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  • Writer's pictureTatiana Žišková

Safety in Formula 1

Halo, helmets, HANS ...only few of many things that save lives today.

Serious and often even deadly accidents weren't rare back then. Luckily, with technical and safety progress throughout the years, the things have changed.

1. Helmet

In motorsport, helmets have many uses, as for example, to identify the driver. However the most important and critical one is definitely protection of driver's head. It shields them from flying debris, insects as well as smaller animals and generally from the objects flying over their heads, usually in accidents. Around the end of 1950s, after many learnt lessons, the FIA made it mandatory that all helmets must be made from steel and nothing else. Before that, helmets in general became mandatory in 1952. In 2001, a new material was introduced - carbon fibre. This material was sort of a turning point since it allowed making helmets for each racer individually. In this carbon fibre-made helmets, there are 17 layers. From inside, there is a layer of high-density foam, which is absorbing energy when driver is exposed to a force from outside. The foam deforms and distributes impact effects evenly.

Obviously, the driver can't just put on a helmet and jump into car. All the helmet must undergo a strict safety tests, which is another mandatory rule made by the FIA.

„The latest standard, called FIA 8860-2018, outlines the design and performance requirements that the helmet manufacturers must achieve to provide equipment for the FIA’s top series. It will be mandatory for Formula One from 2019 and in other championships soon after.“ FIA
14 requirements for all helmets:

1. Standard impact: Helmet impact at 9.5m/s. Peak deceleration on ‘driver’s head’ shall not exceed 275G.

2. Low velocity impact: Helmet impact at 6m/s. Peak deceleration shall not exceed 200G with a maximum average of 180g.

3. Low lateral impact: Helmet impact at 8.5m/s. Peak deceleration shall not exceed 275G.

4. Advanced Ballistic Protection: A 225g metal projectile fired at 250km/h. The peak deceleration shall not exceed 275G.

5. Crush: A 10kg weight falling 5.1 metres onto helmet. Lateral and longitudinal tests. The transmitted force should not exceed 10 kN.

6. Shell penetration: A 4kg impactor dropped onto helmet at 7.7 m/s.

7. Visor penetration: Air rifle fires 1.2g pellet at visor. Pellet must not penetrate the interior of the helmet.

8. Visor coating: Transmitter test to ensure colouration and vision is not significantly changed or distorted.

9. Retention system: Roll-off test and dynamic test to ensure strength of chin strap and its attachments.

10. Chin guard linear impact: Impact test with full headform at 5.5m/s. The peak deceleration shall not exceed 275G.

11. Chin guard crush: Hammer hits chin guard and measures ability to keep impact away from the head.

12. FHR mechanical strength: Test to ensure high strength of attachment points for Frontal Head Restraints.

13. Projection and surface friction: Test to ensure helmet surface uniformity and that friction is minimised. Shell surface also subjected to BARCOL hardness test for resistance to penetration.

14. Flammability: Helmet exposed to 790 C° flame; it must self-extinguish once flame is removed.

2. HANS device

Also known as „Head And Neck Support“.

We can call this thing a revolutionary one. Jim Downing had simply enough of seeing his fellow race drivers dying due to lack of safety. His reaction to such tragedies was an idea of something that could prevent them from happening. Downing went to his brother-in-law Dr. Bob Hubbard, who was an expert in biomechanical engineering and told him about his worries. In the end, they became the fathers of U-shaped object that goes around the neck and connects to the driver's helmet. A simple, yet life-saving thing.

When in high-speed crash, the HANS device's job is to make driver's head in helmet move along with his torso, so neck and skull are not overloaded.

HANS had the very same backstory as halo. At first it was disapproved and looked down upon. It took almost 20 years and many deaths for people to realise the true importance of it. Drivers these days can't imagine racing without a HANS device - it is a compulsory since 2003.

(Roy Ritchie)

3. System HALO

Introduced in 2018, the system halo saved more lives than we can imagine. It is an essential thing, but its path into an F1 was full of thorns.

Halo can be defined as a protective barrier made from titanium that is placed on top of the cockpit of a car. It prevents large objects and debris getting near the driver in it.

According to Mercedes, the halo is capable of holding the weight of one of London’s iconic double decker buses - that's the equivalent of 12 tonnes balancing on a 7kg metal frame.

A large structure around driver's head made from titanium was, without a doubt, a challenge for the teams, mostly in a case of aerodynamics.

The first attempt to bring this device was in 2016 and then in 2018, as I mentioned before, it became a mandatory. The safety of drivers was brought once again into the spotlight after Jules Bianchi's crash.

Drivers are now protected from large pieces of flying debris, or car launching on top of one another (Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, Monza 2021) or when a car hits a safety vehicle (Jules Bianchi, Suzuka 2014 - sadly, in this case, the halo was not introduced yet).

These photo are proof that we should talk about the importance of halo system more often. It is also one of the greatest inventions in safety improvements of all time.

4. Race suits

If we look back in the history, let's say, into 1950s, we would see drivers wearing whatever they felt the most comfortable in.

However, in 1963 overalls became obligatory and a few years later, in 1975, the overalls had to meet a fire-resistant standard.

The suit itself is multilayered and made of lightweight and breathable material with Nomex coating.

They are tested to make sure they can withstand the heat up to 800 degrees for about 11 seconds. This applies to everything that a driver is wearing (e.g. socks).

The safety in motorsport is not just one or two things. Many objects need to complement each other, and need to work together to secure overall safe zone.

In case of horrible crash of Romain Grosjean in 2020, we saw not only a miracle, but a result of constant safety developments.

Danger in F1 is quite a big topic to discuss. No one wants to see a driver die in such a gruelsome ways as it was a few decades ago. Now, the main priority is to eliminate chances of driver getting hurt.

But even to this day, many would argue that it was the danger what gave F1 a life.


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