Am I The Only One In Favor Of F1’s ‘One-Helmet-Per-Season’ Rule?
Heading into last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix, the big news stories revolved around Typhoon Hagibis, just how many toys could be hurled from Ferrari’s stroller come race day, and – to the more intense F1 fans among us – whether Daniil Kvyat was still sore about his rejected helmet design from Sochi.
Sorry, Dani, but I side with the FIA on this one.
First introduced for the 2015 season, article 9.1 of F1’s sporting regulations states that driver helmets “must be presented in substantially the same livery at every event during a championship season” so that they are “easily distinguished from one another whilst they are on the track.”
Note the word choice: “substantially”. Contrary to popular belief, article 9.1 is not a draconian command that forbids any livery change at all during the course of a season, but rather one that makes sure said tweaks don’t make telling each driver apart from his teammate a logistical nightmare. Hardly an issue for the teams, given the wealth of tracking software up each car’s respective hybrid wazoo, but certainly a blessing for commentators, spectators in the grandstands, and pretty much every TV fan watching around the world.
And yet, as Kyvat’s recent bust up with the FIA at Sochi has proven, article 9.1 continues to provoke that most tiresome of animals, social media ‘controversy’. Something that, to this particular writer anyway, just isn’t unnecessary. For example…
“You can’t see the driver’s helmet anyway because of HALO, so what does it matter?”
Except…you can. I mean, you obviously can!
Okay, the similarly vilified HALO device (let’s just leapfrog that particular landmine, shall we?) has made it slightly trickier to see into the cockpit. But arguing that a device specifically designed to protect a driver’s head from front-end impact, without restricting their lateral or peripheral view, has now made distinguishing individual helmet colours next to impossible? Sorry chaps, months of crash tests, feedback from the drivers themselves and FIA certification would beg to differ.
“Drivers in the ‘50s and ‘60s didn’t need special helmet designs.”
Another excellent point. They also died more frequently than today’s athletes, but one SJW issue at a time.
Given that the first mass-produced helmet for Grand Prix racing didn’t materialize until 1954 (thank you Bell), was only officially certified in 1957, and full-face examples didn’t arrive until 1970, F1 helmets during the 1950s were about as robust as a soggy piece of cardboard and just as useful. And that was before they had the proverbial piss battered out of them by detritus chucked up from post-war Grand Prix machinery. Personalized designs weren’t exactly a priority, and wouldn’t be until improved safety measures and the sponsorship boom began in earnest in the early ’70s.
Personalized designs weren’t unheard of though. Alberto Ascari for instance, Ferrari’s first World Champion in 1952 and 1953, was notoriously superstitious, and refused to race without his pale blue ‘lucky charm’ helmet: it speaks volumes that, the day he died in a testing accident at Monza, Ascari had swapped his blue helmet for a pale white one. Dan Gurney’s ‘white racing stripe’ from his Ferrari and BRM days in ’59 and ’60 is still fondly remembered. Sir Jackie Stewart’s tartan stripe began life as a Royal Stewart tartan silk, bonded with nail polish, in 1963. And do I even need to mention the dark blue with white oar-shaped tabs Graham Hill donned from 1958 to 1975?
“Aren’t ‘career’ numbers enough? They helped make icons of Dale Earnhardt and Valentino Rossi…”
Fair point, and I’ll admit, it would be naïve if not downright discourteous to suggest links between ‘Red 5’ and Nigel Mansell, and Gilles Villeneuve’s ‘27’ aren’t writ large in F1 lore. As much was proven when Sebastian Vettel and Nico Hulkenberg chose them as their respective career numbers in 2014, even if ‘the Hulk’ did rather bollocks the historical impact when he admitted not knowing the legendary Canadian’s connection to that number.
And yes, the stature of Lewis Hamilton’s ‘44’ continues to escalate with every record torn asunder, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see Max Verstappen’s ‘33’ being officially inserted onto the Dutch flag when he wins his first title. There’s also the significance of ‘17’, which, quite rightly, was retired in 2015 after the late Jules Bianchi tragically lost his life at the age of just 25.
The impact of Sergio Perez’s ‘11’ though? Or Carlos Sainz’ ‘52’ and Robert Kubica’s ‘83’? Far less substantial, simply because limited TV airtime and their obscure (often hidden) position amidst sponsorship decals make the marketing behind them tricky, and the likelihood of casual and even regular fans remembering them in the first place, doubtful. Did you even notice that I’d got Sainz and Kubica’s numbers wrong…?
I’m not going to pretend I’ve memorized the design of every helmet on the 2019 grid – which I should really, given that there are some absolute belters in there! – but if I see a Racing Point stacked in the barriers at Blanchimont and a pink helmet bobbing about? “Oh yeah, that’s Stroll, because Sergio has more white flashes and stripes.” Why? Because it’s simple. It’s effective. It’s a visual stimulant that’s easier to gauge both at speed and from a distance, compared with a number adorning a rear wing, a nose cone or the shark fin.
Plus, by their very nature, ‘career numbers’ is an arbitrary system, one reliant on championship order, a two-year period of inactivity, and, good ol’ fashioned luck. One of the main reasons Bianchi adopted ‘17’ to begin with is that his first THREE choices for a Grand Prix ‘career’ number had already been assigned to Kimi Raikkonen (‘7’), Hulkenberg (‘27’) and Valtteri Bottas (’77’) respectively. Rather takes the shine off it, doesn’t it?
2019 fans meanwhile will probably associate ‘4’ with Lando Norris, ’10’ with Pierre Gasly, and ’99’ with Antonio Giovanazzi, but may not wish to be reminded that those numbers originally belonged to Max Chilton, Kamui Kobayashi, and Adrian Sutil respectively. Sure, sponsor and/or team livery demands mean a driver’s colors may require tweaks, or even overhauls, from season-to-season, but it’s unlikely we’ll see a full helmet design, one representing a driver’s own personal character, being rejected in its entirety (Kvyat’s identical albeit red example was still very much on the table at Sochi) simply because Grosjean finished higher up the championship standings.
With article 9.1 meanwhile, one-off ‘joker’ helmets are still permitted, and the very fact that we see them so rarely makes their significance that much greater. Half of George Russell’s helmet at Formula 1 1000th race, for example, bore the design used by former Grand Prix winner, Juan Pablo Montoya, a favorite of Russell’s when he started karting in 2006. Life-long Valentino Rossi fan Lando Norris paid similar homage to bike racing’s GOAT with a bespoke yellow/blue example at this year’s Italian Grand Prix. Sebastian Vettel’s replica of Niki Lauda’s 1976 design was a beautiful show of respect to the fallen three-time World Champion at this year’s Monaco Grand Prix, just as Jenson Button’s all pink ‘Papa Smurf’ design paid similarly touching tribute to his departed father John at the 2014 British Grand Prix.
Everyone still remembers seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher’s gold helmet at Spa, 2011, and Felipe Massa’s ‘graffiti’ helmet for Brazilian artist OsGemeos at Monaco 2016. Okay, the latter’s was hideous but was another memorable moment of the Brazilian’s sort-of retirement season. Designs that would assuredly have been ripped of their impact were it not for article 9.1. Even Vettel, whose plethora of one-off helmets in 2013 arguably initiated the ruling to begin with, has been forced to calm it down: today, the four-time World Champion’s striking white example adorned with the German flag is probably the best design on the grid and, easily, the most memorable.
I can sense a variety of four-letter words being levied in my direction in the comments section even as I type, and will admit that article 9.1 is far from Formula 1’s biggest problem during an era of Mercedes domination, spiraling running costs, and limited opportunities for overtaking on-track. And yes, the ‘one helmet per season’ regulation still needs work: that Max Verstappen has already used three helmets this year simply because Red Bull Racing couldn’t be arsed applying for FIA approval reeks of a system in need of fine-tuning.
And yes, part of this particular writer’s enthusiasm for article 9.1 stems from his own memories of F1’s heritage via well-placed rose-tinted spectacles. Damon Hill becoming the first son of a World Champion in 1996 while wearing his father’s helmet design, brings a warm glow to my heart even to this day, much as Bruno Senna returning the famous yellow and green stripes to Williams did in 2012. Even in Formula 2, a red-suited Giuliano Alesi racing his father’s helmet design – itself a tribute to semi-compatriot Elio de Angelies, who died in 1986 – draws parallels with Jean’s time at Ferrari, an indirect show of respect to F1’s illustrious, and often tragic, past. Even perennial midfielders can still be remembered fondly: few will wax lyrical about Pedro Diniz’s 5th place finish at the Nurburgring in 1997, but his Carlos Pace-esque ‘arrow’ helmet is another matter.
Yes, there’s a lot of work still to be done ahead of 2021. But in an age when social media interaction is at its pitch-forking height, when new owners Liberty Media are desperate to increase Formula 1’s fanbase, and hybrid V6s have firmly put the V8s, V10s and ‘the f***ing V12s’ firmly to pasture, driver identity is arguably more important than it has been for generations. Is one helmet per season the only solution? No. But for this particular F1 fan, it’s a damned good start.
Images courtesy of, deep breath, Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes, Williams F1 (Twitter), George Russell (Twitter), Lando Norris (Twitter), F1.com, and MaxF1.net. If we’ve missed any, be sure to let us know in the comments.