In the early days of Formula one, a helmet was just a helmet, and judging by old black and white photos, they were either white or black, or some otherwise unremarkable color. Granted, that was when drivers wore plain coveralls – or even just ordinary shirts and jeans.
Gradually, however, there were a few drivers who tried to set themselves apart. Dan Gurney always wore plain black. Jim Clark wore black with a white visor. Denny Hulme, silver-grey with a double black acing stripe.
Graham Hill’s helmet had a ring of what resembled white fence-pickets on a dark blue background. These were actually the colors and cap design for the London Rowing Club (the pickets were meantto be oar blades), of which he was a member. His son Damon Hill later copied that livery.
Jackie Stewart famously had a plain white helmet decorated with a plaid ring that ran above the visor level of the helmet. The plaid was his family’s Scottish tartan. Stewart, who was a pioneer in the sport in many ways (not least of which was his commercial savvy) probably helped further the concept of helmet livery as personal brand.
Of course, it’s fair to say that it takes a great driver to make a great helmet livery memorable. Ayrton Senna had a simple yet distinctive livery (two stripes, one blue, one green, on a yellow background), using the national colors of Brazil as the motif. Lesser drivers learned to fear this helmet as they saw its approach in their mirrors. Of course, it was Senna’s “take no prisoners” approach to racing that brought Senna’s rivals to attention, and not his helmet per se.
Intentionally or otherwise, Lewis Hamilton now wears a pretty good imitation of Senna’s helmet livery. He claims he adopted it so his father could pick him out from the crowd during his karting days, although he also admits that Senna was his idol during this period, so it seems fair to assume that copied the great Brazilian, consciously or otherwise, when he decided on a helmet motif.
Senna modified his helmet slightly over time, but it was always essentially the same livery, and he recognized its value as a personal brand. In fact, his personal helicopter was painted in the same livery.
Michael Schumacher began his career with a rather motley helmet livery that used the colors of the German flag in a broad horizontal band on a white background, along with a starred blue crown. It wasn’t until Rubens Barrichello joined Ferrari as his team mate that Schumacher changed it. He discovered that from a distance it was difficult for other drivers to
distinguish his helmet from the Barrichello’s. Taking a page from Senna’s book, he likely wanted drivers who saw him in their mirrors to know it was the German ace breathing down their necks, and not his Brazilian number two. So he adopted the Ferrari red design, which he continues to wear even now that he’s driving a Silver Arrows in his comeback with Mercedes.
While drivers have been prone to changing liveries from time to time, it seems to have become an annual routine for some drivers. Kimi Raikkonen changed his several times during his F1 career, and Sebastian Vettel, probably setting a new record, now seems to change his helmet livery almost on a per race basis, depending on his mood.
One prominent driver, however, stands out for his consistency in introducing a new helmet design for each racing season, much the way each team unveils a new livery for each year’s car. Fernando Alonso has had a changing seasonal helmet motif at least since 2004. Attached to this post, you can see each year’s iteration. The 2007 model easily qualifies for a “one of these things is not like the others” contest. Of course, that was the helmet he wore during his one and only year at McLaren. The other liveries all show a natural continuity, incorporating Spain’s national colors (red and yellow) with the color of Alonso’s home state, Asturias, in northern Spain (light blue).
Alonso’s 2010 helmet design most closely resembles the livery he wore in 2006. He’ll be switching brands from Arai to Schuberth, however, as the German helmet maker is a technical partner of Ferrari’s. This might or might not be significant, depending on how superstitious Alonso is. It was in 2006 that he last won the F1 world championship.