Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - Mexican Grand Prix - Practice Day - Mexico City, Mexico

Painting a pretty picture in Mexico – the science of F1 helmet design

Without doubt, the Mexican Grand Prix weekend represents the most colourful event on the Formula 1 calendar.

Taking place during the ‘Dia de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) holiday period, colour invades every stand and fans dress to impress. This year, there were Mariachi Bands, Piñatas and even Tequila bars inside the F1 paddock to give the event a carnival atmosphere like no other.

Many eagle-eyed fans may have also noticed drivers also adding a few personal touches to the most personal piece of F1 equipment – the driver helmet.

Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo’s design for last year’s event was arguably the most entertaining, featuring his trademark ‘Honey Badger’ wearing a Mexican sombrero. It was the work of the man known in F1 circles as the ‘King of helmet design’, Jens Munser. Best known for designing all of Sebastian Vettel’s myriad monikers over the years and those of Michael Schumacher, Jens designs for eight current drivers including both Red Bull drivers, Nico Hulkenberg and Williams driver Sergey Sirotkin. He also designs the helmet of newly crowned FIA Formula 3 champion, Mick Schumacher.

“I wasn’t always an arty person,” admits Jens. “I started with motorsport because I was riding motocross in America and saw a lot of riders with nice helmets, so I looked for someone in Europe to paint my helmet. I found nobody so I decided to do it for myself and this was 25 years ago! People liked what I did so I found myself designing for drivers in four-wheel categories, where I could earn more for my work.”

In stark contrast with car design, not much has changed in those 25 years since Jens started putting paint to helmet, although advances computer technology, lightweight paint pigments and air guns help elevate the process to more precise levels.

“It hasn’t changed too much with the process of pencil drawing but of course now we use stickers for logos, which at the beginning were all painted because no detailed print was available. The rest is pretty much the same as 25 years ago. We use the same paint but started to change the pigment for Michael and make the paint stronger, lighter and more flexible against stones.

“In the beginning we had 80g of paint for Michael but he wanted less. I said your helmet may not look as pretty but he said that doesn’t matter at the end of the race, just as Enzo Ferrari said about his engines back in the day!

“The important part of the process is to transfer the two-dimensional graphic to the three dimensional helmet and that’s the most painstaking part. Here is where you need a good feeling for the lines. After this you fill in the field with colour, extra detail and then you’re ready. The process can take up to three days for the most complex designs.

“Of course, the advance in computer technology makes the process easier now with plotting because you cannot cut a name by hand. In the beginning, it was only a name on the helmet, nothing more. The paint is a normal acrylic base and is flame proof. The helmet, of course, is fire resistant but nobody tests the paints, which we now have to do.”

Under current F1 regulations, drivers are only permitted one helmet livery change per season and driver numbers must be clearly visible. Not that it doesn’t keep Jens busy, as drivers will take several helmets to every grand prix… And, like every skilled artist, he is proud of his work.

“The helmet I’m perhaps remembered best for is the LED sparkles for Sebastian Vettel in Singapore. My background is in electronics, so it was a cool project for me. I was worried that some of the wiring may possibly come loose during the rigours of the race, but it worked out fine and generated a lot of talk in newspapers and the internet. None of this is allowed now but it was cool at the time.”

Top image: Sergio Perez of Racing Point Force India F1 Team during the 2018 Mexican Grand Prix. © Force India F1.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.