How hard was Massa hit?

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

The spring hit Massa's helmet with a force that can only de described as terrifying
The spring hit Massa's helmet with a force that can only de described as terrifying

The stories of Massa’s accident three days have been everywhere. But how much do we really understand about how hard a blow Massa suffered when he was struck by that spring?

F1 Fanatic guest writer Kareem Shaya tries to put the crash into perspective.

In all the discussion of Felipe Massa’s qualifying accident at the Hungarian Grand Prix, there have been few real efforts to quantify what happened. Massa was hit hard enough to be knocked out and suffer a fractured skull, and that?s essentially all we know. So let?s figure it out. How bad is it, exactly, if an 800-gram coil spring hits you in the head at 160 mph?

The punch it packs is worse than being shot. Bullets are deadly because they penetrate the body, but in terms of kinetic energy, most don?t hold a candle to what hit Massa.

Below is a list of kinetic energies of common projectiles. The bullet energies assume point-blank range (and are calculated using numbers from Alpine Armoring). All the energies are calculated using the old kinetic energy = 1/2 * mass * velocity^2 formula you learned in school.

– 100 mph fastball from Nolan Ryan: 145 joules
– Barry Bonds? swing (33 oz. bat at 70 mph): 458 joules
– 9mm handgun: 513 joules
– .44 Magnum handgun: 1,510 joules
– The spring that hit Massa (800 grams at 160 mph): 2,046 joules
– AK-47 (7.62mm round): 2,599 joules
– 12 gauge shotgun slug: 3,580 joules
– The wheel that killed Henry Surtees (an estimated 12 kg at 120 mph): 17,267 joules

Before we talk about those figures, it’s worth remembering that the Massa and Surtees accidents were real-world situations, and as such, the numbers above may be imprecise. Massa was moving at 160 mph, but if the spring was traveling at high speed in the same direction as his Ferrari, or if it ricocheted off of his car before striking him, the estimate of 2,046 joules will be too high. If, for instance, we change the spring’s collision speed to 120 mph, its kinetic energy drops about 44% to a still-frightening 1,151 joules. The same caveats apply to the figures on Henry Surtees’ accident. Please suggest any adjustments in the comments.

With that in mind, let’s consider the baseball examples. Bullets focus their energy on a tiny area, which is why they would penetrate something like a driver?s helmet. The contact patch of a baseball or a bat, by contrast, would be close to that of a coil spring, and that makes for some shocking comparisons.

By the numbers above, Massa would have been 14 times better off being hit by Nolan Ryan fastball. He would have been four times better off letting Barry Bonds take a full-force swing at his head. For that matter, in terms of sheer energy, he’d have been better off letting Barry Bonds hit him in the head at the same instant that someone shot him point-blank with Dirty Harry’s gun.

It?s simply incredible that a helmet can turn that into a survivable injury, but the massive energy of Henry Surtees? accident ? nearly five times that of a 12 gauge shotgun slug and more than eight times worse than the blow to Massa’s head ? reminds us that there?s a limit to the protection that one or two inches of padding can provide. Being hit in the head with a wheel moving at race speeds is easily deadly, helmet or no helmet.

If the same thing causes a death in F1’s future, the result may well be a rush to implement closed cockpits. And if that day should come, let?s not pretend to have learned something we didn?t already know today. Cockpit covers may or may not make sense, but if we are against them now, we shouldn?t be waiting for a death to change our minds.

Update from Keith: We have had further good news about Massa’s condition today, including a quote from one doctor who confirmed the driver has now opened his left eye and can see. The doctor described it as “morphologically healthy”, indicating the eye is healthy and has integrity, with no tissue damage. This raises hopes that he may be able to return to the cockpit in the future.

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70 comments on “How hard was Massa hit?”

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  1. This is a great article. A somewhat morbid subject, yes, but sensitively handled and just geeky enough for me personally.

  2. This is a brilliant article.

    Massa is a lucky man!

    God be with Henry Surtees…

    1. look where it hit his helmet:

      imagine it hit the visor? I doubt the visor would of stopped much…

  3. So, Henry Surtees was shot by 7 rounds of AK-47 fire. I guess the Renault suspension is more than justified now.

    BTW, when you mention the speeds? don’t you mention the relative velocities (not speeds) between the target and projectile?

    In that case, we would have to consider the directions as well.

    The wheel that hit Surtees was sideways, so the actual velocity would be under-root of sum of squares of Surtees’s speed and tyre speed. (Hypotenuse)

    Also, according to the official website, the spring hit the cockipit side before ricocheting inside towards Massa’s visor. So, again, the directions would have to be considered here.

    1. The can of worms is starting to bulge a bit now :)

      The impact velocity counts in two senses – an indirect approach will glance off, not transferring all its energy, as well as not having the maximum closing velocity.

      Something else that counts for a lot is the shape, if theres any scope for yielding, and how hard the colliding objects are. The latter is a bit of a moot point at these kinds of speeds, but a deformable object will dissipate energy more gradually, reducing the peak forces (this is the principle that crumple zones work on).

      1. Indeed, it’s not easy making any meaningful comparison.

        Massa’s head experienced the equivalent energy transfer as would be released exploding 600-700mg of TNT.

        But for true comparison it really depends on the length of time over which the energy was transfered and the area over which that energy is imparted; around 1 to 2 thousandths of a second and roughly 4 by 2 inches respectively in Massas’ case.

        However the time taken to impart energy from TNT is a thousand times shorter (about 1 millionth of a second). So although it’s representative of the energy imparted it’s not as representative of the resulting damage.

        The most accurate way of visualising it is that of being hit in the forehead with an 800g 5-inch spring travelling at 160 mph, which of course sounds just as shocking now as it did at the time. Thank goodness his helmet dealt with the lions share of the energy.

        I would also like to add that I am inclined to disagree with the official statement of events regarding the spring. While I agree that the spring does appear to first hit the bodywork just ahead of Massas’ left hand, the video frames and helmet damage indicate that if the spring hit the side protection it appears to have done so after sriking his head not before.

  4. Sush Meerkat
    28th July 2009, 19:37

    Superb article, and excellent to hear the update on Massa’s health, seems to be heading in the direction we all want him too.

    So best of luck.

  5. Doesn’t these calculations assume that the object hit completely head on (90 degree angle against the helmet) with a perfect angle of the object itself (i.e. the coil spring hitting head on it’s short end, not causing it to twist/spin) and absolutely zero deflection?

    I think it’s highly unlikely the spring hit in such a way. It probably partially hit, at a partial angle, dissipating only part of it’s potential energy.

    Bullets are not a good comparison as they can’t do much blunt force damage – indeed being hit by a .45 ACP has about the same push as being hit by a baseball. Not much. but a ball is a decent comparison.

  6. chaostheory
    28th July 2009, 19:59

    Somehow I didnt heard of this:
    As far as I know this driver had trouble to get out of the cockpit on time to avoid being burned.

    1. From my understanding, Kanaan pulled the car away from the pits before getting out, to reduce the risk of injury to his crew and other bystanders. if that’s true, a tip of the hat to him :)

      1. No disrespect to Tony Kanaan for whom this must have been terrifying but he was exiting the pit ‘as normal’. He became aware of the fire when his cockpit lit up by which time he had moved 50 metres down the pit lane.

        1. Kanaan said he felt the fuel splatter and knew the fire had ignited. He drove away from the pit to try and contain it away from his crew.

        2. Sorry, here’s a link to a better interview than I read earlier.

          1. jordan GP fan
            29th July 2009, 22:47

            Re Kanaan- even he would be safer with a closed cockpit, the fuel wouldn’t have come into his car. with explosive bolts you cld have a cockpit off very quickly!

  7. Great article Kareem. I’m not a big fan of math, but this was very interesting to read.

    I wonder what kind of cockpit cover (if any) could be fashioned to withstand the amount of forces on the upper end of the spectrum while also allowing the driver an undistorted view from the cockpit?

    1. That isn’t really “math” (or maths as we call it on this side of the pond! :)) – it’s physics or dynamics. Just with a bit of arithmetic thrown in…

      Very interesting piece, thanks Kareem.

      1. Erm, you can’t have physics without maths! Stop splitting hairs!

    2. I’m not a big fan of math

      thats too bad. Specially considering that without it you wouldn’t even have the computer to type your message with.

      Come to think of it, without maths, and the great people out there who work with it, you would now be living in a cave with apes instead. You wouldn’t even have a square house, cause you couldn’t work out the angles. :)


  8. Amazing work. The other issue is the potential acceleration of his head. The helmet material absorbs some of the energy, but the jolt and rebound of his head would be insane. And so we may also want to add HANS to the safety measures that saved Massa’s life Saturday. It likely damped a lot of the energy of the spring before his head hit the headrest and rebounded. I’m too many years out of college to calculate acceleration based on the force given, but the potential g-loading on his brain and spine from being launched unabated into the headrest from that blow would have been unreal.

    1. It begs the question, how, in the name of GOD, did Mika Hakkinen survive his accident in Adelaide.

      Very open cockpit, no HANS sevice. I know it was a very different accident but still…..

      1. yeah i was thinking that too, somewhere on youtube theres a video of jackie stewart discussing a super slo-mo onboard video of hakkinens crash, and it just looks horrific.

  9. Remember he also hit the barrier/tyre wall which would of made it at least 2 x worse because of the force applied to his neck. Overall im glad he is ok.

  10. sumedh has a point, direction matters too. In the case of gun fire, the bullet should come to a full stop inside the target, so all the kinetic energy that it was carring, will be fully absorbed by the target. In this case it doesn’t matter from which direktion the bullet cames from.

    The tire and the spring in those accidents were not stopped, only the moving direktions were changed and their moving speed was reduced. So after the impact, they still had remaining kinetic energy, in other word only a part of their kinetic energy was recieved by the driver. It can’t be calculated like that.

  11. the cockpit covers are not there not because they help in going fast or add to spectacle (actually they make the car go slow)

    The real reason is because it allows the driver to get out (or removed by marshalls) quickly in case of fire.

    yeah these days, risk of fire is quite less but still its a delicate balance which one has is more risky (fire or debris hitting drivers)

  12. On the topic of closed cockpits has anyone ever considered the dangers of a cockpit caving in onto the driver in the event of either the car flipping or another car hitting that cockpit, for sure any cockpit designed would most likely be made out of carbon fibre and shaped to be aerodynamic as opposed to be as safe as possible.

    1. Yes, considered it caving in. Highly unlikely. And if it did, whatever caused it to cave in would probably have crushed the driver had there been no canopy anyway.

      Regarding safety vs speed in design, I’m sure that the FIA would write a standard into the rules that must be adhered to.

      1. What about those cases we see from time to time when the cars lock wheels and one car flys over the top of the other? There have been very recent examples of a tire coming very close to a drivers head? Would a cockpit cover not be severly damaged and possibly collapse in one of those situations?

        Also, with the re-fueling fire experianced by Tony Kaanan in the IRL series, it seems that a cockpit cover can do more harm than good. Granted in that situation maybe the fire would not have hit him, but what if the fire started from inside? Remember when Kimi had the KERS failure and his cockpit filled with smoke? That could have been bad if he was breahing all of that into his lungs. Anyway, I didn’t mean to turn this into a debate for or against the cockpit covers. I just went on a small rant.

        1. Regarding cars flying over each other and canopy concerns: It is highly likely the canopy is stronger than a sliding car, and will protect the driver more than anything else. I can’t imagine a canopy so weak it would break from something relatively soft like that (just like the car chassi/safety tub does not).

          Regarding fires and fumes and canopies: if the safety tub for the driver was made with a more sealed environment in mind, any chance of smoke or fire in there should be much less likely than today. The KERS example shows that the driver area was not sealed from the batteries properly the way things are right now. It is clear that the driver would be more protected in the case of fuel fires that originate outside the cockpit. But no doubt, clever ways of opening/detaching the canopy in various ways must be devised to minimise any downsides of having it in the first place.

          1. I think if they were to consider going to closed cockpits, we’re not going to see anything less strong than we see in fighter aircraft.

            As far as crushing the canopy, we should all agree at this point, if it can crush the canopy, the driver is screwed either way.

            Opening and closing the cockpit could be as easy as having it linked to the removal of the steering wheel from inside the cockpit, and a manual override from without (if not a similiar system also to fighter craft to blow the cockpit clear.

            As for fire/fumes, it would be best to have an isolated driver tub, with a secondary foam fire suppression system for the other unexpected occurrence of an inboard fire.

            Also there would need to be allowances for air cycling and feeding the driver with fresh air, but it’s all easily within the realm of feasibility.

          2. If we were going with fighter jet canopies, how about an eject button? Flavio would want remote access to his of course….

          3. well what I had in mind was the tyre which caused the ill-fated incident with the young Surtees. If a tyre generates that much force as Kareem is suggesting then I can’t see what the cockpit cover would have done? I still remember Alonso driving into a loose wheel back in (2004?) at Interlagos and the car was totalled from the point of impact on the chassis.

            Thus any cockpit that is to be made has to be extremely tough and heavy which means that you may as well be driving closed wheel cars as opposed to open wheeled cars.

        2. Talking about flying cars and tires coming close to a drivers head, the one I can remember most to this day is Martin Brundle’s miraculous escape in the Brazil GP of the very eventful 1994 season which the great Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger was killed. In this video Jos Verstappen tried to pass Eddie Irvine but banged wheels with him then Irvine going on to the grass turns back into Verstappen pushing him into Eric Bernard then Martin Brundle who was minding his own business, which then flips Irvine’s car into the air with the right rear hitting Brundle’s head. The way his head was hit and swinging side to side, I really thought I witnessed his death but he miraculously got out of the car and today we have the current best commentator on TV. This was pre HANS and side protection so it makes it even more miraculous to this day. Rubens Barichello also had a bad crash at the ill-fated San Marino GP

          On the topic of cars going upside down Brundle has done that too he’s had lots of bad accidents but still here to tell the tale, he really is a very lucky man, but I believe that Martin Donnelly surpasses that in surviving crashes. I won’t post the link here of the aftermath as its too graphic.

          1. My mistake. Sorry got Verstappen and Irvine mixed up. Forgot to read it before posting.

  13. good article. puts things in relative perspective at least.

    btw its a pleasure coming to F1fanatic and reading insightful intelligent comments most of the time. really got fed up with all the nonsense on yahoo where only 1 out of every 15 comments say something constructive. keep up the good work keith and all those who post!

  14. Not sure the Barry Bonds swing comparison is correct as that given energy is simply a calculation for a 900 gram bat traveling at 70 miles per hour rather than accounting for the weight of his swing.

    Anyway, another way to put into perspective what Massa would have experienced is dropping a 10kg mass from 20 meters onto your head (with helmet of course.)

  15. I would like to see something. I want to see a list of all F1 deaths, and see how many of them were caused only by being hit in the head by an object. I know the bird that hit the drivers head back in the 60’s and now Surtees, and nearly Massa.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is, what is the actual chance of this happening again. I know we have seen this 2 weekends in a row, but before they decide to start eclosing the cockpits, I would like to see hundreds of pages of research on it. The last thing I want to see is a knee jerk reaction then a driver get killed because he couldn’t get out of his cockpit.

    1. senna, tom pryce – both were killed by objects hitting them on the head.

    2. It is not just deaths, it is any kind of accident relating to such an incident. And one should include other types of open wheel racing as well – F1 is made up of a very small sample racing very little compared to all the other classes combined.

  16. Presumably as the spring seemed to be bouncing down the track towards Massa (not quite sure why since it fell off a car travelling in the same direction as Massa, but it did appear to be – perhaps it ‘sprung’ as it came off) the relative velocity would be even higher. Or did my eyes deceive me? (Quite possibly!)

    Also the total weight of the baseball bat is misleading – as only the thick end of the bat is travelling at 70mph, the thin end is travelling far slower.

  17. Excellant article, makes people appreciate the engineering mountain that designers face when they are building things that travel fast, then have to travel very slow in the blink of an eye. What you got to think of as well is the size of the object in the math, Pressure=Force/Area, if Massa had hit a object the size of a Beachball he would of walked away from it. But in poor Henry`s case the numbers were just to high,it was the mass of the object that made it unsurvivable

  18. I never understood the need for an open cockpit. If F1 is the technical pinnacle than a closed cockpit should prove to be faster and thus allowed.

    From a saftey point of view I see even less of an argument. Sports car racing has been around longer than F1, yet we never say they can race only roofless cars.

    Half of the intrigue of racing is the danger invovled, but I would never want to watch someone lose their life in real time.

    We should not let Henry die in vein.

  19. We are not waiting for a death, it already happened.
    Actually another Brazilian driver 15 years ago, some may know him.
    Ayrton Senna.

    We need to have closed cockpits.

  20. Hugo Bourgeois
    28th July 2009, 22:00

    Glad to know there is always one website we can go to to know exact and relevant information that makes us understand how bad things are. Thx for that!

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