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  • Writer's pictureAdéla Pavlovská

Safety in MotoGP


MotoGP is known for being an extremely dangerous sport, even more than Formula 1. What safety improvements have been made throughout the years to keep the riders as safe as possible?
 

HELMETS

In the same way as in Formula 1, also here were crash helmets not obligatory to wear from the beginning of time. In 1914, British physicist Eric Gardner got the idea of developing a helmet because of a large number of patients with head injuries. He also made helmets mandatory for the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy race in the same year. These helmets were made of leather; later of rubber and cork - incomparable to today's helmets made of carbon fibres. The first full-face crash helmet saw the light of day in the 70s.


The head and neck of a rider are the most vulnerable body parts and, therefore, must be protected carefully. MotoGP riders have to wear a full-face crash helmet homologated to FIM standards. The used materials can vary - some are made of carbon fibre, and some manufacturers use a mix of fibreglass, kevlar, and resin; the next layer is out of styrofoam. Inside the helmet, there are cheek pads, ventilation that draws away sweat, and a fluid system that allows the riders to drink during the race. They don't wear balaclavas as there is less of a fire risk than in F1. Helmets are light with an aerodynamical shape. Each competitor usually has around four helmets for a race weekend; the colour and design of them are up to the rider, and no rules are limiting this. Valentino Rossi was famous for his original models.

Race helmets are also equipped with a visor that protects riders from flying debris; there are tear-off polycarbonate strips as well. Riders rarely use completely clear visors - usually they are rose-tinted on the inside. When it rains, there are special visors that prevent condensation and rainwater from seeping into the helmet.


RACE SUITS

Leather, as a prominent material, has been used since the 1950s, and it is often derived from kangaroo skin. They are much heavier than fireproof overalls used in Formula 1 - the weight is around 3 kilos. Thanks to its ability to resist abrasion and impact, leather is used even nowadays. It gives crucial freedom of movement and free blood circulation. Suits are designed with ventilation to remove moisture and keep the riders cool. The suits are tailored to each rider to achieve maximum comfort. Some riders have a grippy, silicone material in between their legs to cling better to the body of the bike.

Image via redbull.com

Furthermore, the suit incorporates many safety elements. The most vulnerable areas, such as elbows, shoulders, knees, and hips, are reinforced with armour that soaks in the impact and spread its forces. The next thing is protective pieces put in the inner pockets - it's back protectors and chest protectors. Back protectors were first used in 1979 - Australian designer Marc Sadler drew the inspiration from lobsters and armadillos. Modern back protectors have ventilation, an aluminium core, and a honeycomb structure that absorbs the force of impacts and thus protects the rider's spine. They also have moving panels that allow riders to move freely on their bikes and offer better aerodynamics. Chest protectors are made of high-tech foam that helps absorb impacts. They are ventilated and have a honeycomb structure as well. It's mandatory to wear them - driving without a chest protector can result in a penalty, even if you accidentally lose it while racing, as happened to Fabio Quartararo during the Spanish GP in 2021.


The back hump made out of high-density foam is the most seen feature on a racing suit. It was introduced in 1988, and its original purpose was to act as a back protector. Now it holds much more uses. The primary purpose is to improve aerodynamics, which means fewer movements of the rider's head at high speeds and better concentration during the race. It also serves as a backpack of some sort - inside are electronics such as airbag accelerometers, gyroscopes, GPS devices, and a drink bottle. In recent times, LED lighting got introduced. The sensor inside the hump can detect a crash happening and flashes the LED lighting that makes the rider more visible to their competitors.

The most complex feature is the airbag which became mandatory no sooner than 2018. We can find it inside the suit in the area of the rider's back, shoulders, and rib cage. The airbag system used to be attached to the bike by a cord to work more as an emergency stop mechanism. Modern systems can act independently. When the light sensor in the back hump detects a fall, the airbag fully inflates in just twenty-five milliseconds and stays in this state for about five seconds. It can easily distinguish the actual fall and a setback on the track.


KNEE & ELBOW SLIDERS

Within the suit, there is also built-in removable protection for elbows, shoulders, and knees. Knee sliders made their debut in the 70s, with the earliest attempts being rather bizzarre - duct tape, wood, and even a piece of visor were used to boost the protection in this area. Nowadays, the slider is made out of plastic design that is comfortable yet durable. It is also one of the elements that come in direct contact with the asphalt as riders reach extreme lean angles while turning - therefore, it's used as a gauge, telling the riders how many degrees are too many degrees.

As some riders, such as Jean-Philippe Ruggia and Max Biaggi, started to adopt the elbow-down racing style, elbow sliders had to be made. The size of sliders differs from rider to rider; some even have metal plates to increase durability.

What is identical for both sliders is the rule that they mustn't create sparks, smoke, or leave debris on the track.


GLOVES & BOOTS

Same as the suit, racing gloves are out of leather. They must overlap the suit and have a secure fastening system. The leather is usually thinner on the palm for the riders to feel the brake levers without problems. The gloves usually have extra protection in the knuckles, certain fingers, and wrist area - there is a protective plate.

Racing boots are made of an inner boot - this sort of exoskeleton gives extra protection to the heel and ankle. There is also a foam that helps reduce the risk of broken bones - and an outer shell that is made of leather that needs to be thin enough on the foot to give the rider the feel of the asphalt. It also limits any transfer of heat caused by friction, and thus it reduces the risk of blisters.

Despite all the precautions, injuries are still too often in MotoGP, so the idea of not having these elements is simply unthinkable. But that doesn't mean we should stop here - there is still plenty of room for improvement.


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