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When Formula OneTM drivers are strapped into their cars, they’re wearing as much high tech as they’re driving. Here’s what keeps them safe.
Crash helmets have been mandatory in Formula One since 1953, and their design and construction have evolved enormously. Today’s Formula One helmets are capable of withstanding being run over by a 61-ton tank.
Top Formula One drivers will use around 15 carbon fiber helmets a season, costing more than $4,500 each. The outer shell has two layers of resin and carbon fiber. Under that comes the Kevlar material (used in bullet-proof vests), and then there is a softer, deformable layer made out of polyethylene, covered with the same material used in driver overalls.
Visors are made of a clear polycarbonate, combining excellent impact protection and visibility. The inside of the visors are coated with anti-fogging chemicals to prevent them from misting up, and several tear-off strips are always attached to the outside of the visor. Drivers can remove these during the race to clear their vision. In 2011, a Zylon strip was added across the visor to improve protection. Weighing only 2.5 oz, it doubles the impact performance of the visor.
Helmets must be light, weighing around 3 pounds, and only those that have met FIA safety standards can be used in a race. Helmets are submitted to extreme tests, such as dropping them from a height of 10 ft onto a steel anvil. Any penetration results in a fail. Likewise, a 1500°F flame is placed on the shell of the helmet for 45 seconds and the internal temperature must not exceed 158°C. The visor must stand up to being shot with an air rifle (at 323 mph) with the resultant dent being less than 2.5 mm.
Racing boots are made from materials such as cushioned leather and Alpinestars have even used kangaroo leather in the past. They are lined with fire-resistant Nomex and feature thin rubber soles to provide grip with the pedals.
At the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix, Fernando Alonso introduced the lightest race boot in Formula One, the Puma evoSpeed, as part of the drive to reduce as much weight as possible. Each boot now weighs less than half a pound.
'Since 1975, Formula One drivers must wear fire-retardant underwear, a seamless all-in-one garment that covers the legs, arms and chest. Made of Nomex, a fire-resistant, lightweight, artificial fibre, these items of clothing can withstand temperatures of up to 400°C.
The drivers’ underwear must be effective not only in protecting the driver from burns in a fire, but also in cooling their core body temperature by allowing sweat to escape, preventing dehydration.
Balaclavas are also made of Nomex, which means they are not only safer, but are also more durable, comfortable and extremely lightweight which is extremely important for Formula One.
Socks are also fireproof and are designed to allow the feet to breathe. Thankfully, drivers rarely suffer from burns in a fire today due to layers of Nomex protection.
The modern made-to-measure race suits have developed over the years by using new flame-resistant materials that also enable the driver to lose sweat. They are made of two to four layers of Nomex and they are much lighter than before. During the last ten years their weight has been reduced from 3 pounds down to less than 2. Thanks to all of these innovations, drivers can now survive for 11 seconds in temperatures of 1544°F.
Companies that produce suits have found innovative ways of weaving materials and constructing textiles to achieve high performance. Over the past 20 years, the breathability of race suits has improved by 55%.
One company, Stand 21, instigated ‘Heat Stress’, a medical program that produced a 500-page research document. Now all of its race suits are FIA 8856 standard homologated and labeled ‘Heat Stress Control’. The company’s ‘Air Force’ suit includes a duct that forces air between the race suit and the undergarment to help avoid excessive perspiration.
Originally, the palms and fingers were made out of suede to improve the grip on the steering wheel, but back in 2008 Sparco became one of the first manufacturers to replace suede with a sticky resin, which is tacky to the touch. The result is a lighter glove that provides more feel for the driver because of the thinner material.
New ranges of fireproof fibers and materials such as Carmyth, HTX, ATT and X-Cool have also been developed and are being introduced. Often there is padding on the outside of the glove, where the knuckles are, to reduce any bruising from rubbing on the bodywork on the inside of the cockpit. The manufacturers have reduced the glove’s tendency to shrink when ablaze, and all are made to the FIA’s 8856 standard.
8. HANS DEVICE
Jim Downing, former US IMSA racing champion, lost his friend Patrick Jacquemart after a fatal accident in 1981. As a result, he and Dr. Robert Hubbard decided to create a device that could reduce accidents where the neck and base of the skull could be easily fractured.
A decade later they founded Hans Performance Products and now the head and neck safety (HANS) device is used in virtually every discipline of motorsport across the world. The Hans device is effectively a carbon fiber collar worn by the driver around the neck. The helmet is then loosely connected to the collar by two tethers, which allow free movement of the head in normal operation.
During an accident, however, the device limits the amount of unrestrained movement the head and neck suffer. In the event of a frontal impact, for example, the tethers control the amount of helmet deflection, while the collar is locked in place. The energy absorbed by the driver’s neck and skull is dramatically reduced.
The Hans device became mandatory in Formula One in 2003.
Specially molded earplugs provide a valuable link between the driver and their pits during the race. Another piece of technology for the ear is helping the sport conduct further research into accidents. The FIA is developing an ear accelerometer, designed to reveal crucial information about the forces a driver’s head undergoes during a Grand Prix.
Like a black box recorder, which records the loads in the chassis during a crash, the ear accelerometer provides data on the forces a driver suffers in an accident – and, in particular, at the crucial split second of impact. The sensor, measuring 3mm3, has been used in private testing with the aim of introducing the technology into the sport in the future.