If you want to compete in motorsport, then you need the right equipment even before you turn the engine on. Given the high-speed and risky nature of racing, safety concerns over head injuries and outbreaks of fire are of paramount concern. So here are the five most essential pieces of racing safety equipment and gear to protect drivers when they face high-velocity danger inside their cockpits…
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The most essential piece of racing gear is the helmet which will protect a driver’s head in the event of a high-speed impact. Thankfully, the sport has come a long way from the days when a cloth cap was deemed as suitable protection. Modern racing helmets are incredible pieces of equipment capable of withstanding being run over by a 55-ton tank. Costing around $5,000, helmet molds for single-seaters are sculpted in a wind tunnel and are individually hand made. Skilled helmet makers start the eight-hour construction process by applying layer upon layer of carbon fiber and Kevlar (the same stuff used in bulletproof vests) to the mold. Afterwards the shell is cured and a visor hole is cut using a laser.
Each helmet, weighing 1,250 grams or the equivalent to a bag of flour, must undergo the most rigorous of violent tests to ensure they pass the sport’s stringent safety standards. All helmets are dropped from a height of three meters onto a steel anvil and any penetration to the structure results in a fail. The visor is made from a specially-coated polycarbonate and must withstand being shot with an air rifle (at around 323 mph), with the subsequent dent measuring at less than .25 cm. Think that’s not enough? The helmet is then subjected to a 1526 degree flame torched on the shell of the helmet for 45 seconds, and the internal helmet temperature must not exceed 158 degrees to pass.
Even further improvements have been made in recent years, including the introduction of a Zylon strip across the front of the visor, which can now withstand a 4 kg weight striking it from a five meter height.
When former IMSA sportscar champion Jim Downing lost his friend Patrick Jacquemart after a fatal accident at Mid-Ohio in 1981, he and Dr Robert Hubbard decided to dedicate their lives to creating 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 motor sport across the world. The HANS device is effectively a tether connected to the back of the helmet and it rests on a carbon fiber support, weighing 1.5 pounds, which then sits on a driver’s shoulders. This piece of racing safety equipment limits the amount of unrestrained movement the head and neck suffers during an accident.
Made-to-measure race suits have developed over the years by using new materials which are flame-resistant and capable of allowing drivers to successfully lose sweat as they compete at white-knuckle speeds for hours. Companies who produce suits have found innovative ways of weaving materials and constructing textiles to achieve these aims. Over the past 20 years the ‘breathe-ability’ of race suits has improved by 55 percent, while their weight has been reduced by 40 percent. This racing gear is particularly important when competing in hot and humid climates, where race suits can increase in weight due to sweat saturation.
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Boots, Undergarments and Gloves
All racing drivers must wear fire-retardant underwear, which is a seamless all-in-one garment which covers the legs, arms and chest. Made out of Nomex, these pieces of racing gear do a brilliant job of protecting the driver in the case of fire, as the Nomex material can withstand temperatures of up to 752 degrees. It is incredibly crucial that drivers’s underwear must be effective, not only in protecting the driver from burns, but also in cooling their core body temperature (breathability). Gloves and balaclavas are also made out of fireproof Nomex – but the boots are made from cushioned leather (Kangaroo leather has also be used in the past). The shoes also have thin rubber soles to provide grippy contact with the foot pedals.
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Specially molded earplugs provide a valuable link between the driver and his pits during the race, but also as a piece of racing gear that is helping provide further research into racing safety issues. In Europe, motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, is developing an ear accelerometer which is designed to reveal crucial information about the forces a driver’s head undergoes during a race. Rather like a black box recorder, which in F1 records the loads in the chassis during a crash, the ear accelerometer – measuring 3 mm cubed – is a sensor that provides data on the forces a driver suffers in an accident, and in particular that crucial split second on impact. At present the technology has been used in private testing with the aim to introducing the technology into the sport in the future.
Think any other essential racing gear deserves to be on this list? Let us know in the comments below or @DegreeMen on Twitter.
Cover Photo Credit: David Catchpole / Flickr.com