May 23, 2013

The mark of a man

Jean-Eric Vergne's Monaco helmet in François Cevert's colours © Getty Images

I don’t know about you, but I’m rather tired of Sebastian Vettel changing his helmet design every five minutes. I wouldn’t mind if the pattern had some deep significance but the addition of more glitter and swirls or the switch on a whim to a completely different colour just doesn’t do it for me.

Call me old fashioned but a racing driver’s crash helmet ought to be his signature on the move. When a car comes into view, there should be no doubt about the identity of the person at the wheel. That is particularly pertinent these days when, thanks to competition numbers being the size of a postage stamp, a crash helmet is the only distinctive feature that determines one driver from another.

It’s true that the camera colour atop the car eventually distinguishes team-mates but that’s like having footballers play in balaclavas with only their shirt numbers as evidence of who they are. (Some might argue such an idea should be encouraged to prevent spitting and snarling on the pitch, but we won’t go into that here.)

Monaco appears to prompt drivers to dress up as if they’re attending a carnival or going to a formal occasion that requires a special smart helmet in case they get to meet Monegasque royalty at the close of play on Sunday afternoon. The one exception last year was Kimi Räikkönen carrying the colours of James Hunt (a move I thought entirely appropriate because, if there’s one current driver of whom James would approve, it would surely be the Couldn’t-give-a-F*** Finn).

This weekend, I’m intrigued to see Jean-Eric Vergne’s tasteful decision to have his crash hat replicate the colours of François Cevert. I understand there is no personal link or hero worship here. It’s merely in respect of a fellow Frenchman who had charisma and speed by the bucketful and was poised to step into Jackie Stewart’s driving boots at Tyrrell when the Scot retired at the end of 1973. Tragically, that never came to pass after Cevert was killed at Watkins Glen during practice for the last race of the season.

Cevert’s sister, Jacqueline, is married to Jean-Pierre Beltoise (winner at Monaco in 1972) and knows Vergne. It’s no coincidence that Mme Beltoise is co-author with Johnny Rives, the highly respected former F1 correspondent for L’Equipe, of a book on her brother.

That aside, JEV’s choice is apposite because, 40 years ago, Cevert drove a stonking race in what would be his final appearance at Monaco.

Stewart had qualified on pole but Cevert made a daring start from the second row to force his way into the lead at Ste Devote. With Ronnie Peterson holding second place in his Lotus, there was no question of Cevert needing to think about his team leader. It was every man for himself but Cevert blew it on the second lap when he snagged a kerb and punctured the right-front tyre.

Pit stops in 1973 had the urgency of a motorway service area visit compared to today, Cevert rejoining 25th – and last. Truly fired up, Cevert seemed oblivious to the notion that overtaking is difficult at Monaco as he carved through the backmarkers.

Progress began to slow when he reached 14th and the faster and more obstinate guys – by which time he was about to be lapped by Stewart, who was leading. On lap 33, Cevert dutifully moved aside. And then his race really came alive as the pair of blue Tyrrells began to work beautifully in tandem.

I was seated in the grandstand on the approach to Ste Devote. More than once, I involuntarily held my breath as Cevert sat inches from Stewart’s gearbox at 160mph and squeezed past midfield runners under braking as they responded to waved blue flags for the leader. Stewart couldn’t mess about because the Lotus of Emerson Fittipaldi was not far behind; pressure which Cevert scarcely seemed to notice as he received the driving lesson of his life from a master of Monaco.

By lap 47, Cevert was fifth, the hapless opposition unable to do anything about this eight-wheel Tyrrell steaming through. The retirement of Wilson Fittipaldi’s Brabham with seven laps to go eventually moved Cevert into fourth. He had made up 21 places.

Even if Vergne fails to produce a similar stunning drive this weekend, you’ll know who he is. JEV is the driver with the distinctive helmet design that still means a great deal 40 years on.


Posted by tom anderson on 26/05/2013

It is very difficult to identify who is driving a F-1 race car. All cars should have a 40 cm circle in white with black numbers to make it easy to see.
Thank You,
Tom Anderson
Phoenix, Az

Posted by aka_robyn on 25/05/2013

OK: You're old fashioned. ;-)

Posted by Dave on 25/05/2013

I agree that keeping the same design the whole time would be good. Changes should be kept for one-off exceptions such as honouring some milestone/anniversary for the driver/team/nation involved or for honouring another racer either past or present.

I thought the swapped designs of Barrichello and Kanaan for Monaco and Indy on the same day a couple of years ago was a rare cool example of a helmet design change.

I think it would be good next year on the first race weekend in May for every driver to have their helmet include a yellow circle for Senna and an Austrian flag for Ratzenburger, and for the first row of the grid to be left empty.

Posted by sas on 25/05/2013

I would like Sebastian Vettel helmets as he is always trying something new out but I agree he it would be good if he picks one design and keeps it but I like how he keeps the redbull colours in his helmet as well as putting a twist on its design

Posted by dave mingay on 24/05/2013

That Vettel swaps helmet designs proves that he doesn't have a manager. Why he would deny his own signature is unfathomable and in the commercial sense rather silly.
Some might even say immature. Could there be a good reason for it, surely not? And since they're expensive someone has more money than sense.

Posted by Ferry on 24/05/2013

Excellent writing! We've seen some beautiful designs in the past. Some simple yet striking, others a bit more intricate but easily recognisable. Carlos Reutemann, Patrick Depailler, Gilles Villeneuve, Derek Daly, Didier Pironi.

Posted by paul on 24/05/2013

i totally agree its the racing dna of a true racer its what you achieve during your career like a signature try signing a cheque one day one way and try signing it another way any other day?

Posted by IanPee on 24/05/2013

Spot on as usual Maurice.

Also something beautiful about the simplicity of Cevert's design.

JEV has gone up another few notches on my respect-o-meter!

Posted by MA on 24/05/2013

It's Vettel's helmet. He's the one who puts it on the line at every GP, so what business is it of anybody that he likes to change his helmet design for each race. When you are a GP driver you can do as you please .... let Vettel do the same. For the record Mr. Self-righteous (aka Martin Brundle) did change his helmet design during his F1 career.

Posted by Craig k on 24/05/2013

I like the subtle changes to existing designs for monaco (like the this Perez addition of dice and the word Monaco) however total change for no reason is not necessary and confusing. And vettel changing his like his underwear is a joke. Even down to have one for rain and one for dry.
Only exception is special milestones in their career (MS 300 gp for example)
Lucy and kili are right kept them the same even though sennas did change over the years but only slightly it was alway that distinct beautiful yellow/green

Posted by Bruce Wilson on 24/05/2013

I couldn't agree more. Cevert was the heir to the throne cruelly taken too soon. He had a great classic helmet design too - something drivers of today should take note of. Many drivers today have such busy designs that are not very destinctive from each other.

Posted by Viraj Ambetkar on 23/05/2013

I personally like Schumacher's signature red from Ferrari days. He didn't change the color even when he moved to Mercedes. Fernando's is also very distinct.

BTW, beautiful peace of writing Maurice. Keep it up!

Posted by GordonD on 23/05/2013

Now that drivers adorn their helmets with lots of advertising I don't think it is as personal as it was when the likes of Graham Hill and others pretty well ran the same design for ever.

I do agree that identifying a drive in a car is now almost impossible - particularly with the low driving position - so something to deal with that would be nice.

Having said that I find it weird that anyone would adopt someone else's distinctive design without some connection/anniversary reason.

Cevert was a wonderful driver and a big loss to the sport although his death set Wee Jackie of on his safety crusade - for which the sport is truely better off.

Posted by Richard Grimwood on 23/05/2013

I was a big Cevert Fan. What could have been but for that tragic day at Watkins Glen. He was what racing divers are all about and a breed apart from the majority of today's offerings.
I totally agree that a drivers identity should be defined by his racing helmet and I to wish they would stop keep reinventing themselves.

Posted by Brian on 23/05/2013

Very cool to see old designs being used but also agree that todays helmets mean nothing as they are changed all the time. The colors should have meaning to the driver and be something that you can see the driver on the track and know which team-mate you are looking at.

Posted by Lucy Church on 23/05/2013

Totally Agree. Martin Brundle regularly references this too. Even Lewis Hamilton has jumped on the bandwagon. YOUR skid-lid is YOUR racing signature. Did the greats like Ayrton Senna change their lids ? Silly modern yoof / iPod/phone generation drivers !

Posted by Kili Liam on 23/05/2013

Could not agree more!
Me, being a Senna fan from very young age (10), that YELLOW helmet was something! ;-)


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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live 6. Maurice Hamilton