The life of Brazilian racecar driver Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest Formula 1™ drivers of all time, is beautifully portrayed in director Asif Kapadia’s recent documentary Senna.

The film recounts the making of a three time Formula 1™ world champion and Brazilian national hero, whose brilliant career in racing was cut short when he crashed and died at age 34 the 1994 Grand Prix in San Marino, Italy. The use of home movies and TV footage brings viewers vividly into the racing world of the ’80s and early ’90s, where Senna was famed for bringing intelligence and sportsmanship, as well as unrivalled technical mastery, to the highly political, competitive and sometimes corrupt sport of racing.

The weekend of Senna’s final race seemed cursed from the start. First, Senna’s protégé Rubens Barrichello, crashed on Friday (he survived). The next day,  Roland Ratzenberger (driving for Simtek), crashed and died from head and neck injuries during the qualification laps. Finally, during the Sunday race, Senna lost control of his car when his steering column shattered during a turn. He crashed into the wall, causing shrapnel from the column to strike his helmet with fatal force.

Which led us to the question—What are some of the materials employed today to prevent similar fatalities? Two fatal crashes on the same team in one weekend was more than just coincidence. The drivers were driving faulty and unsafe vehicles, which no one wanted to admit at the time. These were slightly older race cars that had been upgraded in 1993 with cutting edge electronic components that were removed prior to the start of the racing season in 1994 without re-engineering the vehicles, rendering the cars unstable and challenging for even the most talented racers, like Senna, to drive.

The deaths launched a decade long investigation into the cause of the accidents, and ultimately resulted in the creation of new regulations for cockpit size, survival shell material, and increased physical protection around the driver’s head. Advances in helmet composite technology and the design of the HANS device to protect and stabilize the driver’s upper body were further necessary safety innovations.

Current F1 helmet outer shells are made of three main materials: carbon fiber for rigidity; fire-resistant aramide and Kevlar for impenetrability; and magnesium, aluminum and epoxy resin for additional strengthening and durability. (The exact make up of the outer shell is a manufacturer secret). Windscreens are fire-resistant polycarbonate layered 3mm thick with tear-off outer layers for split-second dirt removal. A note from the official F1 website explains in more detail:

In recent seasons the actual shape of helmets has gradually evolved, as more aerodynamically efficient shapes are brought into use. Sitting directly below the main engine air intake, helmets are increasingly shaped to assist in the process of reducing drag in this notoriously high-turbulence aerodynamic area. The modern designs also reduce the lift produced by more traditionally shaped helmets—which can be anything up to 15 kg at racing speeds.

At a 2009 Grand Prix race, a spring traveling at 160 mph hit Felipe Massa’s visor causing a serious, but non-fatal, head injury from which he fully recovered. Following this incident, manufacturers added Zylon to the visor to improve further the chances of a racer walking away from major impact. If only this helmet had existed in 1994.

The HANS (Head and Neck Support) device is a safety support system that wraps under the driver’s shoulders and comes up the back of the neck with two tether straps clipping into the helmet. The HANS device is made primarily with carbon fiber, sparing foam, and fabric trims. Designed and invented by Dr. Robert Hubbard, a biomechanical engineer from Michigan in the early ’80s after his own racing tragedy, it wasn’t till 2003 that F1 officially made the HANS mandatory for all drivers.

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