Safety Formula

Since the introduction of Confor Foam collars to Formula One in 1996, they have dramatically improved the protection of racing drivers against serious head injuries. Trelleborg developed and supplies F1 with this lifesaving material.

With tens of millions tv viewers for every Grand Prix, Formula One is one of the world’s most popular sports, making superstars of top racing drivers such as Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc. 


But F1 is very different now to how it was in its infancy. In those days, track conditions were far more dangerous and cars offered limited protection in crashes.


Over its 72-year history, F1 has had a grim roll call of doomed names such as Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt, Ronnie Peterson and Gilles Villeneuve; all taken from us too soon. Even the drivers who survived crashes, such as Niki Lauda, Philippe Streiff and Karl Wendlinger, suffered life-changing injuries. 


However, the tireless campaigning of people such as three-time world champion Jackie Stewart and neurosurgeon Professor Sid Watkins, helped F1 become much safer. While serious accidents do still happen, they are much rarer, thanks to improvements in crash barriers, deeper run-off areas and emergency personnel located trackside. 


Another safety milestone came after a series of tragic accidents in the mid-1990s. In particular, it was the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and triple world champion Ayrton Senna, during the same race weekend in Italy in 1994, which sent shock waves through the sport. 


An extensive review of driver safety commissioned by Max Mosley, then head of motor racing’s governing body, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), found F1 drivers can experience lateral g-force of up to 6 g when cornering and in addition, that a crash impact creates huge g-forces on a driver’s brain.


This discovery led to the introduction of the Confor® Foam collar for Formula One cars’ headrests and cockpits. 


Confor Foam is an open-celled foam with temperature-dependent urethane technology at its core. It is breathable, does not irritate the skin and helps dissipate moisture from the body; making it ideal for body-contact cushioning applications such as motorsports. 


“It behaves like a soft foam when compressed slowly, but when it receives a heavy impact, it behaves like a stiff foam with the ability to absorb and dissipate large amounts of energy,” explains Paul Habberfield, Business Development Manager for the material. “This is key, as some so-called energyabsorbing foams store energy and return it to the impacting body, which is not desirable. The impact energy is dissipated through the semi-open-celled structure of the foam and dispersed as low-grade heat.”


When making what may appear to be a stiffer grade of foam, many manufacturers load foam with fillers, which adds little to the foam’s performance other than density and the impression of being stiffer. At 93kg/m³, Confor Foam is the same density as the soft grade foam used in conformal packaging for high-value equipment but has the stiffness of grades used in jet-fighter ejection seats.


In fact, the Confor Foam’s development originated with the NASA Space Shuttle program. Scientists were searching for an ultra-comfortable, long-term seating material. Because of the material’s damping and shock absorption capabilities and after subjecting the foam to high g-forces on a vertical deceleration tower, it has been specified as padding for ejection seats. 


Trelleborg has supplied Confor Foam to Formula One since the mid-1990s. Almost thirty years later, it continues to be on the list of headrest materials that is specified by the FIA for Formula One and other sports cars.


“Every single car on the Formula One grid will be using Confor Foam throughout the 2022 racing season,” says Habberfield. 


“In the car, Confor Foam forms acombined headrest with side impact protection and is a vital safety feature, especially in heavy crashes,” he explains. “The foam is typically contoured, has a 75-millimeter thickness and is covered in Kevlar, then painted in the team’s livery. It can sometimes be seen when the drivers get out of their cars, as the foam collar often has to be removed for them to exit the car.” 


Although Formula One has not been incident-free since the deaths of Senna and Ratzenberger, it certainly has had a much better safety record, and Confor Foam has made a  major contribution to this.


Indeed, in 2001 Professor Watkins commented: “The biggest advance we have made is in the area of head and neck protection. The drivers wear a U-shaped collar filled with this Confor [Foam]. It has undoubtedly saved lives. Jos Verstappen had a huge accident at Spa [Spa-Francorchamps] in Belgium… and Heinz-Harald Frentzen would have had serious head injuries in Canada two years ago [1999] instead of mild concussion.”


Formula One uses the most advanced technologies, but a relatively simple foam protects world champion Max Verstappen today in the same way that it did his father Jos back in 1996. 


Trelleborg helps university race teams

Formula Student (FS) is Europe’s most established educational engineering competition. Each year, more than 100 university teams from around the world travel to the Silverstone racetrack in England to compete in static and dynamic events. 


With the support of industry and high-profile engineers such as Formula One Group Managing and Technical Director Ross Brawn, FS aims to encourage and develop enterprising, innovative young engineers. 


FS usually forms part of a degreelevel project. The motorsport industry regards it as the gold standard for engineering graduates, combining practical engineering experience with soft skills including business planning and project management. 


Trelleborg supplies FS competitors from the UK, Austria, France, the US, Germany and Spain with Confor Foam, the use of which is mandatory, free-of-charge. 


“Because Formula Student participants are the motorsports engineers of tomorrow, we see this as an ideal way of not only supplying the mandated Confor Foam material to the teams, but a way to boost recognition of the Trelleborg name among engineers, particularly in motorsports,” says Paul Habberfield, Business Development Manager for Confor Foam.


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