Formula 1 history is filled with liveries which, for one reason or another, have rightly become iconic - but that doesn't necessarily mean that they actually look good
Many things can contribute to a livery becoming iconic. It can be an association with a particular driver; being in use for an extended period of time; it can coincide with a particular period of success for a team.
Sometimes it’s just because they look really bloody good, and it’s this point which has compelled me to act. As I sit here writing this with my tongue wedged firmly in my cheek, I’ve decided that there are some classic liveries that people have mistakenly decided look good. Liveries, which, if you view purely as a colour scheme and strip away all of the other positive associations, are actually kinda rubbish.
So please, indulge me as I force my opinions upon you. Maybe you’ll even agree with me on some. But whatever you do, please don’t take this too seriously, because I’m certainly not.
Aside from a red Ferrari, the red and white of the Marlboro McLaren is possibly the most recognisable livery in F1 history - especially if paired with a bright yellow helmet.
Marlboro first started sponsoring McLaren in 1974, but it wasn’t until the MP4/1 of 1981 that the chevron layout of white, red, white, red stretched across the length of the car - a livery which stayed the same for 16 seasons.
The problem is, it’s a rubbish livery. White is a boring colour, and there’s too much of it, and it’s a horrible shade of red. It’s confusing too - is it even really red? It’s so bright that it straddles that horrible line of being both orange and red, depending on the lighting, as well as looking a bit cheap.
If Marlboro McLaren’s hadn’t had so much success with some of the greatest drivers in F1 history, would anyone give a crap about it? When anyone mentions the Marlboro livery as one of the best liveries of all time, they never use a picture of the 1996 MP4/11, or the Peugeot-powered MP4/9 of 1994, even though the liveries are virtually identical more successful cars, such as 1990 MP4/6 or 1985 MP4/2. The reason? It’s only a good livery when it’s associated with good cars.
Still not convinced? Well, in the early 1980s, Alfa Romeo also used a Marlboro livery, which was very similar to the McLaren one. Alfa had very little success in that era, with the only reason for the team to get TV airtime being when Andrea de Cesaris crashed it. If the Marlboro McLaren is such a good livery, then surely the Marlboro Alfa is too, right?
If anything, I actually think Alfa did it better than McLaren, simply because of the black wings.
For me, this is the perfect example of what I’m on about. Yes, the Marlboro livery is iconic, a Formula 1 classic, and undoubtedly one of the greatest liveries in the history of motor racing. But it’s not because it actually looks good.
The Brawn GP story is F1’s greatest fairytale story as a collapsed team rose from the ashes to dominate the opening races of 2009 and win both championships against the odds. With no significant sponsors to speak of, the team went for a livery that was mostly plain white - understandable, as the neutrality makes it more appealing to potential investors than if they’d gone crazy and painted it fluorescent pink, for instance. Sponsorless F1 cars these days are a rarity, and the look of the optimistically-named BGP001 went down as a classic which stands out as much now as it did back then.
But let’s be honest, once you strip away the backstory and the success, it’s a dreadful livery.
Yes, the white is obviously boring, but the really egregious thing is the splash of colour. Of all the shades to use to inject some personality in the team, why on earth did they choose hi-vis-jacket yellow!?
It’s bad enough with the bodywork accents, but to paint the wheel covers - already a hideous part of cars of the era - in a colour which draws attention to them is just horrible. Things became slightly more appealing as the season wore on and the team attracted some random sponsors, which at least gave the car the ‘backmarker chic’ look - a rare achievement for a team that isn’t actually at the back.
It’s still a bad livery though, which is a shame because shape-wise, the Brawn was arguably the most attractive car of the year. And yet, thanks to the colour scheme, it ended up looking like a default livery for an unlicensed F1 car in a budget PS2 game.
Look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that this is a horrible livery, because it isn’t. If I was being nit-picky I’d say that it’s not a particularly nice shade of green and that it’s a little bit plain, but I’m not going to deny that the overall look is incredibly attractive.
Even if it didn’t have the association of being Michael Schumacher’s first F1 car, it’d probably still be remembered as a classic.
No. What annoys me about the love for this car is that it’s taken out of the context of both the season and the team.
It’s a great livery, but 1991 was a year of phenomenal liveries and attractive cars - and I wouldn’t even put the Jordan among the top three best-looking cars of the season. Take the magnificent Minardi M191, for example…
…Or the colourful Benetton B191…
The Jordan 191 isn’t event the best looking blue and green car of the season - that’d be the Leyton House CG911.
Forget just the 1991 season, the 191 isn’t even the best looking Jordan. Pick any of the cars from 1997 to 2001 and it’d sit ahead of the 191 on my own personal ranking of Jordan liveries.
And yet, because they don’t sit on a chassis as beautifully sculpted as the 191s, it’s always that which is remembered the most fondly. And that angers me a lot more than it should do.
Aside from one or two cases, Ferrari F1 cars have always been red. And I never want that to change. But just because it’s a colour scheme with decades of history and tradition, let’s not pretend that it automatically makes it look good.
Livery-wise, most of Ferrari’s F1 cars are merely OK. There’s nothing offensive about an F2004 or a 312T, but they’re hardly paragons of design, are they?
They’re not bad liveries because they’re one flat colour. Simple, single-colour liveries can look absolutely glorious, but the majority of Ferraris are a little bit… messy. Sponsor logos often look like they’ve been applied with all the precision of pocket sand and don’t really gel with the design or shape of the cars. Plus, the era when Ferrari plonked their big, rectangular, honestly-this-isn’t-subliminal-Marlboro-advertising logo on the engine cover was horrible.
Sometimes, Ferrari tries to shake things up a bit by incorporating flashes of white, black, or sometimes a bit of gold. Any of the white-accented Ferraris are by far the worst, with the SF-16 being a particularly hideous example.
None of this is to say that Ferraris look bad. Recent cars have ditched the white and returned to black accents, which is a vast improvement. The late 80s and early 90s were a strong point, too, largely due to the way the colours in most of the sponsor logos actually seem to work well together. That’s more of a lucky coincidence than a conscious design decision, sure, but it’s still true.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though - even the best Ferrari liveries aren’t what you’d call great. Iconic? Yes. Timeless? Sure. But if placed on anything other than Ferrari, they’d just be forgettable red cars, like the Scuderia Italia Dallaras of the early 1990s.
It’s not Ferrari’s fault, though. Unless something truly crazy happens, history will doom it to using red forever and we’ll never see one with a truly breathtaking livery.
After the smart, aggressive, and understated black, white and grey of West-era McLarens, the team decided to move to a shiny, silvery chrome as a base colour, paired with Day-Glo oran- sorry, ‘rocket red’ (it’s orange).
Chrome on cars has an appeal when it’s used in small quantities to accent design features. The entire car should not be painted chrome. I do not want a car to look like a set of bathroom taps - especially not an F1 car.
Unfortunately, we had to put up with chrome McLarens for nine-and-a-bit seasons. That would have been bad enough, but of course it went on to coincide with the meteoric debut and rise of Lewis Hamilton, as well as being the last time to date that McLaren was truly competitive.
That has immortalised it as an iconic design, and it deserves to be. It’s distinctive and unique - but then again, so is a puddle of vomit on the kitchen table.
The bright orange bits just made it worse, clashing horribly with the silver and accentuating the horrible shininess of it all.
Funnily enough, when that disappeared for the 2014 car, it actually improved things dramatically. The black bits gave an overall darker appearance and made the MP4-29 look somewhat menacing - even with that nose.
In general, though, I hate the chrome. It’s become dated very quickly and I think it’s getting worse with age.
I’m well aware this is a very personal feeling and that many of you out there absolutely love it, but I was genuinely thrilled to see the back of it when McLaren ditched it ahead of the 2015 Spanish GP.
OK, the Martini Williams isn’t specifically iconic, and unless Valtteri Bottas or Lance Stroll go on to win multiple championships and establish themselves as F1 greats, I don’t think it ever will be, but hear me out.
When Williams announced it had secured Martini as title sponsors just ahead of the 2014 season, I was so excited. Martini is an iconic sponsor in motorsport, so I was looking forward to seeing a modern rendition of it on an F1 car. Perhaps we’d get something similar to what appeared on Porsche 917s in the early 1970s…
Maybe we’d see a zany design as the famous Martini stripes enveloped the entire car, as with Lancia’s race and rally cars of the 1980s…
Or there was the chance (albeit an unlikely one) that Williams would have another crack at a red livery and use one of Martini’s red colour schemes, like with late 1970s Brabhams…
Anything would have been good. After all, Martini liveries are all brilliant and it would be impossible to get it wrong, right?
Apparently not. Williams unveiled its brand new Martini-liveried FW36 and what we got was this: swathes of empty, white space, with a hint of Martini colours on the engine cover and the nose.
People lapped it up, presumably because it was a Martini livery, which automatically made it a classic. And I dunno, maybe there is something about it that you genuinely like. But I don’t think I’d ever been so disappointed in a livery.
To make matters worse, we then got pretty much exactly the same thing in subsequent years. Having a boring livery for one season is one thing, to persist with the same thing year after year is quite another.
I get why there was so much white - presumably, Martini wasn’t paying enough to demand the whole car be completely Martini-fied, and all the blank areas made it easier to sell space to other sponsors, but that doesn’t change the fact that I think it looks terrible.
In 2018, Martini’s last year, it actually got a lot better. It was a bit more colourful, and the empty white expanses had been minimised with the use of more black areas in the bottom have of the car. Still not great, but an improvement.
Even then, I still wouldn’t call it a nice livery. If there’s a Martini livery out there which is worse than Williams’ efforts, I’d like to love to know what it is. Because to call this a great F1 livery is an insult to those colour schemes which actually are great.
There are a few liveries I toyed with including, but ultimately decided not to. The black and gold Renault/Lotus liveries from the first half of the 2010s are really poor tributes to the JPS Lotuses, but I actually think that they’re starting to stand out on their own as good-looking machines, with the red flashes adding a nice twist on the theme. For a truly terrible black-and-gold livery, look no further than the Rich Energy Haas.
I also considered including the pink Force Indias and Racing Points because aside from the initial shock value of being pink, what else do they have going for them? But while the 2017 car is a bit of a mess and the 2020 car is truly awful, I did quite like the blue splashes on the 2019 car. Plus, they’re still current, which makes it difficult to judge with any degree of hindsight - and I’m not sure whether you could argue that it’s an iconic livery in the first place…
But what about you? Are there any classic liveries out there that you don’t actually think much of?
Top image (c) XPB Images