Promoted: The motorsport gear you need for 2021
Finding out what equipment you need when starting out in motorsport can be a minefield. Stefan Mackley spoke to Grand Prix Racewear boss Anthony Cheshire to get some clarity
You've passed your ARDS test, got your new machine ready for your first race and, after months of waiting, you're almost ready to hit the track. But before you do there remains one daunting, but necessary, final hurdle - buy your racing equipment.
With various top-name brands on the market such as Alpinestars, OMP and Sparco, plus helmet manufacturers including Bell, Schuberth and Arai offering a plethora of items at a range of prices, it can be difficult to know exactly what you need.
So what does an enthusiastic amateur starting out need to go club racing, and how do you make sure you get the best equipment for your budget?
National governing body Motorsport UK dictates that all drivers competing in one of its sanctioned events must have an approved helmet, frontal head restraint (FHR), overalls, underwear, boots and gloves. All must have been certified by the FIA, motorsport's governing body, having been put through rigorous safety tests and met specific criteria, whether it be an impact test for a crash helmet or how fire retardant a set of overalls are.
In 2019 Anthony Cheshire, founder of trackday and car preparation specialist FF Corse, acquired Grand Prix Racewear, which supplies motorsport equipment from its base at Silverstone.
With over 25 years' experience in the industry, Cheshire is well placed to offer expert advice on the key things to consider when buying safety equipment.
"Everything adheres to the FIA safety standards - that's the important thing to understand," explains Cheshire.
"If you're buying it from a reputable source and it is an FIA standard approved for motorsport, then that standard will protect in the requirements needed to go racing. Providing you're doing that, then it comes down to adjusting your product range to your budget and working it through from there."
Before parting with your money, Cheshire advises doing extensive research and speaking directly to experts in-store to ensure the equipment is right for you.
"Motorsport is a significant investment whichever way you look at it, so why would you not do your research? Why would you not come and talk to people?" he says.
"Where is best to spend the money? Is it best to spend it on a new paint job on your car or is it best to spend it on a helmet that might just save your life?
"In terms of prioritising what you would spend your budget on, you've only got one head and it's the most important part of your body, so we would suggest that you focus the budget on protecting your head as a priority."
There are two different specifications of FIA approved helmets, 8859 and 8860, with the latter - updated last year - intended predominantly for drivers looking to take part in international racing or FIA-accredited championships.
Made primarily from carbon, they are lighter and stronger than entry-level helmets but cost far more - in excess of £1500. The FIA 8859-standard helmets vary between lighter carbonfibre and composite helmets, which are heavier, but will still have passed multiple safety tests, with some models also homologated to the Snell SA2015 standard.
Regardless of which helmet you choose, it's imperative that your first step should be to try on a selection.
"It's really important to see what fits best because the different helmets really fit people differently," says Cheshire.
"I know that sounds an odd thing to say - you'd say a helmet is a helmet - but until you have tried on the various helmet brands and the different sizes, you can't really tell what it's going to be like."
It's not only helmets that Cheshire insists customers should try before buying, as wearing a piece of equipment can give drivers a vital understanding of how comfortable - or not - any prospective purchase is and allow them to weigh up the merits of spending more. I
t's also important to consider the car being raced and format of the event when making these decisions, as endurance races - especially in hotter conditions - will have different requirements from the short, sharp burst of a hillclimb. While lighter, more breathable overalls might cost more, they could prove a crucial investment in the middle of a two-hour stint.
A common misconception from would-be drivers is that buying the most expensive item means it will naturally be the best, which is not always the case.
Gloves and boots are a testament to this. Although the higher-end items may offer more performance by being lighter or offering a better feel of the pedals or steering wheel, gloves with external seams are often more fragile, while the thinner sole means that high-end boots won't necessarily be the most comfortable when walking around the paddock and also more prone to wear if not maintained.
Even at a club level, racing is not cheap and a participant will need to spend thousands of pounds, from getting their licence to building or hiring a car and then running it. It can be all too easy to look for shortcuts when buying safety equipment, but that leads down the path to unsuitable or counterfeit products.
Not only will this cost more money in the long run - forcing customers to spend more of their cash on legitimate items - but it puts their safety at risk.
"If you're prepared to take that risk of buying products outside reputable suppliers you could be buying something that's not fit for purpose, and it's so easily done," says Cheshire.
"Karting products look almost identical to the racing product, but aren't fire retardant - racing equipment has to pass stringent fire safety tests.
"If you buy counterfeit goods, they're not going to be of that FIA standard and you're not going to have that fire protection in a racing car. And there's no worse time to find out than in the event of an accident or a fire."
Choosing the right equipment can be daunting, but spend a bit of time and effort and it's possible to get value for money and still be properly protected.
Race Suit (£225-£1250)
Cheshire says: "All the race suits reach the same FIA standard, so it's the comfort, the quality and the design element that differentiates the prices. The suit is definitely a place where you can save some of your budget, and OMP has worked really hard at that end of the market. The price entry points are very good, the quality of the product is exceptional and the design is really smart."
Cheshire says: "If you don't intend to race at an FIA-level championship, 8859- standard helmets are still certified to an FIA requirement and have all the fireproof lining, protective visors and a shell that's capable of withstanding certain impacts in an accident. There is absolutely nothing wrong with using that helmet for racing, but what you have to consider is if you are looking to step up to FIA-standard racing after six months or a year, do you want to buy another helmet?"
Cheshire says "If you spend a little bit more, you move away from the suede entry-level boots into a leather boot. In my opinion, it's worth spending that little bit more on your boots because entry-level suede is fine on a dry day, but it's very difficult to dry it when it gets wet, whereas leather tends to be more protective. Spending that extra £50-£100 to upgrade to leather is probably a good consideration."
Frontal Head Restraint (FHR) (£250-£960)
Cheshire says: "There are a lot of different options from the basic entry club model right up to the high-level super-lightweight carbonfibre version as favoured by Formula 1 drivers. Entry level tends to be a plastic injection set-up, so very strong but heavier than the top-end carbonfibre versions. It comes down to your budget and the type of racing you're taking part in. For endurance racing, it might be appropriate to have a lighter version but, if you're just intending to do sprint-type racing at club level, it's not going to make a huge difference."
Cheshire says: "Again, you can certainly save some money on gloves - entry-level options are very good quality. In terms of the price bracket, it almost follows the same format as the boots where the more you're paying generally means you're perhaps sacrificing useability for more feel and sometimes more comfort. The entry-level gloves tend to have internal seams. External-seam gloves are much more comfortable to wear, but by their nature the seams are more delicate."
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