Much has changed in the racing world since the first 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1923. Vehicle technology has evolved, and along with it, the special clothing worn by racing drivers. In this four-part series, we take a look at how outfits have adapted to requirements, from the first major races to the present day.
Early 20th-century drivers wore goatskin leathers to keep them warm. The first ACF Grand Prix, staged in Le Mans and the neighbouring countryside, took place in stifling heat (36°C). The primary concern for drivers was to protect themselves as they were overtaken to avoid being burned by splatters of melted tar. Most wore a protective all-in-one suit or the long leather coat that remained popular right up to the 1950s.
At the time, headgear was often a leather headband, although caps and berets were also widespread. In the early races, several drivers suffered burns to the face from splattered tar and goggles quickly became a must.
Between the wars, all-in-one suits were all the rage. The suits worn by drivers were very similar to the overalls worn by mechanics, which were usually in dark shades to mask grease stains. In contrast, the racing suits were often white - at least to start with!
American driver and French Grand Prix winner in 1921 Jimmy Murphy was the first to sport such a get-up. However, the famous Bentley Boys, four-time winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans (1927-1930) popularised the white racing suit. It has been noted that the breast pocket was just the right size to house a flask of whisky!
The Egyptian cotton outfit was designed for ease of moment but was gathered at the wrist and ankle for a snug fit. Most drivers took to overalls as their preferred racing gear. For chillier or rainier climes, such as Le Mans, long jackets or leathers could be layered over for extra protection. All the same, a few drivers remained stubbornly attached to their trusty polo shirts.
As safety became more of a concern, headbands or checked caps gave way to leather helmets with visors, some allowing for all wide vision (such as the one worn by Tazio Nuvolari, who won Le Mans in 1933). As for footwear, drivers required a supple shoe, but one that offered protection from the hot pedals. A scarf (often given by a loved-one), was a popular accessory. British drivers could be easily distinguished by their Union Jack and British Racing Drivers Club crest patches.
Which brings us back to the Bentley boys. When the manufacturer made its Le Mans comeback in 2001, third-placed Andy Wallace, Eric van de Poele and Butch Leitzinger mounted the podium in the original Bentley Boy outfits of white overalls and leather headbands. Outfits may not win races, but they are definitely part of the memorabilia!