Will Gray

Technical Talk: Massa’s lifesaving lid

Will Gray

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The impressive progress of Formula One helmet design was displayed dramatically last weekend when Felipe Massa suffered one of the scariest crashes of recent years.

While McLaren raced on and returned to form at the Hungaroring after progressing a promising major redesign into a race-winning package, most thoughts were on Felipe Massa, who was still lying in intensive care after a high speed accident during qualifying.

Discussions immediately turned to the safety of open cockpit racing cars, but while many observers suggested protective perspex covers as a future option others rightly praised the standards of head protection already seen in F1 - and the focus on stringent mandatory safety regulations went a significant way to saving Massa's life.

Head trauma is the most frequent cause of life threatening injury to racing drivers so the FIA has spent a lot of time and money in developing ways to reduce this danger.

The overall head protection system had two key elements that helped Massa get out of the crash alive - firstly the now obligatory HANS device, which rests on the driver's shoulders and hooks onto the rear of the helmet to reduce the forward head movement during the frontal impact, and secondly the 8860 helmet regulation standard, by which all helmets in F1, and many other series, must now be measured.

Massa's Schuberth manufactured RF1.7 helmet was impacted by a spring which had come off the back of Rubens Barrichello's Brawn suspension and while the Ferrari driver suffered an eye injury from the projectile the helmet's ability to withstand such an impact was not down to luck.

Earlier this decade, the FIA commissioned the UK's Transport Research Laboratory to develop an advanced protective helmet and improve standards. The programme involved testing a whole range of state-of-the-art structural and energy absorbing materials and selecting the best combination of materials to provide vastly improved protection without altering the size or weight of the helmet.

Crucially, the testing involved many different injury mechanisms, from linear and oblique impacts to crushing loads and penetration, and the FIA estimated the safety was improved by 50 per cent.

The design standard - FIA 8860-2004 - became mandatory just over five years ago and to ensure all helmets in F1 meet this standard, there are a variety of tests.

The basic impact properties of the outer shell are assessed by hitting it into a variety of different shaped anvils (flat, hemispherical, edge and roll bar) with an impact energy of 225J and peak accelerations up to 300 times the force of gravity.

But Massa's instance was more a concern for penetration from the spring, and to guard against this kind of issue the FIA uses a test in which a pointed striker, with a 60-degree angle and a weight of 4kg, is dropped from three metres on to the top of the helmet.

The surface of the shell is also subjected to a Barcol hardness test which measures the resistance to penetration of a sharp steel point. Carbon fibre is one of the hardest materials, registering a 'hardness' of 60-70 out of 100 compared to normal plastic at 30-40 and glass fibre at 40-60.

The spring hit Massa, however, not on the top of the helmet but around the area of the cockpit opening. It was in this area where a suspension piece penetrated Ayrton Senna's helmet and killed him.

Progress has been made, however, with much stronger visors as well as the hardness improvements mentioned above, but it seems this area still presents a significant challenge and it is one that will, no doubt, now be a refocusing of thought for helmet designers.

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