From 2019, the FIA will mandate a new safety
standard with regards to helmet design in F1. The new design and specification is the
result of a decade of research and will make for the safest, most literally bulletproof
helmet used in motorsport. But we get ahead of ourselves. Let’s look
back at how we got to today’s pretty incredible helmet standards from way back before scientists
had even invented colour. Before F1, when the very idea of safety was
laughed out of the paddock, racing drivers would fly around the track, very much exposed
with nothing to protect their heads but a pair of goggles and a cloth cap.
The goggles, of course, kept the dust, grit and oil out of their eyes. and the cloth – or
sometimes leather – cap was mainly used for keeping warm from the chill of fast moving
air. Sometimes primitive visors were attached to
the peak of this headgear for those that preferred slightly less constrictive eyewear.
To be fair – at the time, there weren’t that mainly solutions available and, honestly,
the fact that it might be a good idea to more substantially protect your head when racing
hadn’t really caught on. Fast cars were a fairly new concept.
The first somewhat protective helmets, becoming commonly used in the 1940s and mandated-ish
in the 50s were little more than polo helmets. These were basically hard hats, the structure
of which was formed from sheets of cotton layered together and soaked in resin to form
a hard shell. These often sat like a builders hat or soldiers helmet, above the ear, so
the cloth caps persisted underneath. It wasn’t until 1954 that the first mass
produced helmet became available. Produced by Bell, the 500 TX extended the shape of
the hard shell (now made of a fibreglass laminate) further down to cover the sides and base of
the head. They were also properly padded, which we’ll get to later.
These helmets were the most effective designs of their time and the first to be safety certified
by Snell. The Snell Foundation was set up in 1957 following
the death by head injury of Pete Snell in a motor race. From then until now, Snell has
been at the forefront of research and development in helmet protection as well as providing
recognised safety standards for helmets in motorsport and transit across the world. F1
now uses FIA standards in helmets, but until 2015, Snell was still the reference point.
Now you may notice the Bell 500 design has a big gaping hole across most of the face
– an area you might consider worth protecting. Though cloth and leather scarves, skirts and
face masks had been used for many years in order to keep dirt and debris from striking
the face or getting in the mouth, it wasn’t until 1968 that a full face helmet was used
in F1. It’s design was adapted from those used
by dirt bikers, who were very much at the forefront trying not to swallow an unhealthy
dose of dirt and stones. Naturally this helmet was immediately ridiculed,
as all safety developments that come with an aesthetic change usual are [COUGH]. But,
in the coming years it would become the new standard among drivers in F1, shielding from
debris and protecting the chin and jaw when striking the steering wheel or chassis in
an accident. Now, up until relatively recently, the risk
of fire was very much a life and death reality. The head needed to be protected as much as
any part of the body and as such you didn’t want the helmets to catch fire – particularly
the lining and padding. In 1968, during the boom of synthetic materials,
Nomex was introduced into the lining and padding of the helmet. Nomex is an artificial fibre
than can be woven into a fabric. It’s brilliance lies in the fact that it doesn’t burn readily
so will extinguish as soon as it’s removed from a fire and is has a very low heat conductivity.
This meant that heat from a fire will not travel easily through Nomex material so the
helmet can be exposed to some pretty significant flames while the head inside will take a long
while to feel anything more than a Norwegian sauna.
Now while a helmet didn’t cover every inch of the head, this was a significant step up.
The 70s saw the prevalence of flip up visors designed into the helmet itself, though in
their early years there was no particular standard for this and a variety of interesting
designs were seen on display. It wasn’t until much later that the visor
itself would become an integral part of keeping the driver safe.
So, by the end of the 1970s, the basic helmet (at least superficially) had developed pretty
much to design we recognise today: full, hard head coverage, with a letterbox for the eyes
and a detachable flip up visor. Development and refinement focussed on improving the ability
of the helmet to resist impact, deformation and related injurious effects.
Testing standards and crash tests were continually improved by organisations like Snell and the
FIA, bringing us the helmets used today in Formula 1 – the current highest standard of
motor racing helmet in the world. So let’s examine today’s helmet.
The exact structure of the helmet’s hard shell varies between manufacturers but essentially
the material is laminar (meaning it’s made of thin layers) and includes in its make up
various carbon composites and metals, carbon fibre for structural strength, and Kevlar.
Now Kevlar, a synthetic fabric, is useful in two ways – firstly it’s very fire resistant
(similar to Nomex in this regards) Secondly its strong, tightly woven structure makes
it incredibly resistant to penetration from projectiles or sharp objects. The fibres are
so strongly interwoven that it’s incredibly hard to separate them, which is why it’s
also used in bullet and knife-proof vests. And while it’s all well and good having
the hard part of the helmet stop projectiles and keep heavy impacts from crushing the head
inside, if the impact causes a sudden heavy movement to the head (even if the head itself
is not injured) your brain can still be kicked around in your skull causing a massive amount
of damage. See, your brain is a sort of pudding like
structure and brain damage tends to come from massive acceleration whipping the brain around
inside the head which can sever or damage connections in the brain.
It’s kind of like if you had a can of alphabetti spaghetti that was arranged in perfect alphabetical
order inside the can. If you shook the can up, you’d mess up the order of the alphabetti
spaghetti inside, even if the can itself if perfectly pristine on the outside.
Such is the tricky business of protecting the brain.
The goal, as in almost all motor sport safety features, is to reduce the acceleration in
accidents. In this case – the acceleration of the head and, by reaction, the brain.
So this is where the padding comes in – the idea of it being to provide room for the head
to crash into, deforming to absorb the energy of the accelerating helmet and reducing the
acceleration imparted to the head. So if the helmet is struck, the hard outer
part of the helmet will accelerate more strongly than the head inside as the padding is specifically
strong enough to resist accelerating the head, dampening the energy into the its foam structure.
This is very similar to the way tyre barriers, for example, deform to absorb the energy of
a crashing car, thereby reducing its sudden deceleration.
You may also notice that modern helmet might also have a bit more sculpting or attached
fairings to it than just being a big smooth ball. This is to help with aerodynamics, and
not just for the car’s sake. With the introduction of the Halo, this has
become less of an issue, but a driver’s head poking out of the cockpit right smack
in the middle of the airflow provides something of an aerodynamic challenge. Adding some sculpting
to the shape of the helmet that allows the air to flow more efficiently around it can
significantly reduce the power deficit that a regular helmet induces via drag.
Not only that, by smoothing out the air around the helmet we can reduce the turbulent air
that can not only rattle the helmet quite severely, but even lift the helmet, sucking
it upwards, which is dangerous and puts pressure on the throat.
Today’s visor continues to shield against dirt and bugs and can be made in different
tints for different lighting conditions. It includes several layers of tear offs, which
are sticky membranes very similar to phone screen protectors that can be literally torn
off and thrown away one by one as they become dirty through a session.
But there’s a lot more to the modern visor. It also acts as a defensive layer against
projectiles that may penetrate the gaping hole in the middle of the helmet. The visor
is made of a clear polycarbonate material that is strong and flame resistant, able to
absorb energy through deformation when struck and pretty good at resisting penetration.
– In the wake of an accident in which Felipe
Massa was struck in the face with a spring at 270 km/h, a Zylon strip was added to the
visor for extra protection. Straddling the top edge of the helmet, Zylon is stronger
at absorbing impact energy than carbon fibre so it provides a large area around the most
vulnerable part of the helmet to protect the driver from small projectiles, the likes of
which Massa experienced. So 2019 then. Enter the new high standard
in helmet design. Now, firstly it’s important to note that
this isn’t actually a specific helmet, more a set of standards and parameters around which
helmet manufacturers are expected to produce helmets. So Bell, Schuberth, Arai, etc are
all expected to produce their own models to fit this specification.
The most noticeable difference here is the narrower letterbox through which the drivers
see. It may look a little sight restrictive but there have been historical helmets there
were way harder to see out of and the Zylon strip used in recent year actually comes down
further than the letterbox will in 2019. In fact, the reason the top of the letterbox
has been shifted downwards for the new helmet is because the protection provided by the
Zylon strip has been incorporated into the helmet’s main body.
The FIA have worked up a new, stricter standard of tests that a homologated helmet must withstand
having spent years working with all major helmet manufacturers on being able to produce
helmets capable of surviving such strict challenges. You can see from these standards that the
deceleration of the head inside the helmet is specifically measured in the impact tests.
There is also now more specific tests for penetration from high speed debris (or “ballistics”)
and a specific check on the visor itself being able to withstand small, pellet like debris
at high speed. With the liveries, sponsorship and visors
finalised for each driver, it’s unlikely we as spectators will notice much difference
in the helmets next year, as striking as they may seem displayed naked on a podium like
this. For a sport where drivers fly around at up
to 300 km/h with their head poking out of the car, with the Halo and this new helmet
F1 may well have narrowed the risk of severe head injury to extremely extraordinary circumstances.