The current FIA 8860 standard helmet, which took eight years to develop by the FIA and FIA Institute, provides drivers with increased protection in all key impact areas.
Felipe Massa’s accident in Hungary brought the question of Formula One helmet design into the spotlight. The Ferrari driver was qualifying at the Hungaroring when a spring fell off Rubens Barrichello’s Brawn-Mercedes Benz and bounced down the road into Massa’s path, as he arrived on the scene at around 150mph. The spring gave Massa’s helmet a glancing blow, knocking him out and causing him to crash heavily. Although he suffered a significant head injury, Massa is already on his way to recovery.
There are clearly lessons to be learned for Formula One safety following the incident. But there is also little doubt that the injury would have been much worse had Massa not been wearing one of the latest FIA 8860-2004 standard helmets, compulsory for all F1 drivers.
The FIA 8860 helmet, which took eight years to develop by the FIA and FIA Institute, provides drivers with increased protection in all key impact areas.
FIA Institute Head of Technical Affairs Andy Mellor says: “From the engineering side you can clearly say that if Massa had not been wearing an 8860 helmet then the loads causing his injuries would have been significantly more severe.”
The concept of a ‘super helmet’ for Formula One has its roots back in the 1990s when the FIA’s Professor Sid Watkins asked UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to use F1 accident data to reconstruct a number of crashes to help understand the forces involved in F1 accidents.
Mellor, who was then the head of the motor sport safety department at TRL, says that the programme aimed to apply the best available science to investigate the kinematics of F1.
“We were doing that for a number of years before we would say what the improvements could be,” says Mellor. “But at the same time there was a rapid advance in materials technology. When it came to helmet design there was the traditional progressive development going on but I wanted to set a much more demanding target.”
The aim was to investigate what was possible, build a prototype and then pass that information on to helmet companies. The FIA agreed this was a good idea and the first step was to evaluate the performance of the best helmets at the time, using laboratory testing and simulated accidents. Once this data had been gathered, TRL established provisional performance criteria for the improved helmet design.
The objectives were to make the helmets 50 per cent stronger whilst also reducing weight, and limiting the strains on a driver’s head and neck when subjected to high g impacts.
Once the standard had been established, the development process moved on to a study of the materials available. Working with the composite company Carbon Fibre Technologies, run by former Team Lotus engineer Arthur Woolhouse, Mellor produced the first such helmet. This was shown to the F1 media at a press conference at the Monaco Grand Prix in May 2001.
He says: “After we had established a working prototype proving what could be done we then needed to see how the helmet could be put into production.”
Working with helmet manufacturer Bell Racing Europe, the FIA produced a draft standard early in 2003. The FIA Helmets Group met to discuss questions that needed to be addressed, notably the reproducibility of the design and the costs involved.
By the end of the year an agreement had been struck for the technology developed to be passed on to a second helmet manufacturer, Germany’s Schuberth Engineering.
The FIA World Motor Sport Council then considered the programme and agreed to adopt the compulsory use of the specification in Formula One from July 1 2004. A month after the decision was taken Bell and Schuberth both achieved the certification necessary in tests and later that year Arai and Sparco followed.
The basic design consists of an exceptionally stiff and strong outer shell and an energyabsorbing inner liner. The outer shell protects the head from external penetration and has been developed to work in combination with the inner liner to provide the increased energy absorption. When the helmet hits something (or something hits the helmet) the head will continue moving inside the helmet until all the energy has been absorbed
The liner’s job is to bring the head to a stop as gently as possible. This can be achieved by using combinations of different density-lining materials. The outer shell of the FIA 8860-2004 helmet is designed not to deform, thus allowing maximum energy absorption of the inner liner and minimum G-forces inside the helmet.
To achieve this, the helmet designers use layers of different composite materials, carefully chosen for their different properties. The outer shell of the helmet is, typically, made up of layers of T1000 aerospace-grade carbon-fibre material, created by weaving together thousands of kilometres of micro-threads. The strength of the material is not simply about the strength of the micro-threads, but also how tightly they are woven together.
The use of lightweight materials means that the finished F1 helmets can weigh as little as 1,200 grams but can withstand astonishing forces. Schuberth demonstrates this by running over helmets with 55-ton tanks.
The testing of prototypes is a well-advanced science with different tests having been devised to measure the effects on sensors inside a dummy head. Helmets are also dropped from specific heights onto different shaped objects.
An 8860-2004 helmet must withstand an impact of 9.5m/s with deceleration of less than 300g. There is also a fire test with the helmet being subjected to 800°C for 30 seconds. Temperatures inside the helmet must not exceed 70°C. The visors are tested with projectiles being fired at them at high speeds.
In other words, the FIA and the manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure that these helmets pass every conceivable test such that they can provide the maximum protection possible in any type of accident.