When you think about a crash helmet, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is no more than a piece of safety equipment. But that's not the case for the world's top rally drivers who treat this piece of driving equipment as if it was a work of art.

Skoda Motorsport crews are not an exception. One has the Octavia WRC on it as the main motif, another has it painted in his homeland colours, a third has a cartoon cat and the fourth must have it shiny clean at all times.

Until the early sixties the wearing of safety crash helmets, even in Formula One, was not mandatory. But as the speeds climbed and safety became ever more of an issue, the wearing of approved standard safety helmets became the rule for first two wheel and then four wheel drivers.

Today the FIA has made it compulsory for rally drivers to wear helmets on competitive stages and encourages both them and their co-drivers to keep them on for all road stages. Although the safety helmets have to comply with strict standards in terms of weight and structure, within clearly defined limits drivers are able to adapt the helmets from their original plain white design.

So with the arrival of sophisticated composite materials, drivers and co-drivers today like to use the helmets to reflect their own personality, using different colours and patterns to show off their individuality and as a talisman to bring them luck. The team members of the Skoda Motorsport World Rally Team are no exception and all of them have projected their own personalities on this most fundamental piece of safety equipment.

Skoda Motorsport's Armin Schwarz is perhaps the driver who has the most interest in his safety helmet, altogether owning eight of them, five full face and three open ones. Most of the time his fans can see him in the Octavia WRC with the full face type primarily for safety reasons. He only uses his open face types for very hot events such as the Cyprus or Acropolis rallies.

On every event he, like all other Skoda Motorsport team drivers, carries one spare helmet. It would be hard for anyone to miss the exceptional design chosen by Schwarz for his safety helmet, something about which the 38 year old is extremely proud: ''I don't like single coloured helmets. The chief designer of the brand of my helmet, Uvex, made up the design for me based on my idea. You can see the front of the Octavia WRC in the front of the helmet and the back of the car at the back of the helmet. On the sides it slightly mimics the colour of the German flag. The design also includes the logos of my sponsors and my web page address.''

But the real German patriot is his co-driver Manfred Hiemer from Strarnberg in Bavaria. Even though his helmet originated at Sparco, in Italy, the main motifs are in the blue and white colours of his Bavarian homeland. The colours then blend slightly into a red and white combination, the colours of Monaco, which according to Hiemer brings him luck.

The 40 year old co-driver adds: ''Like Armin I have the drawing of an Octavia WRC on mine, but I use only full face helmet without any exceptions, not only for safety reasons but also because it is a much better silencer. The full face helmets turn the outside noise down to only 25 decibels, which is quite valuable especially in rallying."

Fellow co-driver Stephane Prevot, 32, also favours a full face helmet. In addition to showing off his patriotic side, his helmet provides him with an opportunity to show off his character. The helmet is in the national colours of Belgium and for the last six years it has also carried the same graphic, a caricature of Silvester the Cat from the Warner Bros. cartoons ''Sweetie and Silvester."

Prevot says the explanation is simple: ''Silvester is a funny cat. He is so expressive and has no worries at all. The main thing is that he never panics and that's exactly what my friends say about me. So I really identify with him and now you can say that the helmet with his drawing is kind of a talisman for me.''

The only one of Skoda Motorsport team members to prefer an open-face helmet is thirty-eight year old Bruno Thiry (pictured). His preference is due to the relative weight of the open-face helmet which is manufactured from the best composite material, combining the carbon and glass fibres, and weighs in at about 1300 grams, around 200 grams less than the full face version.

Thiry, unlike team mate Schwarz, is not as interested in the design of his helmet, more in the practicalities. Thiry explains: "I have two helmets that I carry to each event, to be able to still wear an open face one if one gets damaged. I use open faced ones because it is lighter and my head does not sweat so much. I do not really care much about an exceptional design and I have used the same combination of yellow, silver and pink colours for ten years now. The only additions I have on my helmet is my name and blood type. But I do pay a great deal of attention in making sure it is cleaned and shiny, that is my recipe for a good result.''