Origin of an icon: Ayrton Senna’s racing helmet

10th May 2021

The Brazilian legend’s yellow, green and blue helmet is instantly recognisable, but who first created its distinctive design?

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Words by Peter Hall

 

The decoration of a racing helmet has much in common with heraldry, including a tendency towards excessive complexity. One might even draw parallels between today’s intricate F1 helmet designs and the ornate coats of arms of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, a period known in heraldic circles as “the Decadence”.

In Formula 1, helmets became mandatory in 1952. They were easier to personalise than the preceding linen and leather flying caps, yet for the next half-century drivers rarely employed more than two or three colours and the most distinctive designs were graphically very simple. This was certainly true of the famous helmet worn by three-time F1 champion Ayrton Senna, designed in the 1970s when he was racing 100cc karts in his native Brazil. What is less well known is that the original design wasn’t unique to Senna.

National racing colours were still used in international karting and as Brazil’s traditional livery was pale yellow, sometimes with a green stripe, that‘s what Senna wore for the 1978 Karting World Championship at Le Mans. For the 1979 championship at Estoril, a new livery was commissioned from Cloacyr Sidney Fly, better known as Sid Mosca. His São Paulo paint shop, Sid Special Paint, already served motorsport clients such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet, Brabham and Lotus; in 1977, for example, he had repainted Mario Andretti’s black-and-gold Lotus 78 in just 12 hours, following a fire on the eve of the Brazilian GP.

Mosca also had to work quickly in September 1979, as the four drivers in the Brazilian kart team had to wear the same helmet livery at Estoril, and he had only five days in which to design and paint them all. Senna was known to be the team’s most talented driver and was uppermost in Mosca’s mind as he conceived two horizontal bands emerging from the visor aperture, emphasising speed, focus and aggression. It has since been suggested that the colours had symbolic meanings, but in truth they were dictated by those of the Brazilian flag (where they represent gold, forest and night sky).

Senna never did win the Karting World Championship but he loved Mosca’s design and resolved to keep it for the rest of his career. Indeed, it became so familiar that any photo of a 1979 Brazilian kart team driver is now assumed to be of Senna.

Over the next 15 years he made only occasional adjustments, adopting a fluorescent yellow at Lotus, for example, and the design was inevitably borrowed by young would-be champions such as Alonso, Häkkinen and Hamilton. Senna was revered, yet Sid Special Paint also contributed to the helmet’s iconic status. What other livery would be instantly recognisable on a beach towel or mobile phone case 30 years after the driver’s last world championship?
Chief promoter of this legacy is the Instituto Ayrton Senna, set up by his sister, Viviane, in order to continue his charitable work for the young people of Brazil, which still commissions replica helmets from Sid Special Paint. Sid died in 2011 so it is now run by his son, Alan, and granddaughter, Stella.

Alan personifies the devotion that Senna still inspires.

When I first met Ayrton, I must have been 16 years old. From the moment we started hanging out, we developed a remarkable friendship. When I miss him, I don’t just miss the driver he was, but also the person he was. I’m very proud to continue painting his helmets, mostly for the Instituto Ayrton Senna, as it’s a way to contribute to Ayrton’s legacy. It also keeps his memory alive, and that’s very important to me – to keep on spreading his ideas.

This article was taken from the Spring 2021 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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