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The long corridor of race trophies is a famous feature of the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, England. Less well known is McLaren’s equally stunning collection of original race helmets, worn by some of the most famous drivers in the team’s history.
The team’s founder in 1963
Slightly faded and with fraying elastic on the goggles, this helmet is nevertheless one of the most precious objects to be found at the McLaren Technology Centre. It belongs, of course, to the company founder, Bruce McLaren, and dates from 1970. By that time full-face helmets were the norm in Formula 1™ – American driver Dan Gurney had introduced them to grand prix racing in 1968, and they had been quickly adopted by the entire grid. But Bruce didn’t wear this in a Formula 1™ race – in fact, this helmet design was made famous during Bruce's very sucessful time in Can-Am.
McLaren driver 1974-1975
The label on the visor shows this helmet is from Emerson Fittipaldi’s post-McLaren years – he left at the end of 1975 to join his brother’s Copersucar-Fittipaldi team. But this helmet was acquired by McLaren to represent one of the most popular drivers in the team’s history. When Emerson joined McLaren in 1974, he was already a former World Champion; McLaren, meanwhile, was still finding its feet after losing its founder in 1970. Emerson helped galvanise the team to win its first Formula 1™ drivers’ and constructors’ titles in 1974. In 1975 he almost repeated his success, finishing second. Over forty years on, he remains a good friend to the team.
McLaren driver 1976-1978
James Hunt’s arrival at McLaren in 1976 was a marriage of convenience: Hunt’s previous team, Hesketh, folded at the end of 1975; then Emerson Fittipaldi unexpectedly quit McLaren. Former McLaren Team Manager Alastair Caldwell remembers Hunt calling on the phone to say, ‘Hello, I think I’m your new Grand Prix driver.’ Convenient or not, the relationship was a success, and Hunt won the 1976 drivers’ title after a tumultuous battle with Niki Lauda. Hunt's iconic helmet features the colours of his school, Wellington College.
McLaren driver in 1977
Gilles Villeneuve has been an iconic figure since his death during qualifying for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix. Despite being closely associated with arch-rivals Ferrari, Villeneuve got his break in Formula 1™ with McLaren in 1977. Villeneuve had raced and beaten James Hunt in a Formula Atlantic race in Canada in 1976, and the British driver had returned home and recommended the French Canadian to the team. In the end, Villeneuve raced for McLaren just once, at the 1977 British GP, where he finished 10th; but this helmet (dating from 1980) was added to the collection in memory of Villeneuve’s place in McLaren’s history.
McLaren driver 1980 & 1984-1989
Alain Prost is one of the few drivers who drove for McLaren twice in his career. The team gave him his first drive in Formula 1™ in 1980, after he was crowned European F3 champion the previous year; Alain then left to drive for Renault for three seasons, before returning to McLaren in 1984. Now run by Ron Dennis and fielding the ground-breaking carbon fibre McLaren MP4/2, the team had been transformed in those three years. Alain won his first race back with the team in Brazil, and over the next six seasons he won three world titles with McLaren. There are several Prost helmets in McLaren’s collection, including this one from 1988.
McLaren driver 1988-1993
Is there a more famous helmet in Formula 1™ history? Ayrton Senna certainly became the most famous driver in the world when he drove for McLaren between 1988 and 1993. He won three world titles with the team, and his epic battles with Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell moved Formula 1™ from the sports pages to the front pages. Since his death in 1994, Senna has been the subject of countless books, articles, and (in 2010) a memorable documentary movie, transforming him from a successful sportsman into a sporting legend. Holding one of the two yellow, green and blue helmets in the McLaren collection is enough to make your hands tremble.
McLaren driver 1993-2001
Once described by Ron Dennis as ‘the most loyal driver we ever had at McLaren’, Mika Häkkinen raced for the team for nine seasons, through thick and thin. Winning two world championships were the obvious high points – Mika took the fight to Michael Schumacher and won back to back titles in 1998 and 1999. But there were also the lows: like the catastrophic tyre failure during qualifying for the 1995 Australian GP that put Mika into a concrete wall. He fractured his skull and his life was only saved by the actions of the FIA doctor, Sid Watkins. Mika had more reason than most to value his race helmet – this one dates from 1998, his first championship-winning year.
McLaren driver in 1995
Nigel Mansell only raced for McLaren twice, but as a former World Champion and a huge character in the sport, his place in the team’s history is marked with this helmet. Mansell was signed to drive in 1995 – at 41, he was the oldest driver on the grid, but victory in the 1994 Australian GP had shown he still had the speed to win. Unfortunately, the 1995 McLaren MP4/10 proved too small for him in testing, and Mansell missed the first two races while a wider ‘tub’ was built (in just 33 days!). After a difficult race in San Marino, where he finished tenth, Mansell was running a lap down in the Spanish GP when he decided he’d had enough: he parked the car and retired from the sport.
McLaren driver 2002-2006
Kimi Räikkönen may not smile much in media interviews, but there’s certainly a playful side to his personality. Evidence for that can be found in his helmet designs – Kimi was one of the first Formula 1™ drivers to start regularly changing his helmet (a practice now banned by the sport’s governing body). Over the years Kimi has sported colour schemes of white and blue, red and blue, and more recently red and black. He also famously wore a James Hunt tribute helmet in 2012. McLaren has over 20 of Kimi’s helmets in its collection, ranging from his first year with the team in 2002, to this example from his last season with McLaren in 2006.
McLaren driver 2007-2012
Lewis Hamilton’s relationship with McLaren goes back to 1995, when – as a 10-year-old karting champion – he approached Ron Dennis at an awards evening in London and told him he wanted to drive for the team. The McLaren Chairman nurtured Lewis through his early career, and gave him his break in Formula 1™ in 2007. After an astonishing debut season, Hamilton won the world title on his second attempt in 2008, driving the McLaren MP4-23. His helmet’s yellow paint scheme was originally the idea of Hamilton’s father, Anthony – it helped dad spot his 10-year-old son amid a swarming pack of karts, whilst paying tribute to Lewis' hero, Ayrton Senna.
McLaren driver 2010-present
The 2009 World Champion is now in his seventh season with McLaren, and there are six of his helmets in the collection. All of them feature the same basic design – the ‘JB’ initials and the Union Jack flag – but over the years Jenson has made several modifications. The most radical change came a couple of years ago, when Jenson wore a bright pink version as a tribute to his father John, who passed away in January 2014 (John always wore a ‘lucky’ pink shirt on race day). This example dates from 2011, and features a special ‘Support Japan’ message, which Jenson wore following the Japanese Tsunami which occurred in March of that year.