The Sunday Supplement: Head first

6d ago


The familiar white stars on Hans-Joachim Stuck’s helmet became the German’s trademark, almost as popular as the driver himself. But as much as Stuck helped pioneer this form of expression in the conservative world of racing safety, it was that word ‘safety’ that remained his top priority.

In 1971, Stuck was just 20 years old. Evidently mature for his age however, the rising star of professional racing wanted to wear a full-face helmet, which were still new at the time, for his first race as a works driver. However, the plain colours on offer were not exciting or individual enough for him. Then his friend Mucki Buchner came up with the idea of adding stars over a standard base colour. Adhesive film was obtained, the stars were carefully cut out and stuck to the helmet, and a legend was born.

Primitive as a 1970s crash helmet seems today, it was a far cry from the cloth caps of the early years of motorsport that were only upgraded to marginally tougher leather in the 1930s and 1940s. It was Peter Snell, an American sports car driver in the Sportscar Club of America races, who is thought to be one of the very first drivers to wear a more convincing piece of protective headgear, a moulded plastic helmet padded internally with cork. Snell nevertheless had a fatal accident in his Triumph TR2 in 1956, and in his honour his family and members of the Sportscar Club of America established the Snell Memorial Foundation. This was the first organisation to develop safety benchmarks for racing drivers’ headgear.

The full-face helmet first came to the fore in the 1960s, providing considerably greater safety for drivers of single-seaters and open top sportscars. The all-round protection their visor and chin piece provided was a huge step up from the customary open face helmets of the period, which were only supported by a pair of goggles. Initially these helmets were made of fibreglass, a cutting-edge material in its day, albeit a heavy and not particularly strong one. These days, carbon fibre has assumed the mantle, providing the perfect combination of strength and low weight.

“Today, a carbon shell approximately one centimetre thick in the front section of the helmet provides almost impenetrable protection,” explains helmet specialist Peter Bürger. He has dealt with protective headgear for racing drivers for approximately 40 years and has been involved in this capacity in more than 400 Formula One Grand Prix.

In its advanced ballistic protection standard 8860, the International Automobile Federation (FIA) specifies the exact requirements for helmets for use in motorsports. For example, the polycarbonate visor has to withstand a steel ball impacting at a speed of 500 km/h. In the test, the impact mark of the ball on the visor is then subjected to a hot flame with a temperature of 190 degrees. The flame must not penetrate the damaged visor for at least 30 seconds.

In addition, the protective headgear must pass an impact test without becoming damaged. For this test, the helmet is placed on a dummy head and dropped from a height of six metres onto surfaces of various types and consistencies. It must not sustain any damage. All helmet manufacturers must have their products tested in an FIA-certified laboratory for approval, such as the globally recognised Newton Institute in Milan.

Timo Bernhard, long-time Porsche works driver, Le Mans winner, world endurance champion and today, head of his own Porsche team in the ADAC GT Masters, knows the requirements that drivers have: “For me, a helmet always had to be light in order to better withstand the enormous centrifugal forces, not have too large a shell so that you have enough freedom of movement in the cockpit, and of course it must offer an optimal field of vision through as large a visor as possible.”

But Bernhard, like Stuck, also used his helmet as a form of self-expression. “The basic design always consisted of black, red and gold — Germany’s colours. I only redesigned the top from time to time. This was good for my collection, as each helmet represents a particular time in my career.”

Now President of the German Motor Sport Federation (DMSB) and Motorsport Representative for the Volkswagen Group, Stuck hung up his race boots in 2011 after sharing the start of a 24-hour race at the Nürburgring with his sons Ferdinand and Johannes. And in doing so he passed on the family torch, just as his own famous father did before him. Today both sons are avid racers and both have incorporated the distinctive Stuck stars into their own helmet designs. Safety first, but not without a dash of the old racer’s natural flair.