Text and photos by Cheryl Tay
The Sparco name is synonymous with motorsports – at every form of motorsport activity, there is bound to be at least one product from the Italian racing equipment manufacturer.
Found at the top level of motorsports with teams like McLaren and Caterham in Formula 1, Sparco also works with teams like Peugeot Sport, Audi Sport and Mercedes AMG.
Given the opportunity to visit the Sparco headquarters in Turin, Italy, I went to have a firsthand behind-the-scenes experience of Sparco and better understand its dominance in the world of motor racing and automotive aftermarket. Besides the motorsports arm which produces the usual racing gear like suits, shoes, gloves and helmets, Sparco also has a tuning arm and a carbon composite arm.
Just some background – Sparco started back in 1977 when two young drivers from Italy had a dream of making motorsports safer with style. Three and a half decades since, Sparco has grown into a 350-strong workforce with five offices – Volpiano and Leini in Italy, Irvine in USA, Sao Paulo in Brazil and Grombalia in Tunisia – with a distribution network over 60 countries globally.
1978 was a significant year for Sparco as they developed the first fireproof suit that could withstand 11 seconds of exposure to fire, complying with FIA standard 8856-2000 at that time. This was also the year that Sparco had its first composite racing seat, adding it to its expanding product portfolio beyond racing gear such as suits, shoes, gloves and helmets.
Sparco then went into tuning in 1990, coming up with custom car accessories. In 1999, Sparco entered the supercar market, specialising in carbon fibre technology and supplying them with seats and parts of the car and chassis. Some of the brands that Sparco cater to are Bugatti, Lamborghini, Bentley, Audi and Volkswagen.
A 15-minute drive from the city centre of Turin, I was brought to their main facility in Volpiano where the offices and warehouses are, along with the customised suit production department. It was the beginning of their summer holidays so the place was pretty quiet, with most of the staff members there on vacation.
In the “laboratory”, each customised suit goes through a comprehensive process of design and CAD where the suit design details are finalised, to embroideries where the logos are planned for stitching creation, to cutting where the different coloured cloths and materials are prepared for the seam area.
Once all the embroideries, stitching and sewing is done, the suits are inspected and checked before being packed and prepared for delivery. There is also a dedicated section for checking and quality control of the materials before they are used.
The busiest part of the suit production department was the Fast Track corner where ladies were working hard at their sewing machines to get the express orders completed. This is an option where drivers who need their suits quickly, can request (at additional costs of course) for them to be ready in just five working days.
At this Volpiano facility, there is a Sparco showroom where the public can drive to and buy directly from them.
Walking around the showroom, I spotted a rack that had Sparco button-up shirts, jeans, bermudas and skirts – basically lifestyle fashion apparels! I was then told that Sparco had launched a fashion line last year.
Racing-inspired, it is meant to take Sparco to the streets for the average person, and not just for motorsports or car enthusiasts.
Not surprisingly, the response for this fashion line has not been too favourable as their customer base is very specific and niche in racing. There is a Sparco boutique about an hour’s drive away from their Volpiano, in Mondo Vicino Outlet Village, where this fashion line can be found though. They refer to this store as a “temporary outlet” as the plan is only to have it for a year, to assess the demand for their lifestyle street wear collection.
The next thing that Sparco is moving into is safety gear for workers. These can be workers in the pits to workers in industrial areas, hard-hat areas or any areas with elements of labour. The first product out of this line is safety shoes and they are already available in hardware shops in some places of the world.
While the main facility was rather quiet due to the summer break, the carbon composite facility was quite the opposite as I was told they do not go off for the summer. This is where all the carbon fibre technologies are developed and produced, and also where their seats are made.
It is a very busy place with stringent and high quality levels of production for the various major high-end luxury car brands that they cater to. Due to confidential non-disclosure agreements that Sparco has with the car manufacturers it builds and supplies parts to, I was not allowed to take photos. It was such an overdose of carbon fibre!
Distributed in Singapore by DWA Lubricants Pte Ltd, Sparco is known for having a focus on being in style and helping to make the driver look good on top of having a good product.
In the same way, UK-based Lifeline Fire & Safety Systems – represented by DWA Lubricants Pte Ltd in Singapore as well – also holds the same mindset behind their products.
Lifeline is a manufacturer of fire safety equipment and fire suppression systems to the motorsports industry worldwide.
Making my way to their Coventry headquarters, Lifeline’s managing director Jim Morris shared about his passion in motorsports and his background in design and engineering which he applies to the business, hence the vital focus on aesthetics of the product.
He said, “The company works hard at constantly evolving the product and we keep pushing the goal post further away. It is a given that the product works well, but instead of just making something good that fits for people, I also focus on the aesthetics. Having a good design is important too, as it is a bonus for it to look good on top of working well.”
Having graduated from university with a degree in industrial and automotive design, as well as an engineering qualification, Jim’s final year project was a development of a fire suppression system for motorsports. At the age of 24 – sometime in late 1993 – he took over Lifeline, which was originally founded in 1980. With only two employees, Jim started by working from the back of his father’s garage for the first few months.
Now, Lifeline stands in a facility that has 5,000 square feet for production and 3,000 square feet of storage with staff strength of 22 and distribution in 42 countries.
Lifeline has always been primarily for the motorsports market, but in recent years, Lifeline has achieved an interesting breakthrough. Taking their knowledge and experience in motorsports, they successfully applied it to the defence industry and are supplying systems to the military.
This has become a two-way exchange – because the development cycle of the defence segment is very rapid and the pace of technological advancement is much faster, Lifeline has also taken new technologies from there and applied them back to motorsports.
Currently, there are three aspects to the Lifeline business – one is the motorsports side where they supply about 12,000 systems a year; another is defence, supplying about 1,000 systems a year, and then there’s the industrial aspect as well. There is also a small element of domestic and educational aspects, supplying systems to kitchens and schools.
Lifeline was a pioneer in introducing a lightweight, environmental-friendly, foam-based extinguishing agent ZERO 2000. This was the effective replacement needed when the manufacture of Halon, which was used in the first generation of systems produced by Lifeline, was banned due to environmental pressures.
At present, Lifeline motorsport systems are using either the ZERO 2000 foam-based extinguishing agent or their flagship ZERO 360, an advanced gaseous clean agent extinguishing agent. Both of which are fully FIA tested and certified for international motorsports.
These fire extinguishers need not be for motorsports or military purposes only – it would be useful for daily-driven cars to have a handheld compact fire extinguisher installed in the car as well. With recent incidents of vehicles such as taxis blowing up suddenly on the roads, it would be advisable to be equipped with fire safety equipment, in case of emergencies.
*This was first published in Wheels Asia.