A modern racing helmet is the most important piece of a driver’s armory – but do you know how they’re made?
The racing helmet’s introduction into the sport in the 60s has saved more lives than any other invention. Bullet-proof and able to withstand temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius, auto racing helmets are a handmade art of painstaking precision.
Take a close look at how these $5,000 head protectors are made and why they are so important.
It’s hard to imagine, but race helmets were still optional up to the 60s. Before then racing drivers wore cloth caps with the primary purpose of stopping the wind from ruffling their hair. Today’s headgear couldn’t be more different. Built from carbon fiber and placed under stringent safety tests, racing helmets have become as expensive as they are safe. If they save your life, it’s a price worth paying.
Before they are approved for use, a racing helmet must withstand temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius for 45 seconds (hotter than the temperature at which rock becomes molten) and the weight equivalent of 280 lbs. Even the visors, which are reinforced with zylon, are tested by being fired at in three places with a one gram lead pellet traveling at over 320 mph. If there is any penetration from any test, the helmet fails the requisite safety approval.
Modern helmet factories, including Arai in Japan, employ craftsmen of skilled makers, many of whom have been with companies for 20 or more years. The process of building a helmet begins with a mold consisting of layer upon layer of glass fiber, carbon and Kevlar.
The carbon fiber used in the exterior shell of the race helmet is the same material used in the wing and fuselage joints of a Boeing aircraft.
The early stages of the build is a time consuming process, taking up to a painstaking eight hours to complete. This is not a high volume production line, but an artisan’s craft. Care is taken at every stage of the process. Even the weight of the helmet is designed to perfection. If it’s more than 728.5 grams, it is tossed. The only part of the process that isn’t done by hand is the lasering of the visor and air vent.
Once the layers have been applied to the mold, the shell is baked in an oven for four hours to set all the layers. The next stage is the sanding and priming of the helmet, which takes the creation process into its third day. Finally, the inner shell is inserted into the outer shell, a process that can take up to a month of training to master. One error, and $5,000 and three days of work will be for nothing.
Afterwards, the racing helmets are shipped off to be painted. The liveries are personalized for each driver, and it’s the one bit of free speech they have in the ever-increasing corporate world of professional motor sport. One former grand prix driver turned sports car racer, Alex Wurz, even paints his own. “It’s the last bit of identity we can have,” he says. “But I’m aware I can’t make a mistake. If I get it wrong I have to start again, which is difficult as I draw freehand.”
Some drivers are instantly recognizable by their helmets. Ayrton Senna’s bright green yellow lid took its design inspiration from his patriotic love of the Brazilian flag, while American racer turned ABC TV commentator Eddie Cheever famously raced with a red, white and blue star helmet, based on the flag of Arizona. In racing dynasties, the sons and grandsons of former racers usually stick to the same livery.
At the other end of the scale, there was Frenchman Rene Arnoux who famously raced with a pure white helmet with no livery. He said that painting it didn’t make him go any quicker.
Every auto racing helmet has a number of visor strips that can easily be torn-off during a race, whether it be because the clear strip view has been impaired by a number of dead bugs or oil.
Singapore has a law that prevents the dropping of litter, so when F1 came to the city in 2008, the race on the streets prevented drivers from discarding their plastic tear-offs from their helmets. As a result an exemption in the law was approved by the government so drivers could remove their visor strips without facing prosecution.
In every sense, the sport of racing has come along way from the days of cloth caps.
Cover Photo Credit: Michael Elleray / Flickr.com