The Evolution Of Formula 1 Helmets
Formula 1 helmets are the most distinctive part of a drivers clothing as they help the fans identify the driver. Drivers may change the colour of their helmets but their distinctive markings remain the same. Helmets are also the most critical protective apparel of a racing driver. Helmets protect the racers face from insects and flying debris and objects that are thrown up by car’s tyres or in case of an accident. They also protect the driver’s head and all within it in case of crashes and accidents.
Felipe Massa has his helmet to thank for his life when a loose spring hit him on the helmet in Hungary in 2009. Massa was travelling at more than 250 km/h. Had the accident happened a decade or so earlier, Massa would have been killed. Helmets are therefore more of an essential protective gear than a colourful identification of the driver.
In the early days of racing, drivers tied cloth or canvas over their faces to keep the insects out of their hair. They also helped to protect their faces from the pebbles spat out by the tyres of preceding cars as well as the grease from their faces. In the 1920 and 1930s, some drivers took to racing with football and fire fighters’ helmets.
That was followed by cork helmets which were made compulsory in 1952 by the FIA. Cork helmets were made of cloth-covered cork in the shape of a man’s head. These were then soaked in glue and dried for strengthening. It didn’t take long before metal helmets were designed and used by racers. Steel crash helmets were developed by the end of the 50s and made mandatory by the FIA for all racing.
Formula 1 Helmets – Glass Fibre Helmets
The advent of glass fibre technology meant that helmets had considerably more strength than steel helmets. The helmets though were of an open-faced design forcing the drivers to wear a cloth towel and goggles to protect their eyes and faces. Dan Gurney introduced the full-face helmet in the 1958 German Grand Prix.
A glass fibre helmet was more aerodynamic and provided more facial protection to the driver. The aerodynamic nature of the helmet also meant that the driver’s head was buffeted less by the wind resistance at great speeds or when decelerating. A visor was integrated on to the helmet and did away with the goggles that drivers had to wear.
There was a need, however, to protect drivers from fire and allow them to communicate with their teams when wearing a helmet. The Grand Prix Drivers’ Association was formed in 1961. They along with the FIA started looking at ways to make the sport safer for drivers, race officials as well as the spectators.
Fireproof innings were introduced as the innermost layer of the helmet. An air supply system was inbuilt into the helmet to trigger when the car’s fire extinguisher was activated. Tubes connected to the driver’s drinks bottle were also introduced into the helmet. Radio systems were incorporated in the helmet which allowed drivers to communicate with their teams.
Formula 1 Helmets – Carbon Fibre Helmets
The introduction of carbon fibre in 2001 made obsolete the use of glass fibre in racing helmets. Carbon fibre was far tougher than glass fibre and allowed helmet constructors to make tailor-made helmets for each racer. Although carbon fibre helmets are heavier than glass fibre ones, they are way better at distributing the load when there is a crash.
There are seventeen layers in a carbon fibre helmet. Inside the tough shell of carbon fibre, there is a layer of high-density foam. This foam helps absorb the energy in the event of an impact by deforming and distributes the load evenly. The innermost layer is made for a tailor-made helmet made after laser scanning the drivers head. The layer consists of soft foam and gives the wearer a close fit making him comfortable.
Formula 1 Helmet Testing and Standard 8860
The FIA has made it mandatory that all helmets used in racing have to undergo stringent safety tests. The helmets are tested for impact loading by dropping 5kg of steel anvils from a height of 3.3 meters on the chin bars. A steel spike weighing 3kg is dropped on the top of the helmet. Although the helmet may be dented, neither the steel casing nor the inside foam layer should be breached or compromised.
Visors of helmets are usually made of 3mm thick polycarbonate. They are tested by having a lead pellet shot at them at speeds of up to 500km/h. Chin straps are used to secure the helmet firmly on the drivers head, These are tested by loading them with 38kg of weight to ensure that they do not come loose in case of a high-velocity crash. The straps may be stretched to a maximum of 30mm when testing.
Helmets are tested by applying 700 degrees centigrade of heat on the outside. On the inside of the helmet, the temperature should not exceed 70 degrees centigrade. The helmets are tested at the Snell Memorial Foundation. The testing body was founded after American racer William Snell died in a crash and his helmet was not tough enough to protect him.
FIA’s stringent Standard 8860 came into force after the Brazilian racer died from head injuries in a crash in 1994. The 2004 standards also stipulate the use of straps to prevent the drivers head from snapping forward in the event of a crash. There is also a consideration for the drivers hearing. The standard stipulates that the sound level inside the helmet should be less than 100 decibels.
The FIA’s Standard 8860-2018
After decades of research, the FIA came up with a new standard, Standard 8860-2018 for racing helmets. The helmets that meet this testing criteria are ultra-protective and have been mandated since 2019 in all forms of racing. These helmets offer better protection including advanced ballistic protection and better energy absorption. This keeps drivers safer than in helmets conforming to the older standard.
The standards set by the FIA follow after more than a decade of research in their effort to make motor car racing as safe as possible. During their research, the FIA has worked closely with the Grand Prix Driver’s association the Formula One teams and the manufacturer of helmets.