Hard Shell Soft Centre

Find out how Formula One star Nico Rosberg’s race helmet is made.

Back in the day, Sven Krieter says he didn’t really know what to make of Formula 1. His last 10 years, however, have been spent at the sharp end of Grand Prix action in his role as protector-in-chief of drivers’ craniums. He makes sure they can literally keep a cool head and continue to see clearly, even when the weather isn’t playing along.

Krieter is busy applying a rubber lip to the edge of a black helmet, turning it constantly, wiping away excess adhesive and pressing the elastic material firmly with three fingers. Welcome to the headgear specialist’s workplace in the German city of Magdeburg. The finished item will protect and adorn the head of Nico Rosberg in his next race for Mercedes AMG Petronas.

Helmet manufacturer Schuberth supplies five Formula 1 drivers, and Krieter is one of the long-established company’s key figures – the face of its motorsports activities. The 40-year-old travels with the F1 circus to all the races and testing dates on the calendar to look after the drivers. That means he racks up more than a quarter of a million airborne kilometres every year. And he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

Excess hot glue

It’s not art, but precision craftsmanship. Excess hot glue is collected on a sheet of paper.

Krieter, who trained as a heating and ventilation system fitter, hesitated before taking the F1 job – the assignment just seemed too daunting. However, after mulling it over several times and taking an intensive English-language course, he accepted the offer. “My first race was Silverstone in 2005. I’d never flown anywhere before,” he recalls, “let alone somewhere as hectic as Heathrow. And then there was driving on the left-hand side of the road without a navigation system. It was tough.” Nowadays, thinking back to those early days makes him smile.

Handmade high-tech

Krieter and his three colleagues make 80 helmets a year for F1 drivers, plus 20 for the DTM touring car series and around 150 for general sale. Amateur drivers can buy an SF1 – Schuberth’s racing helmet – for around $7,000. A small workshop has been set up specifically for the task in the state-of-the-art Schuberth factory. Here, Krieter and his team work on the helmets with the help of special tools, measuring instruments and high-end adhesives. It’s a fine example of the role still played by exclusive craftsmanship in the high-tech business of Formula 1.

The helmet shell is prefabricated from 19 layers of carbon fibre using a type of pressure oven called an autoclave. The individual layers are laid one on top of the other, placed in a vacuum and baked in the autoclave at up to 87 psi of pressure at 170°C–200°C. The monocoque safety cells of Formula 1 cars are manufactured using the same method. This ultrasophisticated procedure is also used in the aerospace industry due to its ability to maximize material strength. Nico Rosberg uses the middle of the three helmet shell sizes produced.

Faceless bust

The experts use a faceless bust to check whether the padding is right. This size of bust roughly equates to Nico Rosberg’s measurements. Before testing begins, the head is given a pair of ears made from modelling wax in order to test whether the helmet can be put on and taken off without difficulty.

Krieter and his team are handed the hardened and painted helmet shells for the finishing stage. The sponsors’ logos and Rosberg’s personal designs are applied by airbrush before the team turns the shells into full-fledged helmets. The shell protects against fragmentation and fire (the helmet has to withstand temperatures up to 740°C), but without the proper shock absorption that would mean little. To this end, the shell has an inner lining of high-grade multi-zone foam – the type used in all helmets. The technicians then add a special shock-absorbing foam to the lining. This is one of the standout features of Schuberth helmets, and it remains a source of pride for the company. The recipe behind the foam is secret, but we do know that it consists of two components. The method was already in use when Schuberth arrived in Formula 1 in 2000. Former Mercedes GP reserve driver Nick Heidfeld was the first to use Schuberth helmets, followed shortly thereafter by Ralf and Michael Schumacher. Nico Rosberg has trusted the Magdeburg-based firm’s products since his days in junior racing. And, as we speak, Krieter is working on helmet no. 92 for the Wiesbaden-born driver.

Not everyone wants everything

Up to this stage, all the company’s race helmets are identical – save for the shell size and paint-finish. Only now does the customization process begin. The padding for the helmet is made using precise head and face measurements taken from the driver. The idea is for the head to be held firmly inside the helmet, while still allowing some room to manoeuvre. “The drivers have to feel good,” says Krieter. “Together, we try out different variants of the helmet until everything is just right.” The drivers also have the last word on visors and the special mini-spoilers on the forehead area and back of the helmet. Rosberg prefers a top spoiler, while others choose not to have any of these aerodynamic aids – designed to minimize the effect of lift at high speed – in order to save weight. A finished race helmet weighs 1,350–1,500 grams.

The drivers have to feel good. We try out different variants of the helmet until everything is just right.” Sven Krieter, helmet technician

Krieter has six different types of visor on hand for each helmet during every Formula 1 weekend. “When it’s raining, I screw on the clear visor,” he explains. “Then we have the variants with 50-percent and 80-percent tinting.” All visors are available in three different colours. Before the drivers head out onto the track, Krieter also sticks tear-off strips onto their visors, which the drivers have to be able to whip off in a single movement at speeds of 320 km/h should they get dirty or mist up. “Nico never wants more than three or four of them, whereas other drivers have seven or eight,” notes the expert.

Krieter applies black paint

The shell has an inner lining made of high-grade multi-zone foam and special shock-absorbing foam. Krieter then applies black paint using a brush to ensure the helmet also has a uniform look on the inside. Should it not fit quite perfectly in one area or another, Krieter is on hand at every Formula 1 race to make the necessary adjustments.

Rosberg and the helmet technician are in direct contact at the track. From time to time, his physiotherapist also calls up “if Nico needs a spare part, new pads, a different visor or some other item, because he has a suggestion for a possible improvement.” On one occasion recently, though, Rosberg had to accept the limits of what is possible: “Nico was wondering if we could make a visor in the same colour as his personal nameplate on the side of his helmet. We tried all sorts of things, but sadly we were never able to produce that exact shade and still ensure the visor met the safety stipulations.”

Although things don’t always work out, Krieter tries to make as many wishes as possible come true. “The key areas for drivers are ventilation and lightness,” he points out. Almost every year brings new, lighter helmet shells, and these are tested for safety in a special laboratory before they go into series production. The 10 holes in the chin and forehead area and in the visor are designed to channel 10 litres of fresh air around the driver’s head at speeds of 100 km/h. “In the past, the air was simply blown onto a driver’s head and face. Now, we channel it rearward over the top of the head, where it escapes through six ventilation holes,” explains Krieter. All of which enhances aerodynamics as well. A race helmet nowadays works in a similar way to the car’s diffuser. So it’s no surprise the helmets are tested in their own wind tunnel.

Air used to be blown onto a driver’s head and face. Now, we channel it rearward over the top of the head.” Sven Krieter

Nico Rosberg

From inside his custom-made helmet, Rosberg focuses on qualifying in Singapore.

Mechanics sport ski helmets

The latest idea involves two additional holes that channel air around the visor to prevent misting. If this innovation proves itself in the wind tunnel and earns good crash-test results, it will go into series production. Ahead of the race in Monaco, the service team also screwed a new high-tech visor designed to sharpen visibility onto Rosberg’s helmet. “Nico’s seeing everything as if it’s in HD now,” says Krieter. Like all visors, this one had also been impact-tested in a lab using steel balls shot from an air-gun device. In 2015, Schuberth became an official supplier to the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team. The mechanics in the pit lane wear the SK1 ski helmet, which will soon be available in a limited edition. The exceptions are the crew operating the jacks at the front and rear of the car, who are protected by Schuberth’s SR1 integral motorcycle helmet.

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