Every race driver has that identity that every one can point out either out on track or on the television, which is through their race helmet design, with drivers such as two-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton being one of the most recognized on the planet.
Behind the look that is created for a specific driver, there is a talented designer that is hard at work making that look the very best it cane be, with special editions being requested for certain marquee events. The man that has been behind Lewis’ designs that we have seen over the last 15 years is Suffolk-based helmet designer, Jason Fowler.
Jason, who runs JLF Designs, has been working with Lewis since 1999, and the collaboration between these two people has gone from strength to strength over the years, with Jason having provided some great special editions for the Stevenage racer, which includes tributes to the late Ayrton Senna and the race-winning design that Hamilton sported at the US GP back in 2012.
Jason was kindly able to speak to Nationwide Vehicle Contracts during the recent Autosport International Show, where he openly discussed about getting involved in race helmet designs, his association with Lewis and the late Dan Wheldon, as well as how much work there actually goes into each design.
Nationwide Vehicle Contracts: Jason, Thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us here at Nationwide Vehicle Contracts. You’re currently the man that is working with a two-time Formula One Champion in the form of Lewis Hamilton. How did you come to start working with him?
JF: I started working back with him in 1999, when he was karting, having just come out of cadets, when he approached us for doing his race helmets for the next season.
We already knew who he was, as he was on the radar and was going places, which meant that we were more than happy to work with him.
NVC: You competed in the motorbike arena yourself, that you still do to this day, which led to the work you do now. Graphic design is rather intricate and a lot of ”old-school” designers were using paintbrushes to apply the designs.
However, you came in and revolutionized the industry, through the use of airbrush technology. How did you get involved through graphic design, as well as how people can create their own identities?
JF: In the mid 80s, even when I was still at school, helmet designs in the industry were taking off in America, with a lot of new ideas coming in. I used to follow it and was a big fan, never really thinking that I’d make a living from it.
I started off by painting my own helmets and did that for fun, but I then got my hands on an airbrush, where there was no training for this type of equipment. It was a bit of a “dark art” with secret techniques, so I trained myself, really.
It was possibly the best way of doing it, as I learnt so many different techniques along the way. However, the company that I was working with as a graphic designer ended up going bust. So I was halfway through working on some designs for some friends and thought: “How long can this last?” I’ve been going ever since, some 24 years later.
NVC: You also worked with the late Dan Wheldon, a great name over in the States when it came to Indycar. He must have been a great character to work with?
JF: He was a really great guy to work with, very down to earth as well. He was really friendly and such great fun to work for, as he had no set designs for his helmet. He didn’t want to see the designs, so as long as the sponsor logos were in the right places, it was all ok with him. It was great, because if there was something that I wanted to try out, it usually got tested on Dan’s first.
NVC: So he basically gave you ‘carte blanche’ to do your work?
JF: Yes, and it all seemed to work really well.
NVC: As your reputation precedes you, you were invited to be a part of the Helmet Art display at the 2006 Indianapolis Grand Prix by Red Bull, which is a nice recognition of what you had achieved until that point. How did that happen, when Red Bull approached you?
Another helmet designer in the US, called Mike Corby, who did a lot of work for Red Bull, put it together. They asked him and a few other painters to create this exhibition, as well as putting together the painters that would be a part of it.
They picked 12 from around the world, and because of my work with Dan and how well he was known in Indycar at the time, I got the invitation by email on the Monday morning, whilst it was raining rather heavily outside. I put the computer on, and this was the first thing that came through, so I couldn’t quite believe it to be honest.
NVC: Every driver’s helmet design ends up evolving over time, with Lewis’ current design being a heavily advanced evolution at the moment. How much input is there from yourself and Lewis, when you are both working together, when he is looking for something different, or there is a one-off special design that ends up being commissioned? How long does the process itself take from initial design to the finished product?
JF: It can be a long process, because the one thing with special editions are the themes that are being covered, then being approved by the relevant levels within the team, that it is correct at every point of the process.
That is one of the most constant things, when it comes to the amounts of labour hours it takes, because one of the comments that we have had at the Autosport Show is about the amount of detail that goes into the designs themselves. A lot of the detail itself gets lost of the TV coverage, but the drivers want to see detail on the helmets, as well as a lot of special effects.
So some of the special editions, like Lewis’ Monaco helmet took around 70 to 80 hours, and that was a heavily free styled design, which was something that we couldn’t show via a computer rendition. The artwork on the back was done via freehand with the airbrush, so as I carried on, there was more that I wanted to. It got to the point where it was just three days before the race itself, where I really needed to send the helmet off and get it ready for Lewis.
NVC: Then there is the ‘Skull I Rise” project that is on display that you gave your touch to. How did that come around for you to be involved with?
JF: I got involved with it about a year ago, when Paul Oz approached me with this idea of doing some projects together, which included paintings and other ideas. We did the “Senna” skull together, as well as the overhead on Lewis, where I did the car and he painted the helmet, which even with the contrasting styles, it really worked well together.
It got a really good reaction last year when Paul was exhibiting, so we decided to muck in together, have a stand that all four of us, which also includes Black Badger’s James Thompson and Racing Gold’s John Haigh, where we could all be in the same place, rather than being dotted around.
It’s gone really well and this year’s sculpture has had a really good reaction, especially with the previous ones that have been done. We wanted to do something to celebrate Lewis’ championship, but we wanted to put something in, where it didn’t look like that it had been involved in an accident. (laughs)
So I came up with the idea of removing a lot of the actual helmet itself, leaving the base of the design itself as a part of, like the band with the Monster Energy logo on it, the bits at the front and the back. So it is around half of the helmet itself that is actually not there, but you can still recognize it because of the parts that are still there.
It’s done in a way that you can see right through it, see everything inside, which includes Paul and John’s work. It’s come together so well that we are really pleased with it.
NVC: Through all the work that you have done with Lewis over the years, it would be understandable to have a tough decision to choose which is your favourite design that you’ve worked on. It’s more like having to choose out of all your “children,” so to speak. Is there any one of them that stands out in particular to you?
JF: I like different ones for different reasons, but the one that is designed for 2012 for the first US GP in Texas. One of the main reasons that I like that one is that there was not going to be a special edition created for that race, but at the last minute, they had decided that one was going to be needed.
So there was no real time to work out any renditions or any designs, so I had to say to Lewis and McLaren that there is a design in my head, but there was not the time to put it onto a layout. There were told that they wouldn’t know what they were going to get until it arrived, so I did the helmet design and was really pleased with how it came out. It got there in time for the race, which he ended up winning, so as far as I know, it’s also one of Lewis’ favourites as well.
NVC: It even goes to show that in a high-pressure situation like that, it shows that some great work can be produced. How long was the turnaround for that particular special edition? Less than a week?
JF: I know it was less than a week, with me getting no real sleep over a thirty-six hour period. Yes, there were times when the paints were drying, but there were other aspects that I had to concentrate on to help get the helmet out on time. Even though there was a deadline that I had to have it completed by, there were still times when I was adding parts to the design itself here and there.
NVC: So even when you say to Lewis that “you’ve got to trust me on this,” the actual creative process doesn’t really stop when the design is being applied?
JF: I had the design in my head, but the best ones come along when we’re given half the brief to do, but the other half is left quite open. That means we can evolve it around that, apart from when we get a brief from a driver where the layout is on paper around an inch thick.
We get a brief that is designed inch-by-inch, ready to go, where there is no flexibility to work around that, whereas it’s better when there is a good amount of flexibility.
This eclectic working partnership between Jason and Lewis still shows no signs of slowing down, as the 2015 season is already underway with Lewis and Nico Rosberg testing the new Mercedes AMG Petronas W06 Hybrid ahead of the first race at Melbourne this coming March.
The fact that each helmet that is provided to Lewis by Jason has so much more in terms of intricacies than you would actually think. This was especially the case when I took a look at the 2012 Singapore special edition that had their national flag as part of the design, which also had a lot of metallic flake incorporated to add that high-sparkle effect.
We’d like to thank Jason for taking the time to talk to us here at Nationwide Vehicle Contracts, and give us a wonderful and revealing insight into how designs are thought out and how it all comes together. (For more from our Track Talk series, you can read more interviews here.)