Should F1 allow one-off liveries?

It’s somehow appropriate that Zak Brown should be the one to suggest F1 allow more flexibility over car liveries in the future — McLaren has been at the forefront of using a judicious respray to massage a sponsor relationship. In each instance, it wasn’t a chase of new money as such; more a case of keeping an existing financial partner happy.

The acquisition of Lowenbrau by Miller Beer (a subsidiary of Philip Morris) led to the McLaren M26 and M28 becoming marketing tools in North America as both cars ran in the brewing company’s colours at Watkins Glen in October 1978 and Long Beach at the beginning of the following season.

The result was eye-catching — and, therefore, arguably successful — if only because the blend of blue and white made a change from what had become an uninspiring Marlboro McLaren red and white, then in its fifth season. From memory, the first Lowenbrau iteration was more appealing than the second thanks to the Watkins Glen scheme using a darker, richer blue with gold lettering edged in white. Either way, judging by media photos generated through novelty value, the message got across.

In a bid to promote Marlboro Lights, Philip Morris used the McLaren F1 car as a marketing experiment in 1986 when Keke Rosberg’s MP4/2C appeared in yellow and white. Apart from being a slightly confusing single example (the entry for Alain Prost maintaining the usual Marlboro branding) the revised colours were literally a pale imitation and failed to work, particularly on television.

Tobacco companies have a lot to answer for when it comes to bizarre liveries. Gitanes, having been associated with Ligier since 1976, took it upon themselves to turn Martin Brundle’s car into a giant cigarette packet for the 1993 Japanese Grand Prix. It was as unsuccessful as his race, Brundle bringing the miss-mash of blue, white and black home in ninth, two laps behind the top six McLarens, Williams and Jordans, all of which carried cigarette identification of some sort.

Tobacco influence reached an extreme with the arrival of British American Racing in 1999. An attempt to run one car with Lucky Strike branding and the other in 555 colours blatantly contravened the regulation requiring a team’s cars to be uniform. On its own, each would have looked reasonable — indeed, better than some — but when, predictably, an appeal was rejected, BAR split the liveries in half with a graphic zip holding them together along the middle of the car. It may have been clever and newsworthy for about five minutes but, over the length of a season, it would appear as indecisive and messy as the entire racing programme of a team that gave the impression of having more money than sense.

When stating his case, Brown makes a favourable comparison with NASCAR and the apparent change of livery on a marketing whim. Confusion for the casual spectator is at least mitigated by the driver’s number being writ large on the car’s roof, a caveat not applicable for obvious reasons to F1, where the driver’s identification has gradually submerged beneath the necessary growth of safety structures.

For that reason, random and frequent changes — even for the best of corporate motives — would add to the bewilderment of F1 spectators trying to cope with race numbers barely legible while some cars are at a standstill, never mind when a blur of colour at speed.

But that’s not to say that Brown’s suggestion is without merit. Allowing a couple of changes (for both cars each time) during a season would engage interest and variety, particularly if the scheme was imaginative and hooked on, say, a home Grand Prix or a milestone for the team.

If he was thinking on his marketing feet, Brown could be enjoying a few free beers while celebrating a 40th anniversary at COTA with his cars decked out in blue, white and gold.