How hard was Massa hit?

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. DGR-F1 said on 29th July 2009, 8:22

    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?

  2. Muawiya said on 29th July 2009, 8:35

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

  3. /2 * mass * velocity^2 that we learned in school? I think we went to different schools….

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

    It already has in F1’s past.

  5. Prash said on 29th July 2009, 14:35

    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

  6. Adrian said on 29th July 2009, 16:44

    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…

  7. DaveG27 said on 29th July 2009, 17:35

    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.

  8. Don Drennon said on 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.

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  11. This actually answered my predicament, thank you!

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