Wearing helmets for motor racing seems common sense today, but it took many decades for helmets to become popular, let alone law, even though some penny farthing bicycle riders had started using pith helmets in the 1880s.
Leather helmets were commonly worn in early races, principally to keep one’s hair clean and provide some protection from the wind and cold: thin leather helmets for summer and wool-lined thick ‘flying helmets’ (ideal for your Tiger Moth) are still popular and available today – but of course they provide negligible protection in a crash.
Lawrence of Arabia kicked off the helmet revolution, though he didn’t live to see it: he died of head injuries in 1935 after coming off his Brough Superior, having swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles. Young neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns, who watched him lie in a coma for six days before dying, set out to investigate head trauma and protection for motorcyclists. Cairns wrote papers in 1941 and 1946, observing the success of helmets in preventing deaths of motorcycle despatch riders in London, especially after helmets were made compulsory for army motorcyclists in 1941. Nevertheless, it still wasn’t compulsory for all motorcyclists in the UK to wear crash helmets until 1973.
Helmets had been seen in motor racing since the 1930s: the Herbert Johnson Racing Helmet looked more like horse-riding headgear and you can still buy one today from The Old Racing Car Co for a mere £1000, handbuilt by the original maker, Patey & Co. It won’t meet modern safety standards but looks great on events like the Mille Miglia. Stirling Moss wouldn’t be without his white Patey helmet from the start of his career in 1948 and others soon followed suit.
The first truly effective crash helmet was invented by Prof Charles F Lombard, from the University of Southern California, who developed an energy-absorbing glassfibre helmet for the United States Air Force in 1953. Also in the USA, Bell began making its first helmet specifically for car racers in 1954. A year later, the first one to be worn in the Indy 500 got the chance to prove itself when the wearer hit the wall. By 1963, Jim Clark had become World Champion wearing a Bell helmet, and Parnelli Jones won the Indy 500 wearing one.
Another man we have to be grateful to is William ‘Pete’ Snell, who died of head injuries in a car crash in 1956 while wearing a leather helmet. The Snell Memorial Foundation was set up in his memory, run by Dr George Snively. Dr Snively’s pioneering research into how brains are injured by impact led to him setting ever-tougher standards for helmet makers to meet. Vital areas for protection are the cranium, temples, eye sockets and jaw. Arai, Simpson and Bell worked closely with him to improve standards; by 1985 they had reached adequate protection levels and only minor updates have been required since.
Snell standards are commendably clear, using simply the year (eg Snell M 2005 for motorcycles) as opposed to unintelligible codes like the British BS6658-85A, US SFI 31.2A or DOT FMVSS218. On that front, it’s worth noting that the European standard involves independent batch testing, whereas US DOT is self-certification by manufacturers and therefore potentially open to abuse. For motor sport, the FIA is at least partially clearer, with FIA8860-2004 required for International events. The cheapest FIA-approved open-face helmet will set you back £170, full-face £235, though it’s easy to spend a great deal more.
British Standard 6658-85 comes in three levels: B (green label) for basic road-legal motorcycle helmets, A (blue label) for high performance and A/FR (red label) for high with fire-resistant lining; type A is acceptable for MSA National events, A/FR for International. MSA approval stickers are required in the UK and, if not on the helmet, must be obtained from approved scrutineers (cost £1.30).
Motor sport helmets offer zoned protection in different areas from motorcycle helmets, so don’t use your race helmet on your bike or vice versa. Snell rates motorcycle ones as ‘M’, car racing ‘SA’ (Special Application) and Karting, a different area again, ‘K’. SA helmets have tougher visors than bike helmets and must pass a rollbar-impact test; the MSA recommends a minimum visor standard of BS4110Z for motor sport. The UK government is currently working on a grading system for motorcycle helmets to indicate the level of protection offered by each and every product on the market, though this will inevitably add to costs.
Basic construction comprises a hard outer shell (made of polycarbonate plastic or glassfibre, reinforced on better examples with carbonfibre or Kevlar) to protect from penetration and abrasion. Inside this is a layer of expanded polystyrene or polypropylene foam (Styrofoam) about one-inch thick, to absorb impact forces. You can’t see the Styrofoam, because it’s covered internally with soft foam rubber and cloth (flameproof on approved racing helmets), which are just for comfort and offer no protection in an accident.
In a crash, the Styrofoam is permanently crushed: that’s why you mustn’t use the helmet again (or buy/borrow a secondhand one that may have been in a crash), because it cannot give the same protection a second time.
Years ago, Bell famously used the ad line ‘If you’ve got a head, buy a helmet.’ Great marketing, but misleading in a way: if the helmet meets Snell standards, it doesn’t matter if it’s a £200 helmet or a £2000 helmet, it will give adequate protection. Weight is the biggest difference that comes with price: cheaper helmets can weigh around 2kg, whereas a modern F1 helmet weighs little over 1kg yet gives at least as good protection – and the lower weight reduces the danger of whiplash injuries. Ventilation is another area where higher price brings improvements.
Motor sport regulators agree with Snell and helmet makers that helmet materials deteriorate with age, and adequate protection cannot be guaranteed once they are over five years old. So, consider that before you buy an expensive helmet and, when you do buy, make sure it hasn’t been sitting on a shelf for a year or more.
Equally important, though, is to buy a helmet that fits. Shapes do vary and, if one make doesn’t seem comfortable, try another. The helmet needs to be tight but not uncomfortable when new; to an extent, it will form itself to your head shape. Top-flight motor sport now requires the use of HANS – head and neck support – which must be integrated with the helmet.
Open-face helmets lack chin protection and can’t offer the same face protection as a full-face helmet. For that reason they are not acceptable for racing in open cars, where impact from airborne debris is a real risk. Flip-up helmets, with a pivoted lower section, are fashionable in some quarters but the protection they offer is questionable and has not yet been adequately tested.
If you really want to go the whole hog, why not get your helmet painted by a specialist such as JLF Designs: Jason Fowler designs Lewis Hamilton’s helmets...