Safety over all

Yves Morizot’s race accessories company Stand 21 has clothed some of the sport’s biggest names – and helped keep them from harm
By Paul Fearnley

A famous photograph taken at the 1986 Portuguese Grand Prix depicts Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet – all ‘friends’ together – posed perched on Estoril’s pitwall (see right). Each is wearing a Stand 21 race suit.

Company founder Yves Morizot has been in the business of motor sport safety for 41 years. A frustrated racing driver, by the time friend Guy Fréquelin borrowed his Renault 12 Gordini to lap insouciantly five seconds faster at the nearby and recently inaugurated Dijon-Prenois, Morizot had turned his inquiring mind to the darker side of the sport. Like Jackie Stewart, he’s worked tirelessly since to help pull its head out of the sand.

Born into a family of bakers – “Bread is bread yet every customer has an opinion, and only a few ever thank you” – an impecunious Morizot bought an ailing racing accessories company. The catalyst was French Formula 3 racer Jean-Pierre Cassegrain’s fiery accident at Dijon’s makeshift airfield circuit in 1970. By 1972 Morizot was pioneering with multi-layer flame-retardant suits. Two years later Stand 21 Racewear – stand is French for pit; 21 is the département number of Côte-d’Or – was in Formula 1 on the backs of Jean-Pierre Beltoise, Emerson Fittipaldi and Jacques Laffite.

By the ’80s it had its own factory in Dijon, was sourcing materials directly and making everything in-house. Its innovations included outside-seam gloves to prevent blisters and improve feel; ‘floating sleeves’ to provide greater movement in cramped cockpits; and a breathable material that’s also stretchable – hence Sébastien Loeb’s celebratory backwards somersaults.

In ’91, with the help of designer Tim Halsmer, brother of two-time IMSA champion Pete, it branched out into helmets. That same decade Jim Downing, another multiple IMSA champion, selected it to be a licensee – improver and promoter – of the HANS device.

Although Stand 21 has continued to expand – its shoes and gloves are made by Stand 21 India, opened in 2001 near Chennai – Morizot’s 160-strong company remains niche and nice, focused yet friendly.

“It’s no good forcing people to buy,” he says. “It’s much better that they do because they believe in a product. Perhaps your watch might not be the most beautiful, nor the biggest, but you have chosen it because it shows that you have a certain way of thinking, a certain approach on life: strong, clean, reliable.”

Safe to say Stand 21’s products are reassuringly expensive. But then any item that is hand-made, tailored and rigorously independently tested tends to be. And exactly what is the ultimate price in this instance? Precisely.

That said, with its small market, seven-figure development costs and tortuous turnarounds from white sheets of paper to some of the folding stuff, it’s easy to believe Morizot when he says that he has always been more interested in product than profit, although the understated Audi A8 parked outside probably says more about his attitude of mind than financial status. When in the late 1980s Formula 1 drivers began to ask for money to wear a particular brand, and demand 10, then 20, then 30 suits, not three or four, he began to drift away. He could neither afford it nor agree with it.

“I am not against Formula 1,” he says. “Compared to 1974, it is so much better today, so much safer. Bernie [Ecclestone] and the FIA have created something incredible. And I learned a lot from the drivers: Didier Pironi, Prost, Senna – they were always pushing me to innovate.

“F1 is everything for some people. For me, the club racer’s life is as important as the world champion’s. People who know that come to us.”

America is a case in point. The headline fatal accidents of Dale Earnhardt (2001) and Funny Car drag star Eric Medlen (2007) triggered safety re-evaluations from without and within the cockpit, and NASCAR and the NHRA have become Stand 21’s most recent emerging markets. This is not the result of an expensive, aggressive ad campaign, rather of relaxed, calm meetings, some of them by chance, fact-finding visits, not missions, deep-seated knowledge, hard won yet generously shared, and understated e-mailed approaches from potential customers. For Morizot mixes his deadly concerns with a love for life. Yes, he’s happy to chat about some of his friends, the famous racing drivers, but he’s at his happiest as we watch X-ray film footage of his company’s latest innovation: a tailoring addition to the traditional balaclava that allows a helmet to be more easily and smoothly removed from an injured, even unconscious, driver without destabilising the bones of the neck.

Perhaps Morizot is one of those unseen figures who rate a quiet ‘thank you’ on behalf of those who risk their lives behind the wheel.

Yves Morizot on Jacques Laffite

“I first met Jacques when he was in Formula France [precursor to Formula Renault] in the early 1970s. We were both starting out and became good friends. He is really my buddy. I love him because racing was just a part of his life: fishing, tennis, golf – he enjoyed it all. We co-owned a golf course for a time with Alain Prost. We bought it after Gilles Villeneuve had been killed; Jacques wanted something different for his children to have, just in case…

“Formula 1 changed him not one bit. He has close to no ego and has always been great fun to be with. He is one of those drivers with the talent to become world champion but not the inclination to spend enough time on becoming world champion. But I tell you – what is he today: 67, 68? – he has the best life after F1 of any driver I know. Absolutely the best.”

Yves Morizot on Ayrton Senna

“Formula 1 did change him. I knew him when he was in Formula Ford and F3. In the beginning he was somebody focused on safety, somebody who really knew what he wanted. That was still true when he was with Toleman. He was a guy, not shy, but who was very polite, very open-minded. He really took care of his equipment and, always looking for an advantage, encouraged me to develop new pieces: outside-seam gloves, for example. Look at his right hand in that photo (Portugal ’86). It’s bandaged. That’s why he was pushing. He tried to understand everything, although sometimes he was too sure of himself.

“There was a huge difference when he started with McLaren, with all the press around him. He was not the same after that: harder to work with. One day he suddenly asked me to pay him to wear my suits. He explained that he didn’t need the money – I’m sure that he would have given it to his charities – but that it was all about his value on the market. The sport was changing, not just him.

“His rivalry with Prost was pushed by the sponsors, the press, everybody. McLaren was winning easily, every race, so the fight between them was the story that people needed. I heard it from both sides, Alain and Ayrton – 10 times each, believe me – and there was always respect between them. If Ayrton was alive today they would be friends, playing golf, I’m sure of it.”

Yves Morizot on Alain Prost

“He had a completely different attitude to Senna: Ayrton was focused for performance for qualifying; Alain was somebody working to win the race and the championship. They were both heroes: Senna on Friday, Saturday, Sunday – the battle for pole, taking pole, waiting on pole; Prost wanted to be the hero on Monday. He still has that same attitude today.

“I found him very easy to work with, and not just because we spoke the same language. He was the first driver to understand the benefits of our breathable fabric. He understood the medical side: if you are not overheating, you can perform better, you are faster, you are safer. Ayrton did not like the new suits to begin with because they were not so shiny, their colour was not so nice. I am not saying that against him. He was created to be like that.

“Prost wanted to win the war without taking too many risks. Never play cards with him, because he will definitely win your money.”

Yves Morizot on Nelson Piquet

“He was always checking for where he could gain an edge, in and out of the car. Very sharp. Look at him now: a successful businessman. Formula 1 drivers tend to be intelligent, but not many have done what he has: become very rich because of decisions he made outside the sport.

“I know that he wasn’t very popular with the English fans because of his battle with Mansell, but, like Nigel, he is very courageous and a really good human being when he opens his heart. Nelson was a great guy, somebody from another world, somebody with a different way of managing human relationships. OK, he didn’t like Senna. But they were completely different.

“Yes, he had a public ego. That was part of the show back then: different characters. Not like today when every driver looks the same: smooth. When he was talking to his team perhaps he had an ego too, but, with me, he had none. We don’t meet often these days, but 25 years can seem like yesterday when we do. The last time I saw him was about four years ago. He gave me a big hug and asked about my family. It could have been 1991, or ’86, or ’78. No difference.”