I recall to this day the very first time I saw a GPA Formula One helmet. Watching Formula One on TV at home, the cars forming up on the grid and Villeneuve climbing into his Ferrari. His mechanic offered up his crash helmet. Flameproof balaclava in place, Gilles seemed to open it up into two and slide it over his head, before snapping shut two horseshoe shaped clamps around his neck. I was amazed. In the days before VHS and Betamax, never mind TIVO, I could not record that moment. I had to wait until the end of the race when he removed it to see it again. That was a cool helmet.
Designed by GPA founder and motorcycle racer Michel Finquel, the GPA was distinctive and iconic in an era when helmet design was really only just starting to move. The tradition was for heavy, bucket shaped fibreglass items with more design elements in common with a medieval knight than a Grand Prix driver. Back then, I thought that the GPA looked like something an astronaut would wear.
All these years later, it’s still one of the iconic elements I can recall most vividly from that era of sitting at home listening to Murray Walker’s evangelical excitement. Today, GPA are still in business. These days they are one of the leading manufacturers of horse riding helmets for competition and leisure as well as motorcycling. And while Mr Finquel is now retired, we were able to contact him for a chat about how this helmet came to be. Michel’s English is a little broken, but far superior to my French…
How did you come up with the idea for the unique fastening mechanism and how long did it take you to design it?
Through talking to motorcycle racers, we found that the simple nylon chin strap used was really poor, not reliable. The stability of the helmet over the head was not perfect either and some pilots requested that helmets do not move at high speeds
It took around 2 years to develop it, from artworks, to prototypes, tests with lab, tests with pilots on track before we began certification.
Modern crash helmets are designed with aerodynamics in mind. Was there any thoughts on aerodynamics at that time, or was it all about head protection?
Both were important and were very much in mind. On one hand Aerodynamics for better stability and to avoid that any things can come inside the helmet when riding. Also the new system had better protection of head because of the better comfort and stability Both go together. Moreover, nothing can come inside the helmet when you ride your motorcycle, which could be dangerous and which has happened again and again.
Was there any resistance from the governing body regarding certification?
Yes at the beginning it was difficult to make them approved. Because it was a really new concept and there was no machine to test it in the conventional way and no way to compare with another helmet design at the time. It was finally certified for over 15 years and the fastening system was patented. All other producers were lobbying against this system. Sadly, in the end, the certification body decided to stop this certification without any real proof of safety or non compliance.
Who was the first prominent driver to start wearing one and begin the trend?
It was motorcycle pilots like Patrick Pons, Barnard Fau, Christian Sarron
How did it come to be used by famous drivers such as Piquet, Arnoux, Villeneuve etc?
They tried the helmet and they were absolutely convinced by the improvment in fitting and fastening/easy closing. They had the felling of reassurance when wearing this helmet.
Do you have a list of other famous drivers who used the GPA?
Depailler, Laffite, Arnoux, Jabouille, Watson, Piquet, Eddie Chever, Pironi, Villeneuve and probably some others that we forgot!
Still to this day, we think that a better way of closing a helmet never existed. We still have some requests from pilots and from customers all the time that want this helmet. It is incredible after more than 30 years..