The helmet is one of the most important safety devices in Formula 1. Although helmets through the years look roughly similar, the underlying technology has changed significantly.
In the early 1980s, a Formula 1 helmet weighed around 2kg. This extra weight added to the risk of the driver suffering whiplash in accidents because the weight increases dramatically when under strong deceleration. Today, helmet’s weight around 1.25kg. Helmets are constructed from several layers which offers both strength and flexibility (so that it can absorb some of the force in case of an accident). The outer shell has two layers. These layers are normally fibre reinforced resin over carbon fibre. Underneath this, there is a layer of strong plastic, usually Kevlar. Underneath this later, there is a softer deformable layer made from a polystyrene-based plastic, covered in a flame-proof material.
The visor is made of a clear polycarbonate to ensure that the driver has excellent visibility along with flame resistance and impact protection. Most drivers will have a tinted visor. The inside will be coated with an anti-fogging material to stop the visor from misting up. Transparent strips will be attached to the outside. These can be torn off during a race to clear the visor vision. There are also small air intakes in the helmet to provide ventilation to the driver. The intakes are fitted with special filters to ensure that no track debris enters the helmet.
Helmet shapes are evolving – more aerodynamic shaped helmets are being seen. The drivers head sits directly below the main engine air intake so helmets are now being made to assist the reduction of drag. Designs also tend to try and reduce the lift that older helmets used to produce.
Helmets are still painted by hand. Some of the more complicated patterns can take hundreds of hours to paint. Most drivers will go through several helmets a season – that adds up to a lot of man hours!