Photos — Hiepler, Brunier Date — 1 July, 2013
The test came without warning. A steel spring smashed into the visor and shell of Felipe Massa’s helmet like a bullet during training for the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2009, when he was traveling at around 270 kph. Massa was immediately knocked unconscious and his car slid uncontrolled into a pile of tires. But the Brazilian survived.
His helmet largely withstood the impact and absorbed most of the enormous amount of energy generated. Massa’s protective headgear had done its job. And after the initial fright, the technicians from Schuberth, who supply the helmets, could breathe easily. They accompany their drivers to every race and keep three helmets ready for each of them. Each one is unique, streamlined to perfection in the company’s own wind tunnel and modeled exactly to the size and needs of the individual drivers.
Looking back on a long tradition, the helmet manufacturers in Magdeburg have been official FORMULA 1 suppliers since 2000. “The best helmets for the best drivers,” is the company’s motto. First came Nick Heidfeld, followed by Michael Schumacher. Today, Schuberth is the official partner of Scuderia Ferrari with Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, but also equips Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg and the new man at Sauber, Nico Hülkenberg. “No money exchanges hands between us and the drivers,” says CEO Marcel Lejeune. It’s a win-win situation. Schuberth get the publicity and the drivers have the reassurance of knowing that their helmets offer the highest-possible protection to the most vulnerable part of their bodies.
“For the drivers it’s a question of trust. And for us it’s a commitment to thinking of everything that could adversely affect their safety,” says racing helmet technician Sven Krieter, who is present at every race weekend. He tends to remain discreetly in the background, but whenever he gets a signal, he springs into action to assist. FORMULA 1 drivers have their favorite helmets. Nico Rosberg, for instance, is particularly fond of the helmet he wore for his first victory in China in 2012. “Let’s use the fast helmet,” he will say, jokingly. Schuberth itself almost has a monopoly on winning. Since 2000, its helmets have been first past the checkered flag in over 80 races and the headgear of choice for drivers who have taken a total of five world championships: Michael Schumacher on four occasions and Kimi Raikkönen once.
FORMULA 1 IS THE PINNACLE OF ALL WE DO
—Marcel Lejeune, CEO of Schuberth GmbH
The helmets, which weigh less than 1.8 kilograms, are miracles of engineering made up of 56 parts. The shell consists of 19 layers of carbon fiber and of a carbon/aramid hybrid composite. These are compacted and cured under enormous pressure and heat in an autoclave. It is a materials technology used in rocket and aircraft construction. The visor, the most critical point of the helmet, is manufactured from three-millimeter-thick polycarbonate and is reputed to be bulletproof.
The two anchor points on the helmet for the HANS (Head and Neck Support System) device must withstand a tensile force of 1.4 tons in laboratory testing. This is rather like hanging a small car from each side of the helmet. The HANS device ensures that the driver’s head is held firmly even under the incredibly high centrifugal forces generated by a head-on collision. The system relieves the head and neck of stresses by up to 20 percent.
Apart from meeting the tensile strength standard, the helmets also have to pass a hard collision test. For this, they are fitted with a dummy’s head made of metal and dropped from a height of 4.8 meters at a speed of up to 9.5 meters a second onto a pointed steel rod. The outer surface must remain practically undamaged and, inside the helmet, the impact must not register more than 300 g, or 300 times the force of gravity. In a crash, this would prevent a traumatic brain injury. These parameters may seem extreme but they do actually occur, even if only for a fraction of a second, in a crash. As you would expect, all materials are fireproof and heat-resistant, and helmets will withstand temperatures of up to 740° Celsius unharmed.
But even maximum levels of safety would be of little use if the helmet were not comfortable to wear for hours at a time. The first issue is ventilation. Drivers are sometimes confronted with extreme temperatures of up to 40° Celsius and relative humidity around the 80-percent mark, as in Malaysia. Ten liters of fresh air per second (at 100 kph) need to stream through the helmet, which has air channels to provide optimum distribution. There are ten intake vents in all, including two each on the chinstrap and visor, and six outlet vents. The liner padding inside the helmet is a science unto itself. Its exact positioning and size ensure that the driver’s head feels as much at home inside the helmet as his feet in a comfortable pair of house slippers. At the same time, the padded inserts must be able to neutralize any impact. Another challenge is guaranteeing the driver unimpeded vision at all times. To achieve this, the visor has strips of film stuck onto it. The driver can tear these off instantaneously if they are spattered with rain or mud, even traveling blind at 300 kph.
“FORMULA 1 is the pinnacle of all we do,” explains Marcel Lejeune. “Everything we’ve learned about protective helmets from years of working in areas as different as mining and firefighting, or with the police and armed forces, flows into it.” Schuberth, founded in 1922, started out life as the subsidiary of a brewery in Brunswick and made beer crates. Its line of business was extended a little later to include leather camera cases for Leica and Rollei. The company’s expertise in working leather subsequently led to the production of the linings for helmets.
FOR THE DRIVERS IT’S A QUESTION OF TRUST
—Sven Krieter, Racing Helmet Technician
Today, Schuberth is the market leader in all the leading segments for which protective helmets are needed. Small wonder, then, that Swiss firemen and the Zurich police force wear helmets from Magdeburg when they are in action. The Swiss army, too, swears by Schuberth. With 370 employees and state-of-the-art production facilities, the company has an output of up to 2,000 helmets a day.
But the staff’s real pride and joy are the roughly two dozen high-tech helmets, each one unique, made for FORMULA 1. They are also the driver’s most personal piece of equipment, almost like a business card. Apart from sponsors’ logos, they still have a little room for the drivers’ individual embellishments: helmet designer and airbrush artist Jens Munser is only too happy to oblige.
Michael Schumacher, perfectionist and weight fanatic that he is, was only satisfied when the technicians succeeded in reducing the weight of the coats of paint to just 34 grams. But that’s FORMULA 1 for you: a sport of extremes.