Groupe Renault
Alpine | 13 July 2021

Hero material!

3 MIN
Sport

In the high-tech world of motorsport, risk is omnipresent. Racewear consequently needs to comply with strict safety requirements, which is why you’ll never see a driver get behind the wheel in casual cotton slacks! Alpine Elf Matmut Endurance Team driver Matthieu Vaxivière reveals the relationship he has with his helmet and details the level of safety required for all the clothing he puts on before getting into the A480’s cockpit.

PAR RENAULT GROUP
The surreal days when the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio would race wearing a polo short and soft leather head-protection seem such a long time ago! Today, any driver who turned up in clothing like that wouldn’t even be allowed to take part in a historic race!
The scary accident of Frenchman Romain Grosjean at last year’s Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix provided the public with a stark reminder of the dangers racing drivers face. Huge steps are taken to minimise the risk, however, and the garments they wear are much more than a prestigious uniform – they are quite simply the protective frontline in the case of an accident.

Not only is our helmet our best friend in an accident, it is also our crest.

Matthieu Vaxivière
Alpine Elf Matmut Endurance Team driver

A reinforced but lightweight helmet

Thanks to the work of its partner, the Global Institute for Motor Sport Safety, the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) continuously endeavours to improve existing racewear, as testified by the new safety standard it introduced for Formula 1 and the World Endurance Championship at the beginning of the 2020 season.
According to this standard, known as 8856-2018, it is now compulsory for pilots' helmets - mandatory made from carbon fibre - to incorporate advanced ballistic protection above the visor. They also are submitted to an unprecedented array of torture tests, including exposure to a 790°C flame. And to think that the first hard helmets of the 1950s were made from shellac-coated canvas!
The helmet is the first safety element of the pilot
But a helmet must remain as light as possible, as Matthieu Vaxivière explains: "Lightness is very important for a helmet, especially in an endurance prototype like the A480 hypercar. We are subjected to high lateral Gs in the curves, which make our head ‘heavier’. Every gram you save make it easier to stay out longer in the car."
The hunt for grams is going on everywhere, even in the decorative paint on the helmet. Matthieu's helmet, recognisable by the trio of blue, yellow and red colours that have followed him since the beginning, is only coated with... 76 grams of paint, not one more!

Fighting fire

But the peril all drivers fear the most is fire and, for this reason, flame-resistant race suits and underwear – made chiefly of Nomex – have been mandatory since the late 1960s .
The 8856-2018 standard also applies to these race suits. They must not only be capable of standing up to a temperature of 700°C for 12 seconds, but they must also meet stringent heat-transfer requirements. It is thanks to this measure that Romain Grosjean was able to survive a whole 28 seconds in flames and walk away with just burns to his hands.
The pilots' flame-resistant race suit withstands a temperature of 700°C for 12 seconds
Racing gloves are effectively more vulnerable than race suits in a fire. The fact that drivers want to be able to feel the tiniest sensations transmitted by their steering wheel means that parts of their gloves are made with just a single layer of flame-resistant fabric. The FIA is fully aware of leather’s tendency to shrink when exposed to flames, though, and consequently recommends using as little hide as possible, despite its undeniable tactile properties.
The regulations also stipulate that embellishments such as embroidered logos, flocking and print employed to customise racewear and promote team sponsors must be certified as fire-resistant. Underwear, balaclavas and socks also need to be homologated.

Do not forget comfort

Although the primary purpose of race suits is to protect drivers from burns, they still need to be comfortable, especially in endurance racing where drivers spend up to four hours at a time behind the wheel. “It is important for race suits to be individually tailored to match your build,” says Alpine Elf Matmut Endurance Team driver Matthieu Vaxivière. “During a long stint, you really don’t want anything to hamper you. Even a poorly-stitched seam can prove highly uncomfortable.”
The race suit must protect the pilot, but also leave him free to move
To ensure that the drivers are as comfortable as possible, garment makers pay careful attention to the fabrics they employ. As a result, today’s race suits are protective, lightweight and made from breathable textiles. Those worn by Alpine Elf Matmut Endurance Team’s drivers are made in Italy by Sabelt and tip the scales at just 265g/m2!
But while comfort must not be forgotten, it is the safety aspect that counts most when designing the fabric of heroes.

 

Our main concern is safety.
Matthieu Vaxivière