In the early days of Formula One racing, safety was largely an afterthought. Not only did drivers lack lap belts and shoulder harnesses, but aside from leather or cotton “skull caps,” there were no crash helmets to speak of.
At speeds in excess of 155 miles per hour, we can only imaging what taking a stone or a chunk of tire to the face must have felt like. Despite this, it wasn’t until Rudolf Caracciola’s life was saved by a surplus tanker’s helmet that Formula One began to rethink its policies on safety equipment.
Caracciola was hit in the head by a bird during a practice session for the 1946 Indy 500, where stewards required him to wear a (borrowed) helmet. In spite of the safety gear, the German driver remained in a coma for several days; still, it was clear that a helmet had saved his life.
As Mercedes F1 driver Nico Rosberg explains, change was slow to come to Formula One, and helmets weren’t required until 1953. It wasn’t until 1970 that Jochen Rindt popularized the full-face helmet, after taking a stone to the face during a race in France.
Today’s Formula One helmets are marvels of engineering, designed to protect a driver both from impact and from fire, increasing the odds of survival in the most horrific of crashes. Even the helmet’s visor has been strengthened to absorb impact, likely in the aftermath of Felipe Massa’s accident in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Drivers change helmets several times during a season, since any impact can potentially damage the integrity of the helmet. Unlike the early days, safety in today’s Formula One racing is a primary consideration, and helmet design never stops evolving.