The designer behind Sebastian Vettel's Formula 1 crash helmets

F1

Jens Munser is responsible for the designing and painting of many Formula 1 crash helmets on the 2020 grid and kept busy by Sebastian Vettel as the man behind the four-time champion's designs

Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari garage

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What do Formula 1 drivers do when racing is suspended? There’s a good chance that more than a few will be picking up the phone to Jens Munser.

Now that the rules restricting helmet design changes have been scrapped, drivers are able to wear a new livery for each race, if they wish. And the man fulfilling these wishes is Munser.

From his workshop in Salzgitter, in the north of Germany, he and his team are responsible for creating over 500 crash helmet designs per year for racing drivers around the world.

A lengthy client list includes names such as Michael Schumacher, Daniel Ricciardo, Lando Norris, Daniil Kvyat and one of Munser’s longest-established clients: Sebastian Vettel.

The four-time Formula 1 world champion was well-known for his creative designs during his Red Bull years, when he went through a staggering 96 different helmet designs — before restrictions were imposed.

Producing that number of variations requires a driver who’s straightforward to work with, says Munser.

“With Sebastian it was important to have a driver that I have an idea and can tell him, and he will normally say yes, let’s do it,” he says.

“It’s different from having a driver who wants to keep their design the same every race. It’s nice to have someone who shows my ideas to millions of people.

“With Seb it’s easy. He says very clearly yes or no, or I have a better idea. It’s not like ‘oh I don’t know’, it’s always a clear answer. It makes it easier for me.”

The process of designing helmets begins long before they are unveiled on a Grand Prix weekend. Munser explained that the process he goes through with Vettel usually begins long before the season gets underway.

The two usually hold a meeting during winter testing to discuss ideas for designs and will then progress from there.

“We meet at the beginning of the season, normally in Barcelona, and we have a talk about ideas. Sometimes about ten or twenty different ideas, I put up some graphics and we say ‘ok, yes or no, or to think about it – let’s wait to improve on it, but basically ok’. These three steps are normal after our meeting.

“Then over the year we meet again, I look through my notes and make a final graphic and ask him ok or not? And then we start it.”

“Someone asked me how I’ve done it, they all think I drilled holes in the helmet, but this is wrong”

Since joining Ferrari, Vettel has switched to a far more basic design concept, only changing subtle features instead of wholesale redesigns of his predominantly white helmet.

But as Munser explained to Motor Sport, he doesn’t think the reversion of helmet rules will result in drivers going mad with entirely new designs.

“It won’t bring back the Red Bull times with Sebastian and turning up to every race with a new helmet,” he said.

“Yes, it’s better to be free but I don’t think that so many drivers will change the designs often now. Maybe Lando Norris, but I can’t imagine that this will happen more than now. With Sebastian Vettel, we only do small changes and I don’t think we will change too much.”

Of the 96 Red Bull designs he did, it is the light-up spectacular made for Vettel at the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix that takes the crown for Munser’s favourite.

Sebastian Vettel during the 2012 Singapore Grand Prix

Vettel’s light-up 2012 Singapore GP helmet is Munser’s favourite design

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The LED-incrusted eye-catcher lit up amongst the Singapore skyline, and was added to the company collection after Vettel took victory wearing it.

“My best memory is the LED helmet for Singapore, with the flashing lights on top.”

“The LED helmet needed to do a lot of testing and to make sure that there is no interference with the radio so we made a test helmet before so they could test there was nothing going on with the radio or portable electronics.

“It was electronics from a children’s toy, we used it with very flat LEDs. Someone asked me how I’ve done it, they all think I drilled holes in the helmet, but this is wrong.

“It was on the helmet and it was all connected by electronic lines and to bring the power to the LEDs, there was a special silver. The silver was like a wire on the helmet.

“After this, the FIA told us everything like electronics on the helmet was forbidden.

“It was a one-off story, but it was a nice story for me. This was I think the most important helmet for me because it was completely different to everything else. Everything else was colours and effects – which is also nice, but with LEDs, it was special.”

Sometimes the process for a design isn’t so planned, such as when Niki Lauda passed away last year suddenly ahead of the 2019 Monaco Grand Prix. It required sanding and grinding off the original Monaco design and starting from scratch.

“I started that morning and I think UPS came at 5pm ready for shipping. This was the fastest helmet ever I’ve done!”

The Austrian’s passing sent shockwaves through the sport and Formula 1 paddock and resulted in Munser scrambling to create the tribute helmet in under 24 hours for Vettel to wear that weekend.

“I get the message in the morning at 5 o’clock. The helmet was ready for Monaco and ready to ship, I think it was the Tuesday, then I messaged Sebastian what does he want to do? And we sent off a design for the red one.

“I think it was discussed for not more than 15 minutes and it was clear that he wanted to do a Niki Lauda helmet. I had everything ready, every colour, every logo. It was all prepared.

“Then I started that morning and I think UPS came at 5pm ready for shipping. This was the fastest helmet ever I’ve done!”

Vettel’s newer designs have been kept deliberately basic according to Munser, who believes that the more simplistic helmets are the ones that get remembered.

His old-school approach to design is easily understood once he explains the thought process behind coming up with new ideas.

“I want to go back a bit more to larger elements on a helmet. I see now there is a trend with more lines, millions of lines on them. When I see some kart drivers, I think you cannot understand the design.

“I think every driver starts in karting with a lot of designs because they want to play with the designs, and they see too much. They see 10 helmets, but they have only one. This is the problem.

“Normally, when I give you a picture and then 10 years later, I ask you to draw this design on the paper. Sometimes this is possible, sometimes it’s not. When I look in a kart magazine, most of the time I cannot remember.”

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“As they grow older, they reduce it and it is more recognisable.

“Like Daniil Kvyat for example, it’s really simple. Last year, (Nico) Hulkenberg’s was really simple with his designs but I’d say this was more modern and visible.

“Some helmets on the grid, like Romain Grosjean for example, is very colourful and very full of lines. This is another style.

“I prefer the simpler designs.”

Another difficulty that complicates the process is contending with sponsors and their logos. With so many sponsors involved in the sport, free space on a driver’s crash helmet is almost non-existent.

“Normally team branding is the first point that’s clear. Now, Sebastian has the ring on his with Kaspersky as the sponsor. For this, there is no discussion, no driver can say ‘oh, I don’t want this sponsor on this place’.

“I remember there was a helmet for Nick Heidfeld during the BMW times, there were so many sponsors on the helmet that we had started the graphics with placing the sponsors then we put the lines around the sponsors!”

With racing suspended for the foreseeable future, it has left Munser and his team a little less busy than he might have expected with the rule changes, and drivers with plenty of time to think up ideas for future designs. When racing does get back underway though, Munser and his team will be ready with any request.

“At the moment we continue our production, but we don’t know when they’ll (drivers) need it. We hope that the season will start in June and we’ll get everything ready for it.”

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