Last Saturday, during the qualifying session for the Hungarian Grand Prix, one of the freakiest Formula 1 accidents of recent years occurred to none other than Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. It was so scary that I sprang up from my bed and shivers ran down my spine.
Massa’s life was spared by his F1 helmet. The 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 skull injury from the projectile that hit him just above the left eye, the helmet’s ability to withstand such an impact at more than 275 kph was not down to luck but due to its impressive design.
According to the doctors, Massa is recovering well and could walk out of the Budapest hospital, AEK, within 10 days.
Head trauma is the commonest cause of life threatening injury to F1 drivers so the FIA has spent a lot of effort in developing technology 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 (Head And Neck Support) 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. 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 RF1.7 helmet has multiple layers of carbon fibre and despite its low 1.35kg weight is strong enough to support a 55 tonne Chieftain tank.
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.
Before signing off, like all well wishers, I earnestly pray for one of the most competitive and passionate F1 drivers to recover and get back into the cockpit of Ferrari.