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.