Helmets and helmet straps found themselves in the unusual position of being in the spotlight at last month’s Monte Carlo Rally, as three crews received fines for having chinstraps undone during a stage.
Sébastien Ogier, Carlos del Barrio and Martijn Wyedeaghe all got docked €400 ($487) for breaching Article 53.1 of the 2021 FIA World Rally Championship sporting regulations, itself a rarity among professional crews who have contested hundreds of rallies, and even more rare that two of the offences occurred on Saturday’s SS10 Saint-Clément – Freissinières.
Their punishments were overshadowed by Ott Tänak’s suspended one-round ban, but the Estonian drew the conversation back to the helmets when he pointed out that “a human life is worth €400, comparing what we have done” for a safety offence that could have proven fatal in the event of a crash.
So DirtFish went looking for answers, examining the onboard footage available and talking to those not only in the penalized crews but across the service park to gather a picture of the what and how the events that occurred and how unlikely they were.
As well as being broadcast on the WRC’s live streaming service, these transgressions were picked up by the FIA scrutineers or technical delegates who wait to watch at the end of stages.
These officials are on hand to keep a watching brief on the cars passing from the competitive to liaison sections, ensuring no breaches of the FIA’s sporting and technical regulations and, of course, the rally’s own regulations. They are in a position to provide a report to the event stewards so they can make a decision on whether to summon the alleged offending crews to a hearing or to go straight to a penalty decision.
In Monte Carlo, where the WRC+ Live footage did supplement evidence collected stage-side, the helmet misdemeanours were all handled with straight penalties. No driver or co-driver would choose to wear a helmet that wasn’t fully secured on a stage, and the €400 fine reflected the understanding of an absence of intent to break the rules.
So it was an error, whether that be on part of the crews or the helmets, that led to the chinstraps not being fully secured.
Ask around the service park, and you’ll understand that it would take quite a lot for a driver to go past years of muscle memory to forget to fasten their helmet. Most put them on outside of the car, then slip on and connect the HANS device around their neck before climbing in.
A driver and co-driver can make eye contact far more easily outside the car than when they’re in it, and so they would be able to immediately point out to each other any potential chinstrap issue.
You can’t imagine Julien Ingrassia – whose ability to read and deliver pacenotes while also observing the road ahead has delivered himself and Ogier seven WRC titles – would possibly fail to spot an undone helmet. Nor could you possibly expect that Ogier wouldn’t have noticed it himself as he boarded his Toyota Yaris WRC.
It’s not like the road section that linked SS9 to SS10 was tight on time either; the three penalized crews were not up against the clock in a way that would have interrupted their usual stage preparations.
Dani Sordo’s departing co-driver Carlos del Barrio got caught with his helmet undone on SS6, and told DirtFish about his perspective of events in the Hyundai i20 Coupé WRC.
“By the end of any of the stages of this rally, I [never] had the feeling – or I was aware when I was about to unfasten my helmet – that it was already unfastened because I had forgotten to fasten it correctly,” he said.
“It did happen to me, only once in my life, some 27 years ago. Which was my second rally with Jesús Paras in Corsica. But it was with a fully open helmet.
“It was the first special stage, and at the first braking point I was immediately aware that I’d forgotten to fasten my helmet. That is the only special stage in my life that I was aware that I had forgotten something like this.
“Other than that, three years ago I had the same problem but it was on testing with Dani. I think it was in Portugal. I got quite immediately that I had forgotten to fasten my helmet in one of the passes through testing. Other than that, if that happened here – OK, but I wasn’t aware.
“I didn’t have the feeling [of it being loose]. And according to what I have spoken also with Martijn [Wydaeghe, Thierry Neuville’s debuting co-driver], he had the same feeling that he wasn’t aware that by the end of any given stage his helmet was unfastened.
“For sure it’s been weird, but OK I pay the fine and I have nothing to say against [the stewards].”
After watching back onboard footage from SS6 and SS10, del Barrio said he and Ogier must have “simply forgot to fasten it correctly” and pointed out that they were using two different brands. The Hyundai crews were using Bell, and Ogier’s helmet was from Stilo.
So what of the helmets then? The FIA is satisfied with the standard of them, otherwise they would not be in use, but could the chinstraps have come undone during stages?
All three competitors have accepted the fines without complaint, but the Hyundai crews did seem sure they were fully fastened until proven otherwise. And so did Ogier.
“I simply forgot it,” Ogier told DirtFish.
“And of course it’s purely my mistake in this moment. When you are on a busy rally like Monte, where you have to manage a lot of information between stages you can sometimes be in a bit of a rush to prepare yourself for the next stage and that can create the situation where you sometimes forget about it. First time of my career that I forgot I believe… so once in 15 years.
If you tighten the strap and the chinstrap, it’s impossible that it becomes undoneBruno Curletto, Bell sales manager
“The only thing is, I think there are some rallies where the marshals at the start of the stage are paying attention to you. They quickly check visually if you are well attached and if your helmet is attached.
“When you have the helmet on, you don’t see and don’t really feel if it’s attached or not,” he added.
“But for sure, there is nothing wrong with the new helmets, it’s the same system it’s always been. The only thing is you don’t really feel it, so it would be good to have a marshal who controls it at the start line.”
Stilo’s chief engineer Paolo Bonetalli told DirtFish: “I can confirm the chinstrap [on Ogier’s helmet] is the one we have used for years without any issue. We were in contact with Toyota during and after that rally – we wanted to be sure the driver had no problem with the new helmet. Toyota had no problems and were happy with the helmet.
“It is impossible that a properly fastened Stilo chinstrap can became undone alone [and without human intervention].”
Ogier was wearing the latest version of Stilo’s open-face helmet, but the changes to the 2021-specification helmet are found in the mic boom, peak and in the mould. As Bonetalli stated, nothing has changed in the design and deployment of the chinstrap and buckles used.
Bell shared its thoughts with DirtFish, and gave two takes on what led to Hyundai’s co-drivers being fined.
“We’ve made all the tests, it’s really impossible [to come undone],” Bruno Curletto, Bell’s sales manager, said of the chinstraps.
“It was not only on Bell, also on Stilo helmets, Ogier was clearly undone. I suspect that because it all happened during SS10, probably they all arrived in a rush. Something happened to their timing, and probably they just forgot to get it done for Ogier.
“For Bell, it was not clear to be honest, because the picture was not clear. We checked anyway, well there is nothing to check. We do many helmets and all the straps are made in the same way, so if you tighten the strap and the chinstrap, it’s impossible that it becomes undone.
“What I’m saying is if you tighten the chin strap, there is no way it becomes loose. It’s not possible because it must have a double loop, and then he has a bottom to click on it. So even if you do not tighten the bottom, it will not come loose.
“Maybe the chinstrap was just long, and was just going down. It was tightened, but it was a longer strap, and maybe it was the bottom that was closed. But the helmet itself, it was.”
While the double loop of D-rings is the actual fastening mechanism, the bottom part then adds additional safety as well as preventing the end of the fastened chinstrap from flapping around – which is also a sign of a totally unfastened helmet and wouldn’t go unnoticed in the car.
After three Monte Carlo incidents, DirtFish asked former #WRC co-driver @nickygrist to demonstrate how a rally helmet is secured, and how that makes accidental unfastening impossible: pic.twitter.com/CZHc415zKE
— dirtfishrally (@DirtFishRally) February 6, 2021
“All the mechanisms to close and tighten the helmet, no matter the brand, they are all the same.
“The regulations are quite strict and the system, it works, so in my opinion the only way you can make it undone is because someone forgot and for this they got a fine.”
Stephane Cohen, Bell’s CEO, expanded on the technology that his firm and industry rival Stilo uses to make their rally helmets as safe as possible.
“Most helmet manufacturers, I think I could say all car racing manufacturers, are using Kevlar for the webbing of the chinstrap,” Cohen told DirtFish.
“It’s technically not a fabric, it’s a webbing, and we use Kevlar because if you look at helmets of the old times, there was a flammable webbing that was used for the chinstrap, and then it was covered by a Nomex or fire-retardant fabric that the driver had to fix below the chin strap so if it was exposed to fire it would be OK.
“And then maybe 20 years ago, we all switched to Kevlar when it became widely available because it had the mechanical characteristics that were required, and at the same time it was fire resistant so we could get rid of the chinstrap cover that was needed in the past.
“A rally helmet, or a motorcycle helmet, or a bicycle helmet, the principles are the same. You’ve got to fasten the chin strap. As far as Bell is concerned, I don’t believe any driver forgot to fasten their chin strap.
“One small difference between our helmets and the ones of our competitors is that maybe the loose end of the chin strap is a little bit longer, and so if you don’t pay proper attention you might think ‘oh, something is hanging there’. But it’s actually only the excess of the chin strap, located after the double D-ring fastening system that is kind of hanging loose under the jaw of the driver.
“It may sometimes give an impression that the helmet might not be properly secure. So as far as Bell is concerned in the last Monte Carlo Rally, we don’t think there was any specific problem with the fastening of the helmet.
“Obviously we make more than 30,000 helmets a year, for many, many years, and our chin strap systems are well proven.”
Is that it? A clear-and-cut case of three rare driver errors that in the end had no impact on the rally results?
The stewards will be more vigilant eyeing similar incidents in the future, but WRC crews aren’t making an issue of this mystery because they wouldn’t be going into stages unless they thought the helmets on their heads were as safe as possible. And those safety features go beyond a secure strap.
“On the helmets used by the Bell drivers on the Monte Carlo Rally, on the chin bar there is a red screw,” Cohen adds.
“That is a unique feature of that helmet that allows paramedics in case of accidents to remove the hard chin bar that supports the microphone in the helmet very quickly and easily without having to remove the full helmet, and that allows them quick access to the breathing ways of a potentially injured driver.”