A safe approach to helmet design

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Formula 1 owes its high safety standards not only to the use of computer technology and high-tech materials in the construction of the cars but also to the consistent enhancement of the helmets and racing overalls. They not only protect the drivers from injury in emergencies, but also give them a feeling of security. In the founding years of Formula 1, between 1950 and 1960, the dress code was primarily directed towards comfort and elegance. The legendary Juan Manuel Fangio, for instance, preferred to drive in a polo shirt and cloth trousers with a balaclava on his head, which at best gave him relatively good sun protection. Even in the 70s, the racing overalls were made of easily inflammable cotton, and it was only after Niki Lauda’s fire accident on the Nürburgring in 1976 that attitudes changed.

From then on, things moved quickly. In 1979, Lauda, Carlos Reutemann and Mario Andretti competed in overalls made of five layers of fireproof material, as used by NASA for astronauts’ suits. Nowadays, not only the overalls but also the boots, underwear, gloves and face masks are all made of the special synthetic fibre, Nomex. It is so resistant to heat and fire that drivers in a Nomex-3 overall can survive 35 seconds in temperatures of 850°C, which is roughly equivalent to the heat in a house fire. This material also protects the driver against caustic gases and acids.

Another advantage of Nomex is its low weight. A racing overall – which these days normally consists of three layers of fireproof material – weighs scarcely 1.9 kilograms and every suit is tailor-made for the driver with the help of ultramodern 3D computer programs. There is even space for a few small concessions in the interests of comfort: to make sure the overall does not cling or pull anywhere, a particularly flexible material is used for the shoulder area and the innermost of the three layers does not have any seams. Breathable materials are also used in the production of the overalls, which have varying thicknesses depending on the particular race. Each driver uses pproximately
16 suits per season.

In passenger cars, too, the protection of the occupants has also reached an extremely high level over a period of many years. The safety of motorcycle riders, on the other hand, is extremely difficult to ensure. “Apart from avoiding accidents by riding carefully and defensively, the helmet is one of the indispensable safety factors,” says Dr. Christoph Lauterwasser from the Allianz Centre for Technology (AZT). Even so, no motorbike rider should rely solely on a helmet for safety reasons. Lauterwasser adds: “Good protective clothing with protectors should also be taken for granted.”

In Formula 1, every helmet is a unique item, individually tailored to the respective driver with great technical effort and expense. First, the driver’s head is scanned to create a life-size model, and the next step is similar to how the ancient Egyptians worked on their mummies: the model head is wrapped, layer by layer, with 120 mats of the high performance fibre T 800, where every thread consists of about 12,000 microthreads, each of which is about 15 times thinner than a human hair. The total length of all the threads processed in one helmet is approximately 16,000km.

The exact composition of the 17 layers is a well-guarded business secret for every helmet manufacturer. The specialists will only reveal the three main substances: carbon fibre for the rigidity, fire-resistant aramide and polyethylene, which is also used for bullet-proof vests. Added to these – as we all know – are aluminium, magnesium and, as a binding agent, epoxy resin. The helmets are extremely durable, but with a weight of about 1.2kg they are still relatively light and so reduce the strain on the neck and shoulder muscles of the drivers on tracks with particularly high G-force loads.

In the autoclave, the individual layers are bonded to one another and hardened under high pressure and at a constant temperature of 132°C. Parts subject to exceptional loads, such as the underside and the visor cut-out, are additionally reinforced using aluminium and titanium. The interior padding consists of two layers of fireproof Nomex. The helmet is subjected to an 800°C flame for 45 seconds in the compulsory fire test. During this time, temperatures inside the helmet may not exceed 70°C. The ventilation system is designed to allow about 10 litres of fresh air to flow into the helmet’s interior. A filter cleans the air of even the finest motor oil, carbon and brake dust particles. A good view even in the most difficult situations is vital for the drivers. The three millimetre thick helmet visor made of fire-resistant polycarbonate ensures that the driver can always see clearly. The visor’s tint adjusts in fractions of a second to changes in the lighting conditions, such as in the famous tunnel in Monaco. To test its protective qualities, projectiles are shot at the visor at 500km/h and the impact marks must not exceed a depth of 2.5mm. Given all this high technology, it is hardly surprising that the visor is heated – even though Formula 1 takes a break during winter.

Allianz Safety Check: Circuit de Nevers - by Mark Webber, WilliamsF1 driver

“This track alternates very dynamically for the drivers between quick and slow sections and so is more demanding than it appears at first sight. Some of the corners run over small hills, so it is very difficult to see the apex. Because the tarmac is unusually smooth, we drivers always have the feeling that we can go right to the limit. So you have to be careful that you don’t overdo it. The whole thing also gets pretty tricky when it rains. In that case, the smooth surface can quickly become a problem.”

Thanks to Allianz