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Insight: The full story of why Verstappen switched F1 helmets

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Insight: The full story of why Verstappen switched F1 helmets
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Translated by: Valentin Khorounzhiy
Oct 16, 2019, 6:16 PM

We visited Schuberth's F1 helmet factory to speak with its bosses about new FIA standards, and discuss just how it came to land a deal with Max Verstappen for the 2019 season.

If you think your job is monotonous, well, you've probably never worked in Formula 1 helmet production. Francesco, a grey-haired Italian of around 60, lays one snippet after the other into a carbon tool. It's cold in the workshop: T1000, one of the most perfect and expensive currently existing composite materials, prefers lower temperatures. A younger colleague and namesake – yes, another Francesco – takes the bits of material from the cooling chamber and fans them into shape, before handing them over to his older comrade.

It's a painstaking process – not allowing for any error of even a few millimetres. When another snippet finds itself within the soon-to-be helmet, Francesco marks the edges with white dots. The next chunks of material will need to touch them but not cover them fully. If something is off, a few steps back will be required. It takes over six hours to put all the carbon snippets, of which there are over 90, into the blank and send it into the autoclave. To produce one F1-standard helmet body is the work of almost an entire work day for several staffers.

Schuberth factory visits

Schuberth factory visits

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

Schuberth factory visits

Schuberth factory visits

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

The carbon shells for Schuberth's F1 helmets are put together in a small factory in Bassano del Grappa, near Venice. It is a 600 square metre building housing eight workers. Around 85 percent of its production is helmets for Schuberth customers in F1 and other racing categories, but the company also has clients on the side - some of the racks are filled with carbon parts for road-going supercars.

Schuberth's Italian department is Teca25, founded by entrepreneur Alberto Dall'Oglio in 2009. The Germans acquired it in 2014 after several years of successful cooperation, but the company still has several other customers. Another Teca25 base is in Schio, further 30 kilometres down the road from Bassano towards Milan. A further seven staffers occupy a small two-story building, which is office for management and the research and development department.

The final assembly, meanwhile, takes place at Schuberth's Magdeburg base, where the helmets are worked on by Sven Krieter and his two colleagues. Krieter is the company's man in the paddock. He began to work in F1 in 2004, back when Schuberth had the Schumacher brothers among its customers, and has not missed a race since. Schuberth's F1 helmets is more or less the output of the company with double-digit employees.

Alberto Dall’Oglio, Managing Director of Teca25

Alberto Dall’Oglio, Managing Director of Teca25

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

Taking it to the Max

Even a short tour of the Schio office in the company of Dall'Oglio and Krieter is enough for it to be clear who Schuberth's chief current F1 client is. Replicas of Max Verstappen's helmets are positioned in the most visible spots. Full-size photos of Verstappen – those in which he is wearing the company's helmet – adorn the meeting rooms alongside photos of the company's all-time main client, Michael Schumacher. Max switched to Schuberth at the start of the year – the deal was agreed right before the start of the championship, and around January it wasn't something Dall'Oglio and his colleagues could even dream of.

Getting Verstappen's signature was made possible by a series of circumstances, the first of which was… Felipe Massa's crash in the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix qualifying. It was the impetus behind the FIA creating a new helmet standard, which came into force in F1 from the start of the 2019 season.

The next year after Massa's crash, the Federation ordered the helmet-makers to reinforce the visors with Zylon strips – a material similar to what is used in body armour production. This allowed for the area joining the upper edge of the visor and the helmet's body – which was where the spring from the Brawn F1 car hit Massa's head – to be strengthened. But research continued, and at the start of this year the Zylon strips were gone.

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F60

Felipe Massa, Ferrari F60

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

The Ferrari F60 of Felipe Massa is returned to the pits

The Ferrari F60 of Felipe Massa is returned to the pits

Photo by: LAT Images

The new helmets adhering to the 8860:2018 ABP standard are, according to the FIA, from 12 to 22 percent safer and more durable than those used 10 years prior, depending on the size. This was achieved first and foremost due to frontal part of the helmet's body being reinforced.

"If a crash like the one Felipe had happened now, he would've almost certainly escaped injury," Dall'Oglio assures. But to develop such a helmet the FIA and suppliers needed almost 10 years since the Budapest crash.

Setting new standards

The FIA changed the test conditions for the new-standard helmets. Now they have to withstand even higher loads when struck. During the tests, 8860:2018 ABP helmets have to deflect a wedge-shaped projectile weighing 225 grams, launched at 250km/h at the very same area where the spring struck Massa. And it's this test that proved the biggest challenge for manufacturers.

The FIA didn't stop there. A bigger area of the helmet's body is now crash-tested, with the side edge of the test area now moved one centimetre down compared to helmets of the previous standard.

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Increased testing area for new F1 standard 8860:2018

Increased testing area for new F1 standard 8860:2018
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Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

Increased testing area for new F1 standard 8860:2018

Increased testing area for new F1 standard 8860:2018
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Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

New F1 standard 8860:2018 helmet (right) with an increased protection

New F1 standard 8860:2018 helmet (right) with an increased protection
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Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

At the same time, the FIA lowered the maximum peak overload values. If before they had to stay below 300g, now the test is considered failed if the loads are above 275g. Also added was a low velocity test, for hits clocking in at 6 metres per second.

"Basically we were asked to give protection against ballistic test at 250 kmh, and at the same time have same level of protection at 20 kmh," says Dall'Oglio. "And it’s very complicated. Now you have to be prepared to absorb dramatic impacts at huge speeds, but the way to achieve is 100 percent opposite to what you need for protecting from low velocity impact.

"They are two kind of protections. Low velocity means softness. High velocity means super rigidity. How to combine those together? That was the problem."

Schuberth factory in Bassano del Grappa

Schuberth factory in Bassano del Grappa

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

To put it in simpler terms, new F1 helmets have to be durable enough to withstand a front strike of 250 km/h, but also elastic enough so that even at 6m/s the full energy of the hit isn't transferred to the drivers' head.

"In Italy we say: you want to get your wife drunk, but keep the bottle full," Dall'Oglio says. "We could have made a metal helmet. It wouldn’t be damaged during FIA tests. But in this case the full energy of the impact goes into your brain."

Passing the hardest test

To pass homologation, manufacturers had to basically redesign their helmets. The final regulations were approved on 5 December 2017, leaving suppliers with around a year to develop models for the new standard – and most of them duly encountered problems.

The task was so difficult that new helmets were barely ready in time for the first car tests in February of this year.

Alberto Dall’Oglio, Managing Director of Teca25

Alberto Dall’Oglio, Managing Director of Teca25

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

Schuberth factory visits

Schuberth factory visits

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

"We have been fighting a whole year for this," Dall'Oglio explains, while showing off the new SF3. "It took so long for the reason I told you before: we need to have very good strength, but also elasticity. It is a short blanket: you cover your feet, and you have cold in your arms. You cover your arms and you have cold in your feet. You want to be rich, but you don’t want to work. What is the way to achieve it? Probably you need to win a lottery. In the end it feels like we won a lottery, but there was a lot of effort.

"A lot of trial and error, and a lot of anxiety. Because this was quite a severe period for us. The deadline was reaching, and we were still struggling, because there is no specific science about how to pass those tests. This was trial and error. You had to try: every helmet shape has a different behaviour, and our helmet in particular is also small, because we want our drivers to have as less volume on their head as possible.

"Some other helmets have more room, they are larger. That means theoretically it is easier to pass. Theoretically because with larger helmets you have other problems. But having a small and light one, but also a safe… believe me it is not an easy story to tell."

Alberto Dall’Oglio, Managing Director of Teca25, helmet designer Jens Munser and Oleg Karpov, Motorsport.com F1 Editor

Alberto Dall’Oglio, Managing Director of Teca25, helmet designer Jens Munser and Oleg Karpov, Motorsport.com F1 Editor

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

In 2018 Schuberth supplied more than 150 helmets for crash-testing. Keep in mind that each of them requires more than 10 hours of work, and it's easy to believe that Alberto isn't exaggerating when he speaks of the emotions he's lived through. Especially when you consider that each helmet like this costs around 7000 Euros – it was not only difficult to pass FIA tests, but also incredibly expensive.

"I can’t tell you how many times I thought I saw the light at the end of the tunnel," he says, when asked about failed attempts to pass FIA tests. "You say to yourself 'this time I have it', you take your van full of helmets, you go to the FIA laboratory at 7am in the morning and think, that at 7pm you will go home with the homologation. But instead… you go home with tears in your eyes. I had it many times. Because whenever you touch something and solve one issue, you create a collateral effect. Especially in the front.

"The front was a nightmare, for all constructors. This was the main issue, because it was extremely difficult. You pass the ballistic test, and then you have an acceleration of your brain which is bringing you out of the limit at the other test. You try to pass it next time, but you fail the ballistic test. Finding a compromise between the two, believe me, wasn’t easy."

Schuberth staff working on a helmet at Bassano del Grappa factory

Schuberth staff working on a helmet at Bassano del Grappa factory

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

Signing off on production

Schuberth was the second company after Stilo – which works with Lance Stroll and Valtteri Bottas – to get its new helmets homologated. "It was just before Christmas, on 23th of December last year," Alberto says, while showing a mobile phone recording made that day while the final test at the FIA laboratory was being carried out.

"Look at my face," he laughs, pointing to a man who looks like he's watching his best friend have brain surgery. "I have had such a big tension only few times in my life. As soon as we passed, I called Sven. It was the best Christmas gift for both of us."

"We passed all tests in December," adds Krieter. "So we were safe for this one, but there is a lot of paperwork has to be done afterwards, and you can still do some mistakes there, mess up with drawings or something like that. So you officially get the homologation once the paperwork is also finished. But the big part was done, we passed, and also knew that the other two manufacturers didn’t. In the end they just made it before the test."

Max Verstappen and Schuberth's Sven Krieter

Max Verstappen and Schuberth's Sven Krieter

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Sutton Images

Officially Schuberth got the homologation just a week before teams and drivers set out for Barcelona for the first test. Bell and Arai passed homologation even later.

"We knew everyone was struggling," Dall'Oglio recalls. “Both FIA and helmet manufacturers were probably underestimating the complexity of the development of this one. It is correct to develop the highest possible level of safety. What probably wasn’t correct was to count on one year only. Everyone was really under huge pressure. Some of our competitors, brands we respect a lot, could not make it on time. And I fully respect them, because I know it was extremely difficult."

How spares idea led to Verstappen deal

Having won the lottery, Schuberth now had to be clever about making the most of its prize winnings.

For the first test in Barcelona, Schuberth brought a back-up helmet – just in case. "The week before the test I got the homologation, and I said ‘guys, lets go to Barcelona with some spare helmets’. We had the feeling that something will happen," Alberto smiles. "And that’s where the Verstappen part comes..."

Schuberth's Sven Krieter works on the helmet of Max Verstappen

Schuberth's Sven Krieter works on the helmet of Max Verstappen

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Sutton Images

The hunch paid off. On the very first day in Barcelona Dall'Oglio and Kreiter began talks with Verstappen's manager Raymond Vermeulen and his father Jos – carefully, in the Toro Rosso hospitality, at one of the furthest tables from the entrance.

Of all the helmet manufacturers, Arai had encountered the most difficulties. The Japanese managed to pass the crash-testing before the start of pre-season running, but not of all sizes, and in Max's case there was a problem – he felt discomfort in the new helmet, and his management was forced to seek alternatives.

Complicating the situation were Red Bull's contractual ties with Arai, its drivers having exclusively used the company's products – also because they were preferred by Adrian Newey.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Photo by: Simon Galloway / Sutton Images

Pierre Gasly also felt some discomfort, but not as significant. He also tried another helmet, but in the end was told to go back to Arai. In Max's case, however, Red Bull had to make an exception. What was key was that Verstappen took an immediate liking to Schuberth's SF3, and just a few days later the company formally landed one of the most sought-after clients in the paddock.

"It was about a week after Barcelona. I was finishing my morning jog in the mountains, in Schio, when Raymond called me to let me know they are onboard. All I could say was 'yes, thanks' - maybe because my breath was taken away, maybe because I could scarcely believe it. It was a reward for all the sleepless nights in the year prior."

Like 'luxury watchmakers'

When looking at the scope of production at Schio and Bassano it is difficult to believe that Schuberth is an F1 helmet supplier with the second-most driver clients on the grid behind Bell - which supplies more than half of the drivers in F1, and which has a huge factory in Bahrain, with at least 10 times as many staffers as in Schuberth's Italian department.

Schuberth factory visits

Schuberth factory visits

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

Schuberth factory visits

Schuberth factory visits

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

"We're likening ourselves to luxury watchmakers," said Dall'Oglio, and it's hard to argue with him after observing the Bassano and Schio locations. Because every helmet for the 8860:2018 ABP standard for F1 and F2 racers is a handmade piece of art.

"It's hard work," Dall'Oglio says of his Bassano employees. "Because all day you have to basically stare at a black hole, work with maximum accuracy, because at the end it's not only a drivers' comfort and thus performance that depend on you, but their safety as well."

Nobody at Schuberth is hiding that the Verstappen deal is a huge slice of luck for the company, even though it had worked with world champions before.

"Verstappen and his management are not only important clients, but also great business partners," Dall'Oglio acknowledges.

Schuberth factory in Bassano del Grappa

Schuberth factory in Bassano del Grappa

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

One of the advantages of working with Max is that all his commercial and marketing activities are carried out by his management, rather than by his team. And that's far from a given in F1 – in fact, for top teams, it is more of an exception.

A deal with a driver like this is a business opportunity for any company.

The benefits of supplying Max

Of course, the helmets themselves – around 15 for the season – are provided to Verstappen free of charge. In fact, in Max's case Schuberth can't even plaster its logo on the most visible spots.

Other F1 clients have the Schuberth logo on the cushions of the interior lining, right next to the driver's eyes. It is always visible when the cameras capture a close-up of the driver sat in their cockpit in front of a monitor with their visor open. It's also one of the most popular types of images among F1 photographers.

In Verstappen's case, however, this ad space is occupied by a glasses manufacturer instead – and the Schuberth logo is only on the back of his helmet. From most angles, you can only tell he's wearing an SF3 by Schuberth's traditionally aggressive cooling slots on the 'jaw'. But that's enough – after all, the whole racing world, which means potential clients, all know that it's Schuberth which protects Verstappen's head.

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Schuberth's F1 customers: Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing

Schuberth's F1 customers: Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing
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Photo by: Dom Romney / Motorsport Images

Schuberth's F1 customers: Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso

Schuberth's F1 customers: Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso
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Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

Schuberth's F1 customers: Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren

Schuberth's F1 customers: Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren
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Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

Schuberth's F1 customers: Nico Hulkenberg, Renault F1 Team

Schuberth's F1 customers: Nico Hulkenberg, Renault F1 Team
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Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

There are more opportunities, and one of them, for example, is the mini-helmet business. Half-size copies of Max's SF3 helmet, which adorn the shelves of merchandise tents, are also produced by Schuberth, who look to make them as similar to the original as possible. One such copy costs around 150 Euro, and those copied from one-off helmet designs sell particularly well.

This year, Verstappen used those on two occasions – first at Red Bull's home venue in Austria, and then during his almost home race at Spa. On both occasions, Schuberth, in cooperation with Max's management, sold out all the mini-helmets, despite the fact Max only drove for about 500 metres in the Belgian GP. Alberto refuses to provide an exact sales number, but says with a smile: “We speak about thousands."

In modern F1 there's probably no other driver who has a fanbase as numerous and loyal. It is no surprise then that Schuberth are so proud of their partnership with Max – among his peers, only Lewis Hamilton maybe boasts a similar marketing potential, and even that's debatable.

Schuberth office in Schio, Italy

Schuberth office in Schio, Italy

Photo by: Schubert Motorsport

"But, to be honest, that's not the main thing," says Sven Krieter, who will attend his 300th GP next year as a Schuberth man. "You just can't imagine how important this is for employees. For people like Francesco, who with his experience could've long gone to work on a less taxing production for a different company working with composite materials. Yet they work with one of the best drivers in Formula 1, and that in itself is a fantastic motivator. Because racing is also their passion.

"Even if they don't attend races, they feel part of the racing world. They're racers, and like any other racers they want to win. Max gives them this opportunity. And that's what's most important."

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Series Formula 1
Author Oleg Karpov