Is there anything in Formula 1 that’s more personal and unique to a racing driver than his crash helmet?
Swathed from head to foot in fireproof Nomex, with only his eyes giving the only evidence of the wearer’s identity, crash helmets have become the key signifier in how we recognise our heroes out on the racetrack.
In turn, racing drivers respect the fact that their helmet is their unique voice; lids are often painstakingly designed, painted with special commemorative liveries, personalised, customised and treasured.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when crash helmets were treated with casual indifference by their users.
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Only made mandatory when racing resumed after the Second World War, they gradually gained acceptance as a piece of indispensable safety equipment during the 1950s.
“Young drivers should never use less than the very best equipment when it comes to driver protection,” Sir Jackie Stewart told me in the mid-1980s. “Don’t buy a cheap helmet, buy the best. It’s at this stage [in your career] that you need the best. If you damage a helmet, if you drop it, have it checked. Don’t treat it as if it were just a piece of junk.
“Wrap your helmet up in a nice felt bag. Ensure that the walls of the helmet are protected. Look after your helmet as if it were a piece of jewelry; it’s one of the most valuable things you will ever own because it’s going to protect the most vulnerable part of your body.”
Sir Jackie knows a thing or two about safety, having been the main advocate for the critical ramp-up in track safety provision and medical facilities during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those were F1’s darkest years, when the sport tragically lost its stars on an all-too-frequent basis.
Even Jackie’s pioneering approach took time to turn the tide, however.
As the sport progressed, the linen caps of the 1950s were overtaken by fibreglass open-face helmets, used in conjunction with goggles. They became the sport’s mainstay through to the late 1960s.
But by the end of that decade, leading drivers began toying with safer full-face helmet designs – the most numerically popular being the ‘Bell Star’ which offered hitherto unavailable – but absolutely crucial – protection for the face and jaw.
That particular helmet design dictated the tempo and direction of helmet development for the next four decades. Indeed, while the crash helmet has been developed substantially since those days (they’re now made from carbon-fibre, fitted with vents, radios, aerodynamic flips and Kevlar visor strengtheners), they’ve still inherited the look and feel of the helmets pioneered during the 1970s.
One area that hasn't changed is the opportunity that’s seized upon by drivers to turn their crash helmets into an extension of their own personality.
Many McLaren drivers have adopted their national colours for the livery of their helmet: think David Coulthard’s lid emblazoned with the saltire, or Jenson Button’s incorporating the Union Jack. Alain Prost’s featured the red, white and blue of the French tricolor, while Gerhard Berger’s was a straight lift of the red and white Austrian flag.
Most famously, Ayrton Senna’s yellow, blue and green helmet melded the earthy colours of the flag of Brazil into a unique and compelling design – as classic as it was menacing; a shimmering flash of yellow glimpsed in a driver’s mirrors was often enough to cause him to yield to the flying McLaren driver behind.
Of course, helmet livery is not always an automatic key to identifying the driver beneath. Look closely at photographs of David Coulthard competing in the 1996 Monaco GP in his McLaren-Mercedes, and you’d be forgiven for thinking an imposter had jumped in the car.
Actually, the Scot was using a borrowed spare helmet belonging to Michael Schumacher – David’s had been suffering from misting problems, so he chose a last-minute replacement. And it did little to slow his progress; he finished second behind future McLaren test driver Olivier Panis, who claimed his first – and only – grand prix victory, driving for Ligier.
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Now for a bizarre little tale.
Back in 1971, when I was covering the European F2 championship for the weekly magazine Motoring News returning from the Madrid round of that title chase to Heathrow via Frankfurt (in those complicated pre-EasyJet and Ryanair days). At Frankfurt, I said goodbye to Helmut Marko, the Austrian F2 Lola driver – today best known as a leading light in Red Bull Racing – who was heading for his home in Vienna.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I arrived in the MN editorial offices in East London to be greeted by the news that our photographer had reportedly snapped some pictures of Helmet Marko testing an F1 McLaren 19 at Goodwood.
I looked closely at the prints. Sure enough, at first glance, it looked as though he was right. ‘Marko’ seemed to be displayed on either side of the otherwise silver ‘bone dome.’ But then I looked even closer. In fact, all it said was ‘Mark.”
Then the penny dropped; it was 1972 Indy 500 winner Mark Donohue testing the McLaren in preparation for racing it in that year’s Canadian GP at Mosport Park. Donohue had been recruited because team principal Teddy Mayer believed he would bring worthwhile technical input for developing the car with which regular drivers Denny Hulme and Peter Gethin were struggling.
It was an experience that reminded me to think twice – and never quite to believe the evidence of your own eyes until you have!