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Jens Munser is the undisputed king of Formula One helmet design, creating unique headgear for racing's greats

FROM THE MOMENT a Formula One driver steps onto the circuit, he is a walking billboard. There are team polo shirts, branded sunglasses and endorsed shoes to be seen in. Sponsored hats to wear for indoor press conferences. Even the watch on his wrist is there by contractual obligation. Sartorial freedom ends at the paddock entrance.

"So the only way today for a driver to show some personality is, maybe, with some tattoos," says Jens Munser, a designer who has unintentionally become a Formula One trendsetter. "Or with his helmet."
Of the two, only the helmet is visible during a race, bobbing above the cockpit and right in front of the onboard camera. And for Mr. Munser, the sport's pre-eminent helmet artist, each one is a canvas. The greats have always had recognizable designs: Ayrton Senna's green stripe on yellow, the colors of Brazil; Michael Schumacher's stars on Ferrari red. But Mr. Munser and triple world champion Sebastian Vettel have taken the art one step further.

Mr. Vettel doesn't want one recognizable look. He wants a dozen. Mr. Munser, who works with nine drivers in Formula One, has designed 28 different race helmets for Mr. Vettel in the past two years alone. Now, with the season starting next weekend in Australia, he already has the first half of the campaign mapped out; his spring collection. Each helmet will be a closely guarded secret until Mr. Vettel wears it for the first time at Friday practice before a Sunday race.

"Each helmet has its own history and tells a story about the race in which the helmet was used," Mr. Vettel said in an email. "Jens and I like to be creative and so we have a lot of fun coming up with new ideas and then it is nice to see the designs come to life in the actual helmets."

Over the years, Mr. Munser, 42, has tried gimmicks like sequins, metallic strips, and paint that changes color with the temperature. There was the rust-colored helmet with prison-wall notches on top, totting up each of Mr. Vettel's 50 Grand Prix. And there was the one he designed to simulate the wooden floor of an Old West saloon—that was for a race last year in Texas. As Carsten Meurer, another German designer who has also worked with Mr. Schumacher, puts it, Mr. Munser "likes to use a lot of bling-bling."
"Almost every area on the helmet has something happening," for better or for worse, says Mike Fairholme, a longtime helmet painter who worked with more than a dozen drivers in the 1980s and 1990s, including Senna, Damon Hill and Nigel Mansell. In those days, when the only thing on a helmet was paint, drivers pretty much carried a single bold design throughout their careers. Over the course of a decade, for instance, Mr. Fairholme produced just four iterations of Mr. Mansell's helmet—and he only had that many because of changing sponsors.

Besides Mr. Vettel, Mr. Munser is also working with his Red Bull teammate Mark Webber, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa, Mercedes's Nico Rosberg, Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo, Marussia's Jules Bianchi, Force India's Adrian Sutil, and Nico Hulkenberg of Sauber. No other designer currently works with as many drivers in Formula One.

But only Mr. Vettel, who saves all of his victory helmets, needs new ones so regularly. When they meet before the start of the season, the pair come up with roughly 10 designs, which they refine over the three or four times they see each other throughout the year.

The helmets arrive at Mr. Munser's studio—a two-story building in the back of an industrial park in Salzgitter, Germany—from two main manufacturers, Schuberth and Arai. The former come to him as white shells, like hollowed-out dinosaur eggs. He paints them and sends them back to be finished, in an endless stream of UPS deliveries. Arai helmets come pretty much race-ready—they only need 30 to 90 grams of Mr. Munser's paint to be complete.

The recipe for a great helmet design isn't complicated. The look has to be clean enough for the fans to make it out from the stands, but detailed enough to be interesting up close or from the onboard camera, Mr. Munser says.

While there are dozens of rules governing helmet safety, Formula One's world governing body, the FIA, doesn't specify anything about design—which explains its confusion when it saw Mr. Vettel's helmet for the 2012 Singapore nighttime Grand Prix: it had 24 blinking lights built into the top. (Eventually, after establishing that the lights didn't interfere with the radio system or compromise the helmet's structure, the FIA gave it the thumbs-up.)

So the only constraints to Mr. Munser's design are the seven different sponsors that must appear on the helmet—and he has very little scope to alter the logos' appearance or size. Red Bull declined to say how much a sponsorship deal is worth, but the visor strip, chin area and top of helmet are considered prime real estate.

For the rest of the helmet, Mr. Munser's inspiration often comes from products he sees in the real world. Perfume packaging is one of his favorite sources. He has also borrowed effects from toothpaste boxes—he liked a particular chrome-and-blue combination—and bicycle frames.
But no Formula One driver has yet requested anything like Mr. Munser's first design, for his own helmet more than 20 years ago. As an amateur motocross rider, he was bored with the "white, black, or ugly" options he saw on the circuit. The helmet he designed was an orange-and-yellow number featuring Eddie, the angry-looking skeleton mascot of metal band Iron Maiden, in racing goggles.

At the time, Mr. Munser was a 21-year-old electronics technician working in Volkswagen's VOW3.XE -0.09%engine factory in Salzgitter. Painting helmets in his parents' basement and drying them in his mother's oven was a side gig. His big break came in 2001, two years after starting in Formula One. when he got the call: "Hi, Michael Schumacher here."

Mr. Munser worked with Mr. Schumacher until he retired in 2006 and then again when he returned from 2010 to 2012. As Ferrari's star driver, Mr. Schumacher won four world championships, set the record for the most career Grand Prix victories and cemented his place as the greatest driver of all time.

"Michael's helmet was not as exciting a design, but it was typical," Mr. Munser says. "The red helmet? That's Michael."

Mr. Munser estimates that roughly 600 helmets a year come through his studio, where he employs half a dozen people. The professional helmets make up about 30% of his business and replicas of these, sold to collectors and sponsors, account for another 20%. (Red Bull's official charity, Wings for Life, managed to sell 10 of Mr. Vettel's backup helmets for €10,000 apiece in 2011.) The rest comes from amateur drivers—hobbyists who can afford to race their Porsches around circuits on the weekends. While Mr. Munser won't disclose how much he earns from the professional helmets, a helmet for an amateur driver, with a bespoke Munser design, costs between €800 and €2,000.

Each helmet has its own history and tells a story about the race in which the helmet was used. Jens and I like to be creative...

Mr. Vettel, with whom he works only on a handshake agreement, is his biggest customer. Their relationship began in the mid-1990s, long before either was anywhere near Formula One. Mr. Munser was still working out how to turn his hobby into a job. Mr. Vettel was an 8-year-old go-kart racer.

His father approached Mr. Munser for a custom helmet. The young Vettel wanted a design featuring Sebastian, the crab in Disney's DIS +1.90%"The Little Mermaid." Mr. Munser wasn't crazy about it—all gaudy greens, yellows and reds—"but his father told me, 'OK, he likes it. Don't think about it,' " Mr. Munser says.

It was more than a decade before Mr. Munser made his next helmet for Mr. Vettel, by which time the driver had outgrown go-karts and joined the Toro Rosso Formula One team.

Between them, Messrs. Schumacher and Vettel have won seven world championships in Munser helmets, and Mr. Munser's work is all over television's highlight reels. But he doesn't watch many Grands Prix these days—he prefers to check out Friday practices, which is when his helmets debut. But "it's nice to hear" that his drivers are successful, he says, hastily adding that he can take no credit for their victories.

He just makes sure they do it in style.

By Joshua Robinson

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