Racing is one of the most dangerous sports out there, so you can understand why the driver's helmet is so important. Here's how it has evolved throughout the years.
There is no doubt helmets have come a long way since the early days of racing when drivers used to wear soft shells which only offered protection from bugs basically. As Donut Media’s video perfectly demonstrates, it got better as the years went on, with the early 30s seeing the replacement of soft cloth with football leather, but that was obviously not enough to protect the driver in a crash. The evolution of helmets brought hard shells providing superior resistance in an impact, while the goggles added later on offered drivers the much-needed eye protection.
DuPont developed in the early 60s a flame-resistant meta-aramid material called ‘Nomex’ which was first marketed in 1967 and formed the basis of a fireproof racing helmet. With the risk of an explosion as a consequence of an accident during a race, the progress made was crucial for the driver’s safety. The 70s saw the introduction of full-face helmets and ‘dirt skirts’ attached to the bottom of the helmet to protect the neck from dirt and fire.
Visors were adopted in the first half of the 70s while helmet restraints (precursor of today’s HANS) came in the mid-80s to reduce the likelihood of a head and/or neck injury. Towards the end of the decade, a communication system was added to allow drivers talk to the people in the garages. Shortly after that, pop-off valves were installed so that drivers could hear the engine pops and avoid turbo lag.
Development in the early 90s focused on advanced aerodynamics to make the racing helmets sleeker and reduce air resistance, while in the 2000s lightweight materials were implemented. Visor tear-off strips brought a boost in visibility, but nowadays F1 drivers are not allowed to throw them on the track or on the pit lane, with FIA allowing them only to remove the strip at pit stops or place them inside the car’s cockpit.
The aforementioned Head and Neck Support (HANS) device made mostly from carbon fiber was introduced and today it's mandatory in a lot of racing categories. Air ducting is yet another feature of the modern racing helmet, providing the driver with a source of fresh air.
Current helmets used in Formula 1 are made mostly from a combination of carbon fiber and Kevlar to keep the weight to a low 1.25 kilograms (2.7 pounds) and provide exceptional protection at the same time. There are about 17 layers on a racing helmet used by drivers in F1, with the visible finish showing multiple ads to please the sponsors that bring in the cash. Drivers racing in F1 have to carefully pick the design of the helmet, with FIA allowing them only one design change per season.