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Racing Colours

Why are Ferraris always red? Why are Mercedes called the Silver Arrows? And why pink for a Formula 1 car? With the 2024 Grand Prix season kicking off this weekend, we look at the stories behind the F1 teams’ colour schemes.

As the cars line up on the grid at Bahrain International Circuit for the inaugural race of the Grand Prix 2024 season, the viewer is confronted with a pack of F1 racing cars decorated in colour palettes ranging from the garish to the elegant. To the outsider it might seem like an explosion in a paint and signwriters’ factory complex, but a lot of time and effort goes into livery design, just as many online hours are devoted by the F1 cognoscenti to discussing the aesthetics and semiotics of the bodywork on display out there on the track.

In fact, the colour scheme of a grand prix car has always had a significance beyond mere pigment. In the inaugural Monaco GP of 1929, a privateer (as opposed to an official “works” driver) registered as W Williams entered his new Bugatti 35B. Most Bugattis of the time were painted a light blue, but Williams was keen to emphasise his nationality (he was actually an Anglo-Frenchman called William Grover-Williams, hiding his identity because he was a humble chauffeur whose rich lover had bought him the car). So, he had his 35B re-sprayed green, the colour that usually represented a UK car, much to the initial dismay of Ettore Bugatti himself. Williams’ version was a slightly darker hue than normally used by the other Brits and, legend has it, Monaco ‘29 was the first outing for what became known as British Racing Green.

The lighter form of this iconic colour had been around from the earliest days of motorsport, since 1903, when a team of British cars entered an international road race in Ireland, where there were no speed limits. The organiser had suggested the entrants reflect their country of origin in the paint job of their cars. Other nationalities had quickly snapped up the red, white and blue colour schemes that might reflect the Union Jack, so the British contingent opted for a “shamrock” green, in homage to the Emerald Isle (which, of course, was part of the UK back then). Green was quickly adopted as the British livery by the likes of Sunbeam and Bentley and this continued into the 1950s and 60s – with Grover-Williams’ darker version by then the accepted shade – with Vanwall, Cooper and Lotus resplendent in BRG. The tradition continues to this day with the Aston Martin F1 team.

There are three main elements dictating the colour design of an F1 car: the company heritage, the nationality of the team and, in the past 50 years, sponsorship. In the decades after WW2, motorsport advertisers were content with a few stickers on the bodywork. That all changed when Lotus introduced the all-over black-and gold John Player Special livery, which made the car look like a high-powered cigarette packet. Soon, companies such as Gulf, Rothmans and Martini were entering sports cars completely decked out in company colours. Red Bull cars typically reflect the colours of the energy drink, as did its Toro Rosso secondary team until they changed names to AlphaTauri in 2019 to promote the company’s fashion brand. Martini sponsored Williams between 2014 and 2018 and the cars were white with red and blue stripes and featured a prominent decal of the drink company’s logo. In fact, Williams had also changed its usual blue-based colour scheme in 1998 and 1999, when it was sponsored by Winfield (an Australian offshoot of Rothmans) and ran in red with white and gold details.

 In F1 terms red, of course, means Ferrari, not Williams, and the Italians objected, claiming it was all too confusing for the spectator. Actually, America had used red for its cars back in that 1903 Irish meeting, but after WW1 the USA faded from the European racing scene and in the 1920s International Automobile Federation (the FIA) required all Italian cars to race in red. Since its debut in F1 in 1948, Ferrari has stuck to rosso corso – racing red – although the exact shade has varied over the years (buyers of the road cars can choose from seven different reds). The current hue is known as F1-75 Opaco, and, like many teams, it has been selected to have the maximum “pop” on television, so that the Ferraris stand out from the crowd.

Mercedes has, of course, recently gone all-black to reflect its support for the Black Lives Matter movement, though it reverted to silver for 2022, reclaiming the title of the Silver Arrows. For Lewis Hamilton’s last season with Mercedes this year before he switches to Ferrari in 2025, the newly unveiled livery merges both black and silver in a sleek and contemporary design. The Silver Arrows name and colour scheme dates from the early 1930s, when technologically sophisticated and blisteringly fast new German racing cars from Mercedes and Auto Unions were unveiled. Traditionally, Mercedes-Benz racers had been white, but its awesome W25 was slightly over the weight limits laid down by the FIA for Grand Prix cars. Team boss Alfred Neubauer claimed he ordered the white paint stripped off the bodywork, leaving the raw aluminium to shine and (just) making the weight. Auto Union followed suit. The Silver Arrows were born (or so the story goes – Neubauer was something of a fabulist) and it is likely Mercedes will stick to silver as its base colour for the foreseeable future.

So red, green, silver…. But what of pink? Pink certainly “pops” on TV, but how on earth did it become a feature of the starting grid? It began with Force India, which grew out of Eddie Jordan’s team (subsequently and briefly named Midland and Stryker). Force India debuted in 2008, originally in an orange, green and white colour scheme related to sponsor Kingfisher. In 2017, it gained a new sponsor in BWT, an Austrian company that manufactures water treatment systems. Pink is the company’s corporate shade and BWT boss Andreas Weissenbacher has said: ‘It is much more than a colour. Pink stands for a big mission to make every day the world a little bit better.’ The association – and colour scheme – remained in place when Force India became Racing Point in 2019, but the team then morphed into Aston Martin F1.

However, the colour has not disappeared from the grid altogether. BWT is now a headline sponsor for the Alpine Team (previously Renault, which still owns it, and before that the very colourful Benetton outfit). In the first two races of the 2022 season, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Alpine ran a predominately pink car with blue panels at the rear of its A522. It then reversed the colour scheme, with the car mostly blue with pink highlights for the rest of the season, which continued into 2023. The newly unveiled 2024 livery elegantly balances the striking combination of black, blue and bubblegum pink, with BWT CEO Weissenbacher commenting: ‘My big dream is to do everything in pink.’ For some reason, we find ourselves entirely in agreement with the sentiment.