Next: German GP 20-22 July

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Formula One helmets are designed around the clear need to protect drivers' heads from the risk of major impacts. But the rest of his clothing has an equally serious purpose: offering the best possible defence against the risks of fire.

Fortunately fire is now extremely rare in Formula One racing, although well into the 1970s drivers were being routinely injured or even killed by terrible blazes caused by fuel igniting after accidents. Modern overalls, gloves and boots are made from special fire-proof materials designed to ensure that, even if a driver is trapped inside a burning car, he will remain protected until the marshals have extinguished the blaze.

Today’s overalls feature multi-layer construction from a special form of Aramid plastic fabric, which is tested with a white hot propane flame. The overalls must also be made as light as possible and - due to the physical stresses of driving a Formula One car - they also have to 'breath', allowing the kilograms of sweat produced by a driver during a race to escape. The patches carrying corporate and sponsors' logos are made from the same material, as is the thread used to sew the overalls together.

Overalls also feature two large 'handles' on the drivers’ shoulders. These serve a vital safety purpose as the regulations require cars to be designed so that a driver can be removed from the car strapped into his seat (to minimise the risk of complicating injuries). The seat is therefore secured by four pins, which can be easily released by all rescue crews. The shoulder straps are strong enough to allow the driver and seat to be pulled from the car together, and must therefore be capable of supporting the combined weight.

The fireproof gloves are made as thin as possible, to ensure that the driver has the greatest possible amount of 'feel' to the steering wheel. Similarly the soles of the driver's racing boots are far thinner than those of ordinary shoes to allow the most accurate contact with the car's pedals. Underneath his overalls and his helmet the driver wears a further layer of flameproof underwear.

The effectiveness of all these precautions was amply demonstrated in 1994 when Jos Verstappen and the Benetton pit crew survived a fierce fire caused by a fuel leak with no serious injuries.