The motorsport ladder. You'll know it as the term used to describe a racing driver's progression from karts to professional racing, and you might also attribute it to the route climbed by engineers, aerodynamicists and team managers alike. But the concept is broader still - and can even be applied to more creative aspects of the industry. And no area is more visually significant - or personal to the driver - than the artwork which adorns their crash helmet.
There is good reason for this. Since teams and sponsors tightly govern what can be stuck on cars and race suits, the protective bit on a driver's noggin has often become the sole place for them to express creativity. In some cases, it can even become a mouthpiece to present a driver's deepest feelings; Lewis Hamilton said his lid displays the words 'Still I Rise' because of the racism he faced when passing through motorsport's ranks.
"We have to work very closely with the drivers because what we produce becomes a symbol of them as a person, like their personal brand ID," says Miles Murphy, a rising helmet art star who this year made his first step into F1. "I was out in Abu Dhabi at the pre-season test so I could get into the heads of the drivers I was designing for. This is what I'd been working towards since starting; I'd hoped for one but ended up getting three!"
The founder of MDM Designs has created the artwork for Brit racers Lando Norris of McLaren, George Russell of Williams and Alex Albon of Scuderia Toro Rosso, all of whom stepped up to motorsport's top rung for the first time in 2019. This, as you might imagine, placed an immense amount of pressure on Miles, who only four years after establishing MDM found himself in charge of designing the liveries of objects that hundreds of millions of spectators would see on television feeds the world over, not to mention the enormous number of people who'd see the artwork on scale models and video games.
"You can't underestimate the importance of the job because the drivers take the design very seriously," says Miles. "It's why I flew out to Yas Marina off my own bat to ensure I could get a head start on what the guys wanted. With each one the process is very different because helmet designing is just so personal." Miles compared George and Lando to explain the different approaches of drivers, with the former "happy to provide input and then let me do the details", while the latter clearly has a creative flair himself as he has provided illustrations and ideas for Miles to then work into the design.
Twenty-six-year-old Miles has built a close relationship with these drivers thanks to the back and forth that takes place each winter. "It's not like that for everyone," he adds, "with some people in my earlier years asking for drastic changes right at the last minute". To avoid this, Miles now produces three versions of the same design early on so drivers can be clear about the path they want to take, before it's too late. He says, "still the weeks before the start of race season can be extremely stressful; I didn't used to get much sleep and had to remind myself not to work non-stop!"
But as a racer himself in KZ1 karts - ultra-rapid 125cc machines that would shame most supercars on circuit - Miles has an in-depth understanding not only of his customers' tastes, but also the workings of a racing driver's mind. He believes this gives him an edge over rival designers - and has of course played a key part in networking for MDM Designs.
"In the few years before MDM I was designing helmets by hand for karters using templates put online by JLF [the artist who used to design Hamilton's helmets]," explains Miles. "It was at this time I got to really practice the art, learning how to work with the drivers and ask them the right questions about what they want. Karters generally want more complex designs with intricate details, so it made the job more complicated. As drivers progress up the ladder their designs get cleaner and simpler."
The reason, Miles explains, is because helmets are less visible in cars. While all 360 degrees of a karter's helmet is visible when they're out racing, the helmets of single seater and even touring car racers are partially hidden by seat head protection or high sills. There's little point in having intricate details that stretch around the back of the lid, so Miles advises drivers to go for a simpler, but more striking design that helps them stand out when in the car. It's why F1 drivers so often stick to a set formula of a few design parts, perhaps with the exception of special one-off designs, like the 1,000th F1 race specials Miles created for Lando and George.
"F1 drivers now are only allowed one 'joker' design per season, to prevent them from changing their look too often," he says. "Which only makes the design we go with more important. Lando, for example, has had over 100 helmet concepts designed by me through his career. So the one you see today is at the end of a very long evolution!"
Of the artwork that Miles has created, he reckons over 600 designs have made it onto helmets for real. Which is quite the achievement, given that he runs MDM out of his family home in Wrexham with enthusiastic mum Hayley to handle the admin. With business on the up, he's now employed an additional designer and is looking to move into an external site in a business park. And it's not just helmets, either, because Miles is trying his hand in car livery design as well - only the night before, he was contacted by an Indy team in the US requesting new artwork for their car in 24 hours. His unfinished livery sits waiting for him to return to it on the laptop he brings to our meeting.
"Most of my income stream comes from automotive website design," he adds, revealing the extent of the MDM portfolio. Arriving in F1, it seems, signals the top rung of the ladder - but not the only avenue of success for a fledgling British business.