From a yellow McLaren and Red Bulls with people's faces on to a red Jaguar with a real-life diamond, one-off colour schemes are a rare treat in F1 livery history
We often see teams experimenting with different liveries during testing, but these days its quite rare for a team to go all out and paint their cars in a completely different colour scheme for an actual race.
Sometimes it’s part of a sponsor deal, on others it’s a celebration or a commemoration. Once, it was even done as a bit of a protest. Whatever the reasons, one-off race liveries often end up being incredibly memorable for reasons good or bad. Also, we’re using the term ‘one-off’ quite loosely here - some of these liveries were used a couple of times but were too good not to include.
The Marlboro McLaren is one of the most iconic liveries in F1 history, with its simple red and white stripes remaining unchanged since 1981. Well, apart from one race.
At the 1986 Portuguese Grand Prix, Marlboro wanted to promote its new ‘gold’ brand of cigarettes. Therefore, the red on Keke Rosberg’s car (Alain Prost’s car stayed in the traditional colours) was changed to be yellow, resulting in the unusual sight of a yellow and white McLaren. In fact, it’s such an odd sight that it looks more like a faded photo than an actual yellow McLaren. It didn’t do Keke much good in the race either - he retired from fifth place with electrical failure just past half distance.
The tragedy of the 11 September attack on the Twin Towers in the USA in 2001 had far-reaching implications, to the point where there was even uncertainly over whether the Italian Grand Prix - scheduled to be held five days later - should even go ahead. It did, but without any pre- or post-race celebrations.
Several teams made adjustments to their liveries - Jordan added a large American flag to the engine cover, while Jaguar painted the airboxes black. Ferrari went a step further. The cars were stripped of every single sponsor and ran in a plain red and white livery with a black nosecone - a powerful tribute to those who lost their lives on 9/11.
Rubens Barrichello finished second to Juan Pablo Montoya, but Michael Schumacher had seemed particularly affected by the events of the week. He finished only fourth which, excluding retirements, was the only race all season in which he didn’t finish either first or second.
He’d also attempted to organise a pact between the drivers not to overtake at the first two chicanes on the opening lap - a legacy of 9/11, the death of a marshal following a first-lap crash at Monza the previous year, and the horrific injuries sustained by Alex Zanardi in a CART race the day before. A year later, Schumacher admitted that he’d considered not taking part in the race, saying that he “would have rather been anywhere else than driving.”
From the teams first F1 race in 1976 to its very last in 1996, Ligier liveries were largely the same - blue, white, and predominantly sponsored by French cigarette brand Gitanes (though they were replaced by Gauloises in 1996).
Even a departure into a special one-off colour scheme stuck to that same formula. For the last two races in 1993 (which I guess technically makes it a two-off livery), Martin Brundle’s car was decked out in a special livery, while Mark Blundell had to deal with the normal (but still rather smart.jpg)) design on his JS39.
Designed by Italian comic book author Hugo Pratt at the behest of Gitanes, the design took the term ‘title sponsor’ to a whole new level by essentially ditching all the other logos on the car and adding an oversized Gitanes logo across the length of the car, complete with the logo of the dancing woman (Gitanes means ‘gypsy woman’ in French).
The result was this delightfully abstract mixture of geometric shapes and colour patches - it was different, but still very obviously a Ligier. Brundle drove the car to ninth in Japan and then scored a point for sixth in Australia.
Ferrari F1 cars should always be red, right? Wrong! In 1964, Ferrari was embroiled in a dispute with the FIA over the homologation of its new endurance racer, the 250 LM. To be allowed to race, 100 road-going examples of the car had to be built and the story goes that the previous year, Ferrari had managed to pull the wool over the FIA’s eyes by strategically moving the same group of cars around the factory when the inspectors were distracted to make it look like they had 100.
The following year the FIA had become wise to this trick after protests from rival teams and refuse to sign off on the 250LM. Incensed, Enzo Ferrari went to the Italian motorsport governing body, the ACI, and asked them to back him up. When they refused, Enzo responded by saying that he’d never paint his cars in Rosso Corsa - the national racing colours of Italy - ever again. With two races in the F1 season left to go, he sent his Ferrari 158s off to North America painted in blue and white, the colours of the North American Racing Team (NART), which had run Ferraris racing efforts in America. To further add to Enzo’s protest, the cars were officially entered by NART, and not Ferrari.
The blue and white Ferraris ended up playing a big part in F1 history, too. John Surtees finished second at Watkins Glen and then, when Graham Hill had issues and Jim Clark retired from the last race in Mexico, teammate Lorenzo Bandini allowed Surtees past into second on the final lap - enough for Surtees to clinch the championship. That not only made him the first (and so far only) person to win world championships on both two and four wheels, but the only person to win the title in a Ferrari that wasn’t red.
Ferrari eventually resolved the dispute and the following year, its cars were back painted in the familiar red. That wasn’t the only time the team ran one of its cars in a different colour, though - at Spa in 1961, Belgian driver Olivier Gendebien had his sharknose Ferrari painted yellow.
Mercedes had a ton of stuff to celebrate at the 2019 German GP. As well as being title sponsors of the race, it also coincided with the 125th anniversary of Mercedes’ motorsport activity. Plus, y’know, there was all the F1 success - or rather domination - of the past few years, and this was the race where they’d decided to allow Netflix’s Drive to Survive crew access to the team.
As a result, the team decided to go with a commemorative livery, with the front of the car being painted white before peeling into silver - a nod to the (not entirely true) story of how Mercedes had to strip the white paint from its cars at the last minute before a race in the 1930s in order to meet a maximum weight limit.
It wasn’t just the cars that got a makeover, either. Mechanics and team personnel all donned vintage clothes, with Toto Wolff dressing like former legendary Mercedes team boss Alfred Neubauer.
Now, we’re not saying that the special livery was cursed, but Valtteri Bottas crashed out and Lewis Hamilton spun his way to ninth, having felt sick all weekend. It was the team’s third-worst race result in the hybrid era. Toto Wolff suggested after the race that it had all been a distraction, saying:
“It shows that you shouldn’t fool around with stuff, you should concentrate on the job. We are not superstitious but we believe in karma.”
At the 2004 Monaco Grand Prix, Jaguar had struck a deal to promote the upcoming Ocean’s Twelve movie. This meant all the usual things - the stars of the films were in and around the paddock, the drivers had special black overalls, and the normally gorgeous green livery of the Jaguar R5 sprouted red Ocean’s Twelve branding on the nose and the engine cover.
It looked like a bit of a mess to be honest, but that’s not what’s interesting about it. Oh no, what makes this livery special is the fact that real diamonds worth $300,000 each were placed on the nosecones of both Mark Webber’s and Christian Klien’s cars - a marketing stunt which seems ludicrous whichever way you cut it, but which evidently went through enough stages of approval to actually make it on to the cars for the race.
It seems the only people who didn’t think it was a good idea were the insurance companies - apparently, they’d all decided not to provide cover in the instance one was damaged or went missing.
Even if you’ve never heard the story, you know where this is going, don’t you? A pair of expensive diamonds, located right at the end of one of the most vulnerable pieces of an F1 car, placed on the nosecones of a pair of midfield cars around the tightest and most challenging circuit on the calendar. That’s just an accident looking for somewhere to happen.
And sure enough, it happened. On the first lap of the race, Klien was eliminated in a crash.
By the time the team was allowed to go and recover the bits of the car at the end of the race, the diamond had gone. Whether it had become dislodged in the impact and rolled down a drain or pocketed by an opportunistic marshal, who knows.
Surprisingly, the practice of putting expensive gemstones on fragile racing cars never caught on…
An altogether more successful F1-movie tie-in came a year later, when the fun-loving Red Bull team helped promote Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith at the 2005 Monaco GP.
It did little to go against the theme of special liveries negatively impacting performance as both David Coulthard and Tonio Liuzzi crashed out, making it the first race in Red Bull Racing’s history that the team didn’t score points. But to be honest, who cares when the livery looks this good?
And that wasn’t even the coolest thing about it - that’d be the fact that the mechanics were dressed up as stormtroopers.
This would be the first in a long line of Red Bull running special liveries. In 2006, again at Monaco, the cars had a Superman livery.
Coulthard bucked the trend of the one-off livery curse by scoring the teams first podium, where he donned a cape on the podium and caused Christian Horner to jump naked in the harbour, the result of a pre-race bet.
Coulthard had another one-off livery on his car at the 2008 Brazilian GP. Decked out in white to promote Red Bull’s Wings for Life charity and commemorate what was to be DC’s final race, unfortunately it only lasted two corners as he collided with Kazuki Nakajima’s Williams.
There was another Wings for Life livery in 2012, this time at the British GP. It was made up with the faces of more than 25,000 fans, each of whom had donated to the charity in order to get their photo on the car.
Both cars ended up on the podium, with Mark Webber taking the last win of his career ahead of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.
There have been some other good one-off liveries, too. In the 1977 Japanese GP, Lotus replaced the black and gold of JPS with the red and gold of Imperial, while in the North American rounds of 1978 and 1979, McLaren had blue Lowenbrau liveries instead of their early Marlboro colour schemes.
Which is your favourite one-off race livery? Let us know in the comments!
Top image (c) XPB Images