Founded in Los Angeles County in 1954, Bell began as a small auto-parts store. Under the management of Roy Richter, it evolved into a producer of safety equipment for auto racing, motorcycling and bicycling. Among other key innovations, the company claims it was the first in the world to create a motorsport helmet as well as being the inventor of the open-face helmet (itself followed by the full-face helmet) and the producer of the first helmet made entirely from carbon fibre.
Excess material being removed before the holes are drilled for the visor attachments
Over the years, Bell opened various production plants around the world but subsequently chose to bring most of them together into one facility, to increase efficiency and enhance research and development. And the site which was chosen? Bahrain, with its excellent logistics and the Bahrain International Circuit – a superb testing ground – a mere three-minute drive from the plant. This spring, the Official Ferrari Magazine was given an exclusive tour of Bell’s manufacturing facility, along with Oliver Bearman, the 17-year-old Ferrari Driver Academy pilota.
Like all visitors to the factory, the first thing that greeted Oliver was a display of helmets of drivers and champions who, like him, have used Bell helmets. They include around half the current Formula One grid, as well as past aces such as Ayrton Senna, Jochen Rindt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and Jackie Stewart.
The helmet foam and fabric are fitted together in a special shell, once removed from the mould the material is laminated and the laminated structures are then cured at high pressures and temperatures
One helmet in particular caught Bearman’s attention: badly damaged, it was the very headgear worn by Romain Grosjean in the Haas when the Swiss-French driver survived that terrible accident and fire at the 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix. The fact that the battered helmet emerged structurally sound is a source of great pride at Bell.
“It’s good to know we can rely on such effective equipment when we go racing,” Bearman said. “Motorsport has reached incredible levels of safety today.”
Bell’s facility is home to around 330 employees from 32 different countries. The building has several large rooms, each dedicated to a specific stage of helmet design and crafting. The complex production process begins in the Foam Plant and Plastic Injection Centre, where the form for the helmet’s interior parts is created.
Ferrari F1 drivers Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc both wear Bell crash helmets
Here, Polysterene Graphite beads – which are specially made for Bell – are expanded, compressed and moulded into shape. From there, the Composite Material Department gets to work on cutting the pre-impregnated carbon composite fabrics which are stored at 21 degrees below zero Celsius. The fabric is then cut and is ready to form the outside shape of the helmet.
Once the moulds are made the hands-on work really starts, as the helmets are separated into ‘male’ and ‘female’ moulds before multiple layers of carbon fibre are wrapped around them by hand to strengthen their main frames. This process takes about an hour for each helmet.
The next area is the Trim, Drill, Sanding and Primer room in which skilled workers do exactly what’s written on the door plaque. It’s a very large facility, split into sections, surrounded by racks and racks of half-finished helmets – an impressive display of head protection equipment.
The final room is where bare shells are transformed into fully operational helmets. With the paint applied, the Final Assembly area fits the rear fins, visors, radios, clips and straps onto the helmets, before they are sent off to customers.
As part of his tour, Bearman was also able to see where his own helmet had been painted, even though the workers had already gone home. “I wanted to meet the person who painted it, but he had already finished for the day. However, I got to see lots of helmets of people I know, like Liam Lawson and Lando Norris,” as well as those that Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon would use in that weekend’s racing. “I also saw a lot of replica helmets, dedicated to famous drivers,” he enthused. “And I was wondering if I will ever be successful enough to have replicas of my own helmet made here ... ”