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?”

  1. I remember 1st of May 1994 very well, Roland had died the day before( Remember seeing him being interviewed by Roland Rat years before, something to do with the coincidence in there names ), Rubens had survived a accident that looked the worse of the three on friday, there was a starting line incident that lead to a restart, then off they went. Then it happened, I remember Berger losing it at that corner and bursting into flames years before and being OK, even though it took 39 seconds to reach him(Yes I was counting, when it got to 30 I was screaming at the TV). I didn`t watch a GP till mid 96, we must learn from this or people have died and been injured for nothing.

  2. HounslowBusGarage
    28th July 2009, 22:30

    Thanks to Kareem Shaya for the maths and a good analytical article.
    At the risk of being boringly geeky, I’d like to suggest that the answer may lie far in the past.
    Four or five hundred years ago, the major problem for youg gentlemen of decent birth was being hit in the face by a lance at about 30 mph. over time and with a bit of hit and miss experimentation, the ideal helm evolved. It had forward facing, slanted facets which deflected the oncoming lance to one side or another. Below it, the knight would have worn a chainmail aventail or camail which covered the gap between helm and breastplate.
    Bringing this forward to the present day, current helmets are flat-ish at the front with a visor panel that extends only over part of the ‘face’ area. If they were sharply creased at the front and projected further forward at chin level that at eye level, with a visor panel that covered the entire front face of the helmet, they might deflect incomning objects to one side or the other or over the top more successfully.
    Similarly, I am certain the current HANS device could be extended and reinforced at the front to provide neck and chest protection against colliding objects in the same way.
    This wouldn’t have saved poor Henry Surtees, but it might have deflected the spring over the head of Massa with only enough force to make him run wide at the next corner.

    1. Interesting idea – however, how would 320km/h winds interact with such a shaped helmet? I imagine you might get some extremely strong torque movement to the sides if you turn your head even slightly to the left or right. Not good for the neck ;)

  3. Isn`t HANS a head and neck device, ie head and neck support in impact. supporting the head during negative G`s.

  4. The car is completely upside down, and on fire. How does the driver get out of the car?

    1. Open/Detach/Explosive bolt-blowing-off/swing canopy open and get out? The canopy is lower than the highest point of the car and there’s room to manipulate it.

      1. Right now if a car flips, the driver has barley any room to mavouver. If you have a cockpit, it will just make any current available space even smaller. You don’t want expolsives going off that close to a driver in an enclosed space. I’m sorry, but he would still be trapped. Even if he could escape, by the time he did, it would be too late.

        1. What is more likely: a driver being hit by debris or being trapped upside down in a burning car?

  5. I cant think of an example of that ever happening in F1 in the past 35+ years. The cars now have Helicopter grade rubber fuel tanks, crash fires are a thing off the past.

  6. A couple of points :-

    Would it be possible to design a transparent material which is as strong as the rest of the helmet to use as a visor?

    I saw Henry Surtee’s accident on Eurosport. Initially I hoped he would be OK as the foreshortened TV picture seemed to show the wheel hitting behind Henry, but when a later shot showed the wheel at the side of the track with at least 10cm of driveshaft attached, I got very concerned for him. Poor lad.

  7. Australian Racer
    29th July 2009, 2:58

    I’ve never posted on a forum before but on this topic I feel I must. I’ve read alot of articles & comments regarding this issue & the one thing I can’t get past is one of the reasons why I love open wheel racing & that is being able to see the driver… driving. Yes, we want to make the sport safer but at what cost to the spectacle? I don’t say that lightly as I really don’t enjoy the immediate aftermath of big shunts like Roberts’ & Felipes’ with my head in my hands pleading for them to be ok but honestly, what are the chances of what happened to Felipe happening again? (Yes I know what happened to Surtees jnr (R.I.P) And are those chances worth turning F1 cars or for that matter all open wheelers into open wheeled sports cars? It’s cliche I know but motor racing is dangerous & it always will be…period. Look at moto gp, yes there have been improvements with air fences, run offs, airbag overalls etc, but at the end of the day, when those boys fall off, whether it’s in 1972 or present day they are still a human being flying through the air at huge speeds & they are more than happy to take those (demonstrably higher) risks. I hope that the work done on safety never dissipates but don’t enclose the cockpits. It will just take the personality away from the spectacle (no punn intended).

    What a find this website is? By far the best I’ve seen.
    Congrats Keith!

  8. I have to disagree with some of the comments from some suggesting that drivers in the past have ‘died for nothing’. Personally, I find it offensive and insensitive, but also misguided.
    When Tom Pryce was killed in 1977, the training involved for track marshalls was beyond a joke. After the accident, the standard in marshall training improved quite dramatically compared to what it had before. There were still lessons to be learned though, but since that day thirty two years ago, a repeat accident has been avoided.
    As for the Ratzenberger and Senna fatalities, you only have to compare the cars from that era to now. The Williams inwhich Senna was killed offered alot less protection to the driver than the one Nico Rosberg and Nakajima drive today. Back then, the drivers head and neck was very exposed in a crash, and the HANS device was still another seven years in the future.
    Compare the wreckage of Ratzenberger’s Simtek that that of Robert Kubica’s BMW in 2007. With poor Roland’s car, a huge hole is clearly visable in the side, clearly showing the Austrian’s lower body and abdomen.
    With Kubica’s car, the front was holed too, but he survived. Felipe Massa’s car itself was surprisingly well preserved considering the impact and inertia of the crash.
    All of these improvements have come about through years of tests and rule changes by the FIA, largely due to the memories of 1994 and the lessons learnd.
    So to say these poor men died for nothing is crass. Schumacher, Kubica, Alonso, Raikkonen have all experienced big crashes over the years, and it is not impossible to imagine that one of them would not be around anymore if not for the changes after Imola 1994.
    Tragically, with alot of things in life, people make the habit of not acting until someone is killed or injured. We must all remember that Senna was killed by a piece of suspension, at around 30mph slower than the impact Massa endured. I think that speaks volumes for the standard of modern motor racing.
    We must always remember though, as in the tragic case of Henry Surtees, that motorsport can only be tamed so much, never completely.

  9. Great Stuff, i was waiting for someone to quantify the force…and it sounds just about right. but personally i thought that at 800 grams and almost the size of a fist, it would pack a bigger punch. Massa must be the unluckiest lucky man in F1. the chances for such a small thing to hit possibly the second weakest point in his helmet, and for him to survive that, is amazing, and I’m hoping for a very quick recovery…

  10. All this talk of fighter jet canopies is crazy , fantastic in a film like speed racer or something like that but this is not realistic for current f1 .
    totally impractical .
    Can’t wait for Massa’s view’s on the incident and he thought the danger was from a rookie !

  11. On the subject of the relative safety given by a closed cockpit, is it possible to find any statements from the Le Mans organisers as to why they feel it will be safer in the future for the LMP cars than just having open cockpits?
    Although the LMP cars are designed with more bodywork than an F1 car, they have been known to roll over in the past, and as far as I could see on this years cars, there are only really small doors for a quick exit, after you have untied your harness, and the doors don’t appear to be that easy to open from the outside, either, making it difficult to escape from an upside down car, even with help from the marshalls.
    Otherwise, for the F1 cars and similar open-wheelers, maybe a compromise wrap-round screen might be the thing, but how big, strong and aerodynamic it would have to be is a possible dilema.
    And what about the IRL cars? Has there been any debate over these lastest accidents from them?

  12. Superb article.. And nice to hear news about Massa’s recovery.

  13. /2 * mass * velocity^2 that we learned in school? I think we went to different schools….

    1. yeh 1/2 mv squared v is the closing velocity of course

      ok the spring isnt apoint mass or inelastic but its close enough

    2. The Formula is correct.

      Ek = ½MV²

  14. If the same thing causes a death in F1’s future…

    It already has in F1’s past.

  15. a very nice informative article, there’s still lots to learn in F1. Always wondered how much could have a spring impacted someone’s life

  16. One thing I’ve been wondering more in relation to Massa’s injury and subsequent recovery; how did the force Massa experienced and his injury compare to those of Richard Hammond’s Jet-Car accident a few years back.

    I only ask, because at the time there were a lot of similar headlines about how he’d never drive a car again, never ride a motorbike again and he we are a few years later with The Hamster driving and riding as much as ever.

    As I say, I only ask as I don’t really know anything about head-trauma injuries and Richard Hammond is the best reference I have…

  17. Nice Article
    Because the object that hit Massa was a spring it would have been vibrating when it hit could have imparted some stored energy etc. which complicates the maths. Being a spring this is why it bounced for so long.
    On closed cockpits at present their is KERS and Fararri used lithium batteries which are a fire hazard and give of obnoxious fumes. I would not liked to have been in Raikkonen car with a closed cockpit when his batteries when wrong in practice a few months back.

  18. Don Drennon
    30th July 2009, 2:51

    Thank you for the thorough analysis.

    I wish Massa a thorough and speedy recovery, and while I hope he is able to drive again I hope that he gives consideration to not doing so. The type of injury he has sustained can have long-term implications, and the medical standard for Formula 1 drivers is of necessity set very high.

    Again, I hope to see him in the cockpit again, but only after careful consultation with his medical care team.

  19. Fandysilalahi
    30th July 2009, 18:32

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