Given that early kart racing was on all manner of surfaces and the drivers completely exposed, it’s surprising that complete facial protection for drivers wasn’t fully embraced sooner. Adam Jones visited Arai Europe’s headquarters in Holland with Junior Max star – and newly-appointed Arai Driver Programme member – Jack Barlow to learn more about the science of safety.
Long before karts were invented, head wear in motorsport was little more than a tweed cap and goggles. This then developed into a toughened leather affair before evolving into a fibre-glass-shelled, open-face helmet. In F1, it wasn’t until 1968 when Dan Gurney introduced an innovation he’d first seen at a dirt-track motorcycle event in Los Angeles, that a full-face helmet was seen at the highest level. Remarking on the helmet’s performance at the Nurburgring Grand Prix, and in subsequent races, he said, “It was such a big leap forward it was sensational.”
In Japan, over a decade before this momentous event, Hirotake Arai – the son of a hat-maker and a keen motorcyclist to boot – had developed his groundbreaking concept of a hard outer shell with a soft inner liner. In 1967 the first full-face helmet was manufactured in Japan.
As the brand continued to innovate and became increasingly popular on the motorcycle scene, in 1983 Ferry Brouwer established Arai Europe in his home town of Hoevelaken. Twenty three years later, with the offices relocated to a quiet industrial estate at nearby Amersfoort, the Arai Innovation Centre was created.
Driving down a rural, single-track road just outside of Hoevelaken past neat small-holdings with chickens and goats, we reach a rather nondescript, windowless building. Our host Sander knocks on a door and we wait several moments before it is opened and a genial face appears. As Jack, Toby Warrington (of Arai’s UK importers Phoenix Distribution), F1 Racing Editor, Hans Seeberg and I step into the unit, we are greeted by an astonishing site. Hundreds of helmets are suspended above our heads us on two walls, creating a stupefying Who’s Who of Arai wearers.
Because, as any neurosurgeon will tell you, the brain is a highly delicate organ with the consistency of thick porridge and is so soft it can’t support its own weight, protecting it is vitally important. Even with the aid of cerebrospinal fluid and the hard, tough shell of the skull, your brain is susceptible to trauma. In bike accidents, you go to the damaging object(s); trees, kerbs, other vehicles, the road, etc whilst in car accidents, more often than not, the object comes to you. In karting, the hazards are an amalgam of the two. Arai’s aim is to protect your brain, and consequently every part of one of their helmets is designed to have a particular function.
Making each Arai helmet follows a series of painstaking processes, with technicians doing all but one stage of the construction by hand. Once a design has been approved, a 1:1 clay mould will be made. From the resultant physical model, data is then input into a 3D computer which controls a milling machine. This can create a metal mould overnight – rather than the previous three weeks by hand.
With the mould ready, Arai technicians then build the helmet’s outer shell from ‘super fibres’. These are formed by being spun out of a colander-like device and knitting together to form the ‘hood’. Super fibres differ from ordinary glass fibre by being curly rather than straight, forming a far more robust material when woven together. Once complete, the fibre hood is then thoroughly checked. A material called Xylon – which is similar to Kevlar, and has to be cut by laser as it is too tough for scissors – is layered in to add strength in the areas potentially weakened by ventilation holes and prevent penetration from objects.
All the fibre materials are then carefully placed in the heated steel mould, a coffee cup-sized amount of resin is added and then what can only be described as a heavy duty balloon is inserted into the middle. This is then inflated to press the materials to the outer walls of the mould and baked in an autoclave at 180 degrees C for 14 minutes. Once it is ready, the new helmet shell is removed by hand and checked for consistent thickness. Arai’s expert technicians carefully measure it to ensure that it is neither too thick nor thin and will reject anything that is less than perfect. If the putative helmet passes muster, then automated laser cutters – the only non-human part of the construction process – will create the visor aperture and chin piece slots in just 30 seconds. A ‘birth certificate’ is inserted – identifying such details as its size, the number of ventilation holes (eg: W7 for seven vents) model number and the person who made it.
The helmet is then taken to the paint shop where it is sanded down, given a base coat, sanded, filler added, sanded and then sprayed white (for all motorsport and karting helmets). The ventilation holes are then drilled, trim rubbers added and the chin strap fixed. The inner shell is then carefully brought together with the outer, checked before the lining is inserted. The finished helmet is then polished, checked and packaged for distribution.
Of course, knowing that the helmet is so conscientiously and meticulously crafted is one thing – knowing that it will exceed all standards of performance, is another.
After the genial Mario van Rooijen has gone to great lengths to demonstrate each stage of construction and explained that it takes twenty hours to make a top of the range GP-6 RC carbon fibre shell, and that each finished article is the work of at least three people, it’s time to put one through its paces.
As his colleague René Steenbeek fits a GP-5 to a machine that tests shock absorption, Mario tells an anecdote about Cristijan Albers getting over-excited at a DTM race and gleefully throwing his helmet into the crowd. The trouble was, it was a unique, carbon fibre prototype worth over 15,000 euros. Incredibly, Arai personnel were able to recover it. Whether this was in return for a few Albers replicas was neither denied nor confirmed.
With his rig ready, René takes over to demonstrate the rigorous tests a helmet must go through before it can pass the Snell standard and Arai’s own exacting expectations. He releases the helmet from a height of three metres and it plummets onto a flat, metal anvil. Cracks appear in the outer shell. We all wince, but he and Mario smile appreciatively. Moments later, it has been dropped onto a hemispherical anvil. More crazing on the white gel coat appears but the helmet remains fundamentally intact. So René drops into on edge anvil and again the GP-5 stands firm, albeit with increasingly flaking paintwork.
Next René (who could easily pass for Jos Verstappen’s brother) shows us the penetration test. A rather frightening-looking, heavy metal spike is dropped onto the forehead section of the helmet, punching a hole through the outer shell but in no way the inner lining. He does it again from a greater height and we run our fingers inside the helmet to see if anything has given way. It has not.
The guys show us some of the other equipment used in their secretive helmet torture lab, to burn, bake, freeze, soak, irradiate, rasp, tug, pull bounce and pummel to destruction. Not content with brutalizing their own products, Arai test their rivals’. Whilst it would be wrong to mention the results of those experiments – which we saw for ourselves – an illuminated sign above our heads said it all: Arai – This is the difference.