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Just why do they cost so much? How are they made and what tests do they have to pass? Roger Green takes an in-depth look at race helmets
For the last six years I have been racing in an Arai GP5 helmet. Why? Because out of the different types this was the best fit, the most comfortable and the level of detail is at least as good as anything else available and there were a lot of F1 drivers wearing them. Chat to other racers and you’ll find they choose other brands for broadly similar reasons, and price usually comes into the mix too. Typically my choice was one of the most expensive, so as well as being a good match for my head I reckoned the cost must also have something to do with level of protection it offered. It had the required Snell standard sticker, so I bought it. I didn’t really know what that meant and I hadn’t a clue how they were made, it didn’t seem all that important at the time and I’m sure it’s the same for many other drivers. It’s crazy really, especially when you consider what these helmets are protecting, and with some of the accidents that have occurred recently it was definitely time I found out more.
A few weeks after firing off an email to Phoenix Distribution, the Arai importer for the UK, I found myself on a short Easyjet flight to Amsterdam, where, after transferring to a train I arrived an hour later in the small town of Hoevelaken, Arai’s European test centre, or as they call it the Arai Inspiration Centre (AIC). It’s a Japanese company, and all their helmets are still manufactured in Ohmiya, where the company was founded in 1937. By hand. This was a bit of a shock to me, I assumed the whole process would be mechanised and there would be a production line with shiny lids popping off the end ready to be boxed and exported. Apparently it’s not quite like that.
Each GP5 takes eighteen hours to produce (and it’s 28 for the new carbon GP6) and it’s hot, hard work as the individual layers are set inside moulds as hot as a bread oven. These outer shells are actually made slightly differently depending on which continent they are intended for as head shapes vary significantly between Asia, Europe and the USA. The quality of the outer shell is vital to resist penetration and abrasion and therefore once complete they are subjected to two inspections and if it fails either it is thrown away.
The polystyrene inner lining is made from one piece inside an Arai and its job is to act as safety cell, absorbing the impact of a crash. It does this by compressing the beads and slowing down the impact, which means the density on the polystyrene is absolutely crucial and therefore it varies around different parts of the head. Once the liner has been compressed, it is destroyed and will not be effective a second time. Finally there are the comfort fittings and the all important strap with its Double ‘D’ ring buckle to keep the whole thing secure.
Of course there are standards to meet. Or exceed in Arai’s case and the AIC is littered with machines every single one of them. Firstly these are concerned with conditioning, so the helmets are exposed to high and low temperatures, humidity, ultraviolet radiation, a constant water spray and various solvents. After all those exposures they then have to pass multiple shock absorption tests onto anvils of various shapes, there’s a rigidity test and penetration tests for both the helmet and visor, and finally flame resistance and chin strap tests.
Those minimum standards are set to be raised next year, but Arai proved to us they already impressively exceed these new levels. After witnessing all that, the price seems quite reasonable.