Crash helmet standards: motor sport leads the way in protection design

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With the new helmet, the visor opening is lowered by 10mm, but tests have proved that the driver's vision is not adversely affected.
With the new helmet, the visor opening is lowered by 10mm, but tests have proved that the driver's vision is not adversely affected.

The toughest helmets in the world are about to get tougher. This follows the release of a new top-level helmet standard that will bring about increased protection for racing drivers in all major championships.

The latest standard, called FIA 8860-2018, outlines the safety and testing levels that the helmet manufacturers must achieve to provide equipment for the FIA’s top motor sport series. It will be mandatory for Formula One from 2019 and in other championships soon after. The standard is the result of more than a decade of research which has been co-funded by the FIA Foundation, which has a charitable objective to support motor sport safety.

While current top-level helmets are already the safest in the world, this new standard takes it to the next level. “The current standard is already very demanding in terms of energy absorption and resistance to penetration,” says Stephane Cohen, Chairman of Bell Racing Helmets, one of the world’s leading helmet manufacturers. “The new standard goes one step further that maybe a few years ago we’d have thought was impossible to reach.”

As such, all new helmets that achieve this standard will now offer advanced ballistic protection, increased energy absorption and an extended area of protection for drivers.

This new standard has been more than 10 years in the making. “We’ve been evolving since 2006 when we started working on it,” says Andy Mellor, Senior Research Engineer for the Global Institute for Motor Sport Safety, the FIA’s safety research partner. “There was no emergency because the current 8860 helmets provide huge levels of protection and the industry was getting established with them. But now is the right time and the manufacturers are ready for it.”

As is often the case with research and development in motor sport, the project has been driven by specific accidents, such as at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix where a loose spring hit Felipe Massa’s helmet at 220kph. This is one of the reasons for the most noticeable change – the visor opening being lowered to incorporate increased ballistic protection in the frontal area. Currently, F1 helmets have a zylon panel attached to the top of the visor, but from 2019 this additional protection will be integrated into the shell of the helmet, ensuring that the protection is built in.

As Mellor explains: “When we first launched 8860 back in 2004, we needed an efficient certification process to support the enhanced helmet performance and technology. We adopted a number of the existing test methods and worked closely with Snell to ensure the most rapid introduction.”

The new version of 8860 allowed the test methods to be revisited and the variable headform mass system was chosen to better represent the physiology of drivers.

“This presents something of a design challenge,” says Mellor, “because the larger helmets now have to absorb somewhat more energy. And the small helmets, less energy. For the small helmets, this creates a challenge with the crush and penetration tests which impart fixed energy into the helmet for all helmet sizes.”

But these tests will ensure that helmets are optimised all drivers regardless of their size and weight. Under the new standard, shell hardness will be assessed to ensuring the helmets are tough and also resistant to penetration. A specific penetration test, called Barcol, will be used for all 8860 helmets, and will likely lead to a toughened carbon epoxy outer shell becoming the norm for every level of motor sport.

A further change will ensure extended areas of protection on the sides of the helmet. This is important to improve compatibility with the latest single-seater headrests and closed car seat-side head protection systems.

“It ensures that we’ve got energy management within the helmet at the point of contact with the side headrests,” says Mellor.

Another test will ensure that the helmet performs optimally at lower crash speeds, as it is not necessarily the case that a helmet which performs well in a high-speed impact would also work well in a lower-speed event.

“In addition to the high-speed test at 9.5m/s we have introduced an additional lower speed test at 6m/s. This corresponds to a lower severity impact and we prescribe a limit value of 180G,” says Mellor.

“Throughout the R&D we received fantastic support from our partners,” says Mellor. “Within the programme we provided the direction and planned the test regime whilst the helmet manufacturers provided the test samples. Their contribution was exemplary and was essential for the success of this activity”

It will ensure that the world’s safest helmets will continue to be used in the fastest FIA series. As Cohen puts it: “This will be the most advanced standard in the world without any possible discussion.”

A pilot project is now under way to utilize the FIA expertise to deliver the safest road-compatible helmet standard ever by 2020 at cost levels that can make it available to as many users as possible. This will involve a partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UN-ECE) and the international motorcycle federation, FIM, to collaborate together to transfer the technology down from a pure motor sport domain to the greater mobility requirement. The challenge is to push the technological frontier on the road as well as the track.

A fuller version of this article is available in the latest edition of Auto, the FIA magazine, at www.fia.com/auto