Racing’s artist in residence

Meet the man who has been painting crash helmets for 40 years, working with more than 60 GP drivers and thousands of others

Artistry on a racetrack. Traditionally it’s associated with such as Juan Manuel Fangio (the Nürburgring 1957, perhaps), Stirling Moss (Monaco 1961), Jim Clark (Monza 1967) or Ronnie Peterson (any time he negotiated the original Woodcote), but the concept has a more literal aspect.

It’s sometimes easy to forget, in an age when drivers’ personal trademarks lie buried beneath corporate logos, but crash helmets were once every bit as individual as the human within. Remember Innes Ireland’s chequered strip? Jackie Stewart’s similarly straightforward tartan? Those white-and-orange bands with a large JODY stamped below? The simple colour schemes that defined Hulme, Amon or Cevert, easily sketched on a school exercise book? Ayrton Senna’s dominant yellow?

Nowadays Formula 1 drivers are wont to make wholesale design changes from season to season, to tie in with team liveries, and the results are in any case harder to define from trackside thanks to steeply raked cockpit sides. Can anybody out there provide detailed descriptions of what Max Verstappen or Esteban Ocon wore in 2017, other than that one was mostly orange, the other pink – and that both differed significantly from what either had used the previous season?

Raised in Nottingham, and armed with a graphic design degree from Trent Polytechnic, Mike Fairholme has been creating and painting helmet designs since simpler times, adapted to the corporate invasion and continues his craft to this day, though he’s no longer as involved in F1 as once he was.

“I’ve loved cars since I was young,” he says, “though I was always a bit frustrated that Dinky Toys didn’t look quite like the models they were supposed to represent. I used to wonder how they could be improved. I guess it was an early sign of attention to detail – wanting to make sure things looked correct.

“I was taken to an Oulton Park clubbie in 1967 and then to the ’68 Gold Cup – three works Ferraris, Jackie Stewart’s Matra, Pedro Rodríguez in a BRM, two Gold Leaf Lotus 49s… That kind of left its mark on me, plus the fact I could stand in the middle of it all, with no fences around the cars.

“I have very clear memories of listening to Le Mans on the radio in 1966, then started to watch whatever was on shown on TV. I saw the 1967 Italian GP in black and white, Jim Clark recovering his lost lap, retaking the lead and then having to slow up before the finish. I was hooked. I subsequently started reading Motor Sport and Motoring News, absorbing all the details.”

As a 12-year-old, while staying with an aunt in Dorking, he also popped in to Rob Walker’s Pippbrook Garage to compliment the team owner on his victory with Jo Siffert in the 1968 British GP. “It was an ordinary filling station at the front, but with a racing workshop at the back. Rob came out, shook my hand, thanked me and gave me a signed photograph, which I still have. That cemented my enthusiasm.”

He admits to falling out of love with the sport for a short while, following the losses of Clark, Siffert and Pedro Rodríguez – heroes all – and in the early ’70s he also discovered motorbikes. “When crash helmets became mandatory in 1974,” he says, “lots of my mates complained about having to wear them, but I saw it as a graphic opportunity: ‘Great – just think what I can do with that.’

“I’d become very aware of the significance of helmet designs, with Siffert’s red and white for Switzerland and so on. I thought it beautifully simple, ditto Jackie Stewart with his tartan band and Graham Hill with the London Rowing Club’s colours. I was starting to pick up on all these things, partly through seeing the small colour section in the centre of Motor Sport. In one issue there was a special feature on drivers’ helmets, which really sowed the seeds, and then in 1974 I went to the Isle of Man TT. I was a teenager with a crash helmet that I wanted to paint. As I rode a Norton, and he raced one, I created a Peter Williams replica. My friends would say, ‘Here’s Mike with a ‘W’ on his helmet. What’s that for? W***ker?’”

Soon afterwards, he was introduced to a local motorcycle dealer and invited to create an official logo. “That was the start of my professional connection with bikes and cars, but I’m not sure I was ever paid. I was ever so proud, though, because one of the stickers I’d designed went on the side of every new Kawasaki sold in Nottingham…

“Bike racer Steve Henshaw later took over the business. He became a good friend and I started travelling with him to race meetings as a gofer. As he became more successful, we attended bigger events and he eventually began competing in major internationals, rubbing shoulders with established stars. He asked me to paint his helmet, which made him my first racing customer, and I ended up doing the graphics for his helmet, bike, leathers and transporter. This put me in an arena where I’d meet people – and when people asked Steve who had done the work, he’d simply point at me. I kept coming back from meetings with other riders’ helmets and gradually business increased.”

He describes his next few years as those of a “self-employed jobbing graphic designer”, supplementing his work for bike racers by producing posters and artwork for assorted clients. And then, in 1984, he travelled to Donington Park to deliver a helmet to British rider Niall Mackenzie. “That’s where I met Ferry Brouwer, who had founded Arai Europe in Holland. He was tasked with developing and promoting the brand in Europe. He had a racing background – as a former bike mechanic he’d worked with Jarno Saarinen and Phil Read – and wanted to talk to me.

“The Arai factory in Japan was working hard to produce helmets for drivers and riders and its paint department couldn’t keep up. He felt that we might be able to collaborate. It started slowly at first – one of my first car clients was Damon Hill, for whom I’d previously painted a helmet when he was racing bikes – and through Arai I soon got to know Damon, Mark Blundell, Gerrit van Kouwen, Steve Robertson and other guys from that generation. All of a sudden I had lots of customers on the junior stepladder.”

In 1985 he also painted a helmet for Martin Brundle – his first F1 contractee – and Fairholme retains it today, complete with battle scars, as a signed memento. As Arai increased the number of deals it did with rising and established stars, so he became busier. “In 1987 I went to a racing car show and took a part-share in a stand, to see if I could attract a few more customers. While I was there I received a message from Ferry, asking what the hell I was doing. Arai had just agreed to cover the cost of my painting as many helmets as he could provide – and he already had 220 lined up. It was for a mixture of disciplines – bikes, motocross, powerboats, F3000, F1… A few years earlier I’d been wondering how to get a deal with a star driver, or perhaps a genuinely promising youngster, and now it was all here, delivered to me. I thought, ‘What? How did that happen?’”

Back then the process was rigorously manual. “I’d cut masking tape to recreate any sponsors’ logos and paint pretty much all of them by hand. It’s hard to quantify how long it takes to do each helmet because they’re all different. I apply one colour at a time, a single layer, add a few coats of lacquer, flat it back, then finish with three or four more layers of lacquer before doing a few hours of polishing by hand.

“Once, when I was working with McLaren, they needed a Gerhard Berger helmet at short notice. I pointed out that there was insufficient time to get the job done, so they asked whether I’d be able to do it if they increased my fee. I still had to say ‘no’, because extra cash wouldn’t have made the days any longer. Things did become quicker during the early 1990s, though, with the advent of computer-aided cutting machines. It’s not my field of expertise, but I could pay somebody to create logo templates on my behalf so that I no longer had to sit there and do it all with a scalpel. That made a massive difference, but you still have to be very precise.” He points to the Canon logo on a Williams-era Nigel Mansell helmet. “To the naked eye it looks straight,” he says, “which is what you want, but you have to factor in the curvature of the helmet during the design process.”

Some clients have come to him with established colour schemes that simply need to be painted, some with blank sheets of paper and others with a few ideas. He produces a charming, simplistic sketch from one of his files. “Juan Pablo Montoya brought this to me in 1996, when he was driving for Fortec in British F3,” he says. “Two-dimensional drawings don’t always translate directly to a 3D shape, but this one didn’t require much work.

“I’ve never troubled myself to do drawings that look pretty. A driver will come along with an open mind and I’ll start making notes, then maybe start to doodle on a rough helmet shape. I’ll then sketch out a few more and am into a three- or four-hour marathon, during which you hope for a light-bulb moment.

“I chat to drivers and introduce them to ideas they hadn’t considered. What colours do they want? What kind of person are they in everyday life? If they are an extrovert, they can get away with some fluorescent yellow because they don’t mind people looking at them. If they are of a quieter disposition, metallic blue might be more suitable.

“When a young Mark Blundell turned up with a plain white helmet, I asked whether there were any designs he liked and he said ‘Roberto Moreno’. In my head, however, I was thinking ‘Roberto Guerrero’… I’d seen pictures of him in magazines and his helmet was dark blue and yellow – and you’ll see the bands on Mark’s helmet are similarly yellow. At the time he was racing a light blue car and had three sets of overalls, red, yellow and dark blue, so that determined the colours of the other helmet details. If he’d been a Marlboro driver it would have been an irrelevant question because his suit would have been bright red, but that’s how the design evolved and he stuck with it – a bit like the 1970s, when drivers had a helmet that helped to create an image.”

It was during the late 1970s that branding first began to appear on helmets – and the process intensified during the 1980s. “Ron Dennis was meticulous about how and where logos should be placed – and, once you’d finished, the helmets had to be taken to McLaren’s commercial department to be signed off and approved for use.

“When I started working with Williams, our first meeting took place around a table at a racing show – as informal as informal could be. Later on, I met one of their commercial guys at a Little Chef and we sat there surrounded by crash helmets to finalise a few details. I think the staff were a little bewildered…”

Fairholme’s career took off at a fruitful time, with more than 30 cars in F1, full F3000 and F3 grids and Arai committing to supply drivers across the board. “I loved the racing environment back then,” he says. “It was a good time to be involved and gave me some fantastic opportunities. It wasn’t like it is now, with a smaller number of F1 teams and thus fewer openings for young wannabes.

“There have been a couple of significant changes. One is the reduced number of drivers competing at the higher levels, the second the arrival of carbon helmets – which were three times as expensive as those made from glassfibre. It was inevitable that manufacturers could no longer afford to be as generous and Arai cut back its supply. I began to do less and less work in F1 and effectively stepped away at the end of 2008, when David Coulthard retired.

“The arrival of carbon meant that even top-level drivers – Le Mans winners, for instance – were suddenly obliged to buy their own helmets. Rather than ‘needing’ two or more a year, as they had during a time of free supply, some were suddenly able to make one last five seasons!”

For all that the landscape has changed, one thing has remained a constant. “I remain incredibly passionate about what I do,” Fairholme says – a point rather reinforced by the line of primer husks that nestles nearby, awaiting a first coat.