taken into account, the measures used in MotoGP could mean the difference between life and death.
The MotoGP helmet
In 2019, the FIM (International Motorcycling Federation) introduced new rules requiring MotoGP riders’ helmets to be homologated to their standards. This was done to improve levels of protection against brain injuries that could be caused by strong impacts.
First, helmet manufacturers must ensure that their helmets meet one of three internationally recognized standards: ECE in Europe, JIS in Japan, and Snell in the United States. Only then can they apply for FIM approval.
The FIM tests are more stringent and include an oblique impact test where helmets are dropped onto a 45° anvil at different speeds to measure absorption levels. The impact surface is covered with sandpaper to mimic friction on tarmac, and the helmets house a silicone human head dummy to make the test as representative as possible.
The FIM requires 10 helmets of every size a brand makes to be tested, with homologation given to each individual size. Once approved, helmets sport a QR code that links to a web page containing information about the helmet brand, and a separate sticker confirming that it meets the FIM standard.
The materials used to make a helmet can vary, with some being formed from a carbon fiber composite and others using a mix of fiberglass, Kevlar and resin. In that latter method the materials are pushed into a mould, after which the visor gap is cut with a laser. The helmet manufacturer then signs off the inside and two more people are needed to check the thickness and weight of the helmet shell.
The next layer is made of Styrofoam. Unlike what you might find in a fragile content pack, that one is much more high-tech, with different densities in the build depending on which areas of the head need absolute protection or wicking qualities.
Then there’s the inside of the helmet: along with the cheek pads, it’s removable so it can be washed, and riders can have them tailored for a snug, comfortable fit that takes into account the shape of their head.
Ventilation features are also built into each helmet to wick away sweat, and a fluid system allows riders to drink while racing. Drivers typically have three or four helmets on the circuit during a race weekend, so there are plenty of spares if one gets damaged.
MotoGP helmets visor
Racing helmets would not be complete without a visor and, like the outer shell, they have to be extremely strong to protect riders from flying debris that can impact them. If dirt builds up on the visor to the point where it’s hard to see the track, the disposable strips can be quickly removed during a race to remove that dirt and release a new one.
MotoGP visors are made from a material that will not crack or fracture, so debris that becomes projectile at high speed does not pose a risk to the rider’s vision. They can also be covered with an anti-fog coating that prevents condensation from building up in cold conditions.
Pilots rarely use fully transparent visors, with most opting for a glare-reducing tint. Some visors are tinted pink on the inside, allowing drivers to more easily identify tarmac features, increasing their performance and reducing the chance of going through debris on the track.
Special visors are used when it rains. These are double glazed to prevent fogging and a rubber seal around the edge of the visor prevents rainwater from seeping into the helmet.
Suits and leather of the riders in MotoGP
Modern racing suits are sophisticated equipment and in MotoGP they are tailored to each rider to achieve the best fit for each individual. This is to maximize comfort in the aggressive position that riders take on the bike.
Leather panels, often derived from kangaroo skin or cowhide, are sewn by hand, and each suit requires many hours of work. MotoGP suits typically weigh several kilos, unlike the lightweight, flame-retardant suits used in F1.
Leather was widely used in motorcycle racing suits as early as the 1950s, although the complexity of designs has increased dramatically since then. There are many reasons why leather became the material of choice, although its ability to resist abrasion is the main quality behind its continued use today.
Accordion stretch panels at the knees, lower back and underarms give riders crucial freedom of movement at all times and allow blood to circulate freely. There is an inner lining that can be washed and removed, and the suits are designed with ventilation in mind so that air enters the front and back, wicking away moisture and keeping riders cool even in hot weather.
The hump at the rear is one of the most prominent features of any motorcycle suit. Initially introduced to improve airflow and increase a bike’s top speed, the hump has since been used to house drinking water, cooling ducts and electronic devices.
Elsewhere, some riders like to line the inside of the legs of their suits with a grippy silicone material: this makes it easier to grip the body of the bike and, in turn, can increase the amount of control you get. they have on her.
In addition to all these features, the latest suits have a number of extra woven safety devices to keep riders safe .
Airbag a MotoGP
The most complex of the safety devices is the airbag, which has been used in MotoGP for years but finally became mandatory in 2018. It is placed around the back, shoulders and rib cage inside the suit, and is designed to absorb the forces endured by riders when they fall off their bikes.
The racing suits are equipped with accelerometers, gyroscopes and GPS, and the MotoGP airbag activates when sensors detect that a fall has occurred. The software is very smart and can tell the difference between a minor incident and a near miss, so it’s not randomly inflated.
Two canisters of gas are secreted inside the suit, and when the system detects a fall, the airbag chambers inflate fully in just 25 milliseconds; about a quarter of the time it takes to blink. They remain inflated for about five seconds, at which point the pilot will usually have stopped.
Modern MotoGP airbag systems differ from early models in that they act completely independently of the bike itself. Early versions featured a cable attached to the body of the bike, much like the emergency stop mechanism on a treadmill. When a pilot fell, the cable was pulled and the system was activated.
Breastplate of the suits of the MotoGP riders
Leather alone is not enough to protect a rider’s body in a fall, so the most vulnerable areas are reinforced with shells designed to absorb shock and spread the force of impacts.
The elbows, shoulders, knees and hips get the most attention in that regard, but the race suits have pockets inside to store protectors. These must be light and flexible so that they do not hinder the rider’s position on the motorcycle or cause discomfort.
The gloves of Marc Marquez, Repsol Honda Team
MotoGP gloves are also made of leather and must overlap the rider’s suit by at least 50mm. A secure fastening system is also a must so they don’t break if a rider falls.
Protective plates on the palm and wrist are common, and the knuckles are also often reinforced; an element that often provides some aerodynamic benefits. The little finger and the ring finger of each MotoGP glove are usually tied together to limit the possibility of injuring the little finger.
On the palm side of the glove, the leather used on the fingers tends to be thinner than anywhere else, to allow the rider to feel the brake levers, which in itself is a key safety aspect. .
Knee and elbow pads in MotoGP
Knee pads started appearing in the 1970s when wider tires forced drivers to take on more aggressive cornering styles. Early design attempts were as improvised as you can imagine, with duct tape, wood, and even visor pieces strapped to the riders’ knees in an effort to beef up the level of protection in that area.
After years of development, manufacturers finally settled on a plastic-composite design that strikes the right balance between friction and wear, giving riders enough feel in the corners, yet proving tough enough to last al least one race. Usage varies from rider to rider, with some knee pads being used for days on end.
Knee pads are built into a rider’s suit and are normally positioned towards the outside of the knee rather than directly in front. However, riders can adapt the brace positioning to their needs depending on track conditions and speeds.
Around the turn of the century, MotoGP began to see riders adopt an elbows-down racing style, with Jean-Philippe Ruggia and Max Biaggi being two of the first to do so. Given that, elbow pads had to be developed as well, and now they are a common thing in modern suits. Different riders have different sized elbow pads depending on their riding style, and some even incorporate metal plates for added durability.
The rules state that elbow and knee pads must not create sparks or smoke, or leave debris on the track. This prevents the pilots’ vision from being affected during the race.
Poleman Marc Marquez, wearing Mick Doohan’s boots and gloves
The boots of the MotoGP riders
Modern MotoGP boots have over the years become one of the most painstakingly designed pieces of safety equipment worn by riders. They are made up of an inner boot and an outer layer: the first is surrounded by a type of exoskeleton, which provides additional protection to the heel and ankle in particular. The two areas are joined by a piece that allows some freedom of movement, but prevents excessive flexing in the event of an accident. Foam is also incorporated to diffuse the force of any impact and reduce the chance of broken bones.
The outer layer, meanwhile, is usually finished in leather, with even more panels to protect the heel and ankle. The rider’s suit must overlap the boot by at least 70mm, and the fastening method used must prevent the boot from coming off in an accident. The sole is perhaps the thinnest part of the set as it needs to be thin enough to give riders a perfect feel of the footpegs while riding. Inside the outer shell, a fine reflective surface helps limit any heat transfer caused by friction between the pegs and the boots, reducing the risk of developing painful blisters.
Some riders like to include toe sliders on the outer shell, although that really comes down to individual preference and riding style.
Rear and back protectors in MotoGP (back protectors)
The trellis was first used by Barry Sheene in 1979, created by Australian designer Marc Sadler and inspired by lobsters and armadillos.
In 40 years, modern back protectors have come on leaps and bounds. Ergonomically designed to fit the contours of the rider’s back, the aluminum core generally adopts a honeycomb structure to absorb impact forces. A larger surface will offer more protection, but the priority is to support the spine above all else.
Modern back protectors have moveable panels that allow riders to move reasonably freely on the bike. Ventilation prevents moisture buildup and keeps riders cool even in hot conditions.
The most advanced back protectors are sewn into a lower layer of the vest that brings together the airbag and electronic components in a single garment that can be worn comfortably under a suit. The less bulky the better, as a slimmer package allows for better aerodynamics and higher speeds.
Chest protector in MotoGP (Vests)
Chest protectors are mandatory in MotoGP and must cover a surface of at least 230 cm². Single and split chest protectors are allowed, and some are made of a high-tech foam that helps absorb impacts from debris or in a fall. They simply slip on the jumpsuit and are barely noticeable when fully zipped up.
Some vests are more akin to rigid back protectors, with a honeycomb structure that provides more substantial impact protection. They are also better ventilated, although there is more vibration transfer through the bike’s tank during racing.