Approaching the tightest chicane on the circuit at Monza at 105mph, squeezed into a chassis covered in sponsors’ logos and able to move little more than his elbows, the racer in the lead has a look of rapt concentration on his face. Or so spectators attending this weekend’s Grand Prix may poetically imagine; in reality, his expression is hidden behind his crash helmet.
Since being made compulsory to Formula One in 1953, the crash helmet has outstripped its safety remit and evolved to serve another, far more interesting purpose: to be a racer’s one visible mark of self-expression, individuality and identity. “The helmet is a part of the driver, and the design is a part of what the driver thinks,” explains Jens Munser, the founder of JMD Helmdesign who custom-designs helmets for three-times Formula One world champion Sebastian Vettel.
While the drivers race their cars to the limit each season, the designers of their headgear compete to create increasingly elaborate grid-walk couture. Having moved beyond the now-humdrum realms of initialling, emblems and carbon effects, these elite ateliers set themselves apart as the few that painstakingly hand-paint every detail, with innovative and unique results. Small wonder, then, that their high-profile Formula One designs attract requests from the international amateur ranks.
British designer Jason Fowler of JLF Designs specialises in intricate airbrush work and illustrations (from about £330) and counts Lewis Hamilton among his devotees. “A lot of customers ask for quite interesting designs that you can’t see from the track, so they’re getting something that’s almost a piece of artwork and is personal to them.” To wit, a commission from a director at the Royal College of Art arrived at Fowler’s Suffolk studio with a homework assignment: to study Trembled Blossoms, an animation for Prada’s spring/summer 2008 fashion show, for inspiration. The resulting sketch of a hummingbird hovering amid watercoloured reeds did not disappoint (third picture, about £1,320 for similar).
Introducing an artistic sensibility to motorsport – where aerodynamic excellence usually takes precedence in design – is no mean feat, and Fowler’s soft airbrush technique can command bespoke prices of over £2,000. “It’s a dying art in some ways, as a lot of helmet painters are moving over to print work and decals. Many helmets now just have printed stickers on them for pictures.”
A studio generally starts by brainstorming with the client, who often grants the designers absolute freedom; then a digital visualisation is normally drawn to refine the details. After stripping the helmet of its rubber trims and cheek pads, the vibrant solvent-based pigments are applied by hand, one layer at a time. “A lot of people have a go at it themselves, but one drop of paint onto the lining can cause damage,” warns Fowler.
Munser’s claim that his nine-man team can do “everything” certainly befits the competitive spirit of motor racing. His work has been championed by German compatriot and helmet aficionado Vettel since the titleholder was eight years old. “Jens and I like to be creative, so we have a lot of fun coming up with new ideas,” says Vettel, who retires a helmet after each race that he wins. Every one tells a story about the race in which it was worn, such as the one he wore for the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix. With 24 motion-sensitive LEDs glowing from its crest in a cycle of eight patterns throughout the night-time race, it won almost as enthusiastic a response as Vettel’s podium finish. JMD has been thwarted in the production of similar designs only by a shortage of nocturnal open-cockpit racers.
Specialising in surface illusions, JMD designers can conjure up reptilian scales, saloon-style wood and chameleon-worthy optics with kaleidoscopic paint (from €800). For other bespoke creations, Munser is pioneering the use of a thermo-reacting paint that reveals hidden motifs when the temperature exceeds 30°C – though highs of no more than 20°C at this year’s Monaco Grand Prix meant that the cartoon mudflap girl adorning Vettel’s helmet remained invisible, her modesty intact.
Trackside rivalry led former Finnish motocross racer Uffe Tagström to start his business, Uffedesigns, over 20 years ago, when his helmets stole the attention of his fellow competitors. Tagström now fashions customised treasures (from €500) for clients such as Jenson Button and Kimi Räikkönen, sealing gold leaf, diamonds or banknotes onto the surface of the helmets within a layer of transparent lacquer. One of Tagström’s most striking creations is a superhero design for Finnish racing driver Toni Vilander (first picture, €1,500). Similarly, nothing delights Bell Racing’s head of design, Dorian Laloyaux, more than a challenging design spec. Having brought the distinctive armour worn by the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man to life on a helmet (second picture, on right) for German Touring Car Masters racer Adrien Tambay earlier this year, Laloyaux claims his only limitation is his clients’ imagination. His designs cost from €454.
While their main claims to fame are the novel techniques they have developed, these designers continue to receive orders from stalwarts of traditionalism. Linear designs, imitating the Brazilian stripes favoured by the late Ayrton Senna, prevailed from the 1980s until Senna’s death in 1994, and Munser predicts a return to a historic aesthetic, away from the contemporary popularity of metal flake (for a glittering effect) and neon.
Eric Milano of Aero Magic is one talent who hews more to traditional lines. In his Cagnes-sur-Mer studio – half an hour away from one of Formula One’s most luxurious pit stops, Monte Carlo – the Frenchman employs vivid blocks of contrasting colour and contoured stripes, personalised to match car bodywork or national flags, for the likes of Lotus driver Romain Grosjean (example seen in second picture, on left, €7,000).
The “blank canvases” – the plain-shell helmets – that these designers work on all satisfy the FIA’s rigorous safety standards and they can be purchased directly from manufacturers, or, conveniently, through the designers’ studios. Fowler previews the latest prototypes years ahead of production at Formula One suppliers such as Bell and Arai Helmet. Weighing just over 1.5kg, Arai’s GP-6 RC model serves about half of the current season’s drivers, and takes around 18 hours to custom-fit by hand (from €3,299).
From their well-established workshops, these sought-after designers blend style with utility to create helmets that will turn every head, save for the driver of the car in front – after a single glance in his wing mirror, there will be no mistaking who is about to overtake.