In the World Superbike paddock Arai Europe technician Marcel Ruiter is one of those key ‘behind-the-scenes’ figures that helps to ensure high profile and successful athletes like three times world champion Jonathan Rea has everything in place to throw his skills to their full extent on the asphalt. Ruiter has been working for the Japanese firm (established over ninety years ago and recognised as one of the premier helmet brands around the globe with representation in MotoGP and also F1) for almost twenty years and has been heading the WorldSBK racing service for the last seven.
Although he attends all European rounds of the series and has to look after the lids of twenty-five riders in the paddock, Ruiter has forged a close bond with Kawasaki Racing star Rea thanks to the Irishman’s association with Arai since 2004. Rea is not only a (fast) moving billboard for Arai but also contributes to development of the helmets; the products are renowned for the resistance of their ‘shells’ and a R75 ‘flow’ concept that means the smooth edges of the lid will help the ‘crashee’ slide.
“Jonathan is very particular about people preparing the helmet,” Ruiter says from inside the confines of his small but functional service van. “He has a couple of small personal modifications inside and then the application of the ‘wing’ on the outside, which is a result of working with Jonathan to try and improve our product. The riders are key to development and Jonathan always gives good feedback. I make my reports to Japan and that's how we advance.”
“He has four race helmets and I always make sure he has three for each session, so there is always a back-up,” Ruiter explains. “Everything that happens with the helmet goes into my report, so if needs be, then Jonathan will have another helmet on order but he’ll always have three ready. If there is a crash I’ll have a careful check of the helmet. It is not always the case that they are unusable. So after the inspection it will either be prepared again or packed to be sent back to the office.”
Ruiter also does his best to make sure the race helmet is in the best possible condition and to the absolute personal spec of the rider…even if most use a version extremely close to what regular motorcyclists can find on dealer shelves.
“We make a fitting at the beginning of the season and normally for Jonathan that will be OK for the rest of the year. He is not a rider like that likes adjustments on different tracks; he’s quite consistent. The ‘wing’ is to do with aerodynamics but links up with his fairing and then his racing suit. He tried it on the previous model we had and we modified it by making the fins longer to get more airflow.”
The visor, lining and general state of the helmet is not Ruiter’s sole duties. He also has to stick on ‘tear-offs’; the laminate covers that a rider can quickly grab and discard to clear his vision from bugs, dirt and other blemishes. “We have special rain tear-offs and not many brands do; it is basically a complete seal so no droplets come through and disturb the vision. Jonathan likes to three tear-offs, most riders have two, but he’ll take one off after the warm-up lap and have two remaining for the race.”
Talking with Rea about his helmet and after having seen the almost-surgical way in how his the rest of his kit is prepared in a sizeable locker stationed in the compact ‘slide-out’ compartment of the race truck, it’s clear how important he takes his head gear. A fifteen year partnership with Arai indicates that his choice is not about cash or other promotional opportunities. “I don't compromise on safety so I am lucky to be involved with Arai and other market leaders like Alpinestars,” he says. In fact Rea doesn't seem to rely on many other brands when it comes to gear for his day-job.
Racers can be fussy about their equipment. Having the custom-made leathers, boots, gloves and helmet all fitting perfectly and functioning without any issues is one less thing to worry about when such intense focus is needed at speeds topping 200mph. “Riders usually want the best in whatever they have and you only have one head,” Ruiter smiles. Protection and performance: there is a lot more to making a champion than merely talent, training and the right motorcycle.