McLaren 2021 Monaco Grand Prix Gulf livery

The change which allowed McLaren and other F1 teams to run one-off liveries

2021 F1 season

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Back in February 1999 the newly-formed British American Racing team was testing at Kyalami ahead of its debut season, the singleton car present at the circuit bedecked in metallic blue complemented by the gold logos of its majority shareholder British American Tobacco.

BAT had decided to spare no expense in promoting its primary brands – Lucky Strike and 555 – ahead of an expected ban on tobacco advertising and figured F1’s global reach provided the most cost-effective platform for its marketing campaign. Cue the funding of a new team operating out of turn-key facilities in Brackley, England that have since delivered multiple titles for Brawn and Mercedes, but not a single win for BAR.

The programme hinged upon entering a car in the colours of each of the two brands, so one car in the white/red/black of Lucky Strike and another in the blue/yellow of 555. Indeed, the team launched its cars in those liveries in early January despite the 1999 F1 regulations for the first time including a clause stipulating that largely identical liveries for both cars.

Team boss (and shareholder) Craig Pollock called the clause “unconstitutional”, then challenged the FIA in the Lausanne-based International Chamber of Commerce, where arbitrators unanimously found against the team. I was with Pollock at Kyalami when the verdict was handed down, and the shock was clear to see – particularly as potential sanctions included suspension from the championship for bringing F1 into disrepute.

Original 1999 BAR livery
Original 1999 BAR ‘555’ livery

Original 1999 BAR livery
Original 1999 BAR ‘Lucky Strike’ livery

BAR’s eventual solution to the livery wrangle looked like this
However, Craig stressed that the team had a Plan B: the two cars would be liveried identically, one brand per side separated by a giant zipper down the centre. The revised colour scheme satisfied BAT’s commercial requirements despite looking super-naff, and, of course, complied fully with FIA regulations, then administered by a governing body presided over by Max Mosley.

However, the livery clause was tightened further in subsequent versions of F1’s sporting regulations, with the latest provisions reading: Both cars entered by a Competitor must be presented in substantially the same livery at every Event, any significant change to this livery during a Championship may only be made with the agreement of the FIA and [F1] the Commercial Rights Holder.

The key words are, of course, ‘with the agreement of the FIA and the Commercial Rights Holder’ as these suggest a modicum of flexibility provided that any requests are justifiable and that the alternate livery is becoming of what is a world championship. That said, the governing body appears to be more pragmatic than it once was, while F1 obviously welcomes any initiative that generates provides additional

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This flexibility was evident during the 2019 German Grand Prix, when Mercedes raced under special white-fading-to-silver heritage colours to celebrate 100 years of motorsport participation. The team had cause to regret tempting fate, for the event was an unmitigated disaster for them. Team boss Toto Wolff later remarked: “It simply could not go much worse,” adding, “It shows you shouldn’t fool with stuff.”

Mercedes, Hockenheimring, 2019
“You shouldn’t fool with stuff” rued Wolff after Hockenheim 2019
Ferrari, too, tempted fate last year by pitching in historic scarlet for (officially) its 1,000th grand prix, held at the Mugello circuit, owned by the company. The team’s own race report says it all:

“It was a chaotic race, red flagged twice because of crashes which meant there was a total of three starts off the grid. The SF1000s struggled to fight in the pack, even though Charles [Leclerc] got a great start and was third for a few laps. Sebastian [Vettel’s] race got difficult right after the start as he was involved in a first lap incident, incurring damage which dropped him to the back of the pack.”

The moral seems clear…

Now comes news that McLaren will race under a special Gulf livery in Monaco, having obtained all the necessary approvals, with McLaren racing CEO saying it was an “easy approval”.

“[The change] requires FIA and Formula 1 approval,” he said. “You submit to them your design and your rationale, and they all loved it and approved it.”

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Mugello, 2020
Retro livery made little difference to Ferrari’s dire 2020 season
Three years ago Brown urged F1 to allow teams to run special liveries, citing Monaco as an example of a race where he hoped to introduce a one-off design. Now he’s got his way.

“It used to be something that the teams would have to vote on, but that governance has changed,” Brown explained. “[It was] a bit silly that some teams should have says over what other teams look like. So, fortunately it was an easy approval with the FIA and Formula 1.”

Brown made clear that any changes to liveries should have a clear purpose – in this case celebrating a partnership that harks back to 1968 with team founder Bruce McLaren: “A change should not confuse the fans or result in a team losing its identity,” Brown said during the livery launch last week, details of which were embargoed until yesterday.

“But at the same time, I think to do something a few times a year that’s special I think creates some excitement and some additional engagement with the fans.

“At this point we only intend to run it at Monaco. I think if you’re going to have a special livery, you need to keep it special. It’s something, as you all know, isn’t done that often in Formula 1.”

McLaren 2021 Monaco Grand Prix Gulf livery
McLaren will hope for better luck with their one-off colour scheme
There are no doubts that the Gulf livery is striking, as were the Mercedes and Ferrari heritage liveries before it, but in F1 the acid test is results, and not fancy historic colours. Thus the big question ahead of Monaco is: Will McLaren and Gulf beat F1’s heritage livery bogey?

Brown is hopeful fortune will be kinder to them than it was to Mercedes. “I think that had to be a coincidence,” he says.

“The weather was tricky so drivers were chucking it off the track. If I remember Lewis had a call to ‘come in to the pits’, ‘not come into the pits’. I don’t see how that tied back to that.”

Glancing at Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo in their duck egg-blue overalls, he added: “When these guys put their helmet on, they’re going to forget what the race car looks like other than the steering wheel and the two tyres in front of them. So I’m not worried about that at all.”

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Author information

Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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25 comments on “The change which allowed McLaren and other F1 teams to run one-off liveries”

  1. I was wondering around when this got changed, and see no harm in it, it’s just a bit of ‘fun’ more than anything, and I’m sure Zak got a few extra pennies from Gulf for doing it. I think the nature of it is quite different to what BAR were trying to do.

  2. This will probably offend everyone but I absolutely loved the 1999 BAR. Showed the kind of ingenuity that F1 is famous for in maximising the ‘grey areas’ of the rule book. And both sides of the car look really smart. It’s a shame they dropped the 555 branding after year 1 (apart from the epic Friday test car).

    1. ColdFly (@)
      17th May 2021, 9:35

      Certainly doesn’t ‘offend’ me, and I’d be surprised if it offends others, @cduk_mugello.
      It’s your reasoned opinion and in the end it’s just a livery ;)

      1. @coldfly Ha, I only said that because it somehow has a reputation as a terrible livery but I love it!

        1. It was quite ‘disruptive’ I guess @cduk_mugello and @coldfly, which upset many.

          I personally thought it looked a bit odd, but compared to some of the other liveries of the time it is certainly more memorable (though, wasn’t 1999 the year of the red Winfield Williams, another loathed by many, but not actually that bad livery, though not great either?), the benneton was bland that year, the silvery Minardi (looked it up, no menories) too, as was that years Sauber and Stewart was largely white; Arrows was meh, Prost was beautiful but a bit boring, and slow, so that leaves the nice Jordan, neon-red Ferrari, and the West McLaren.

          1. @cduk_mugello , @coldfly , This is how you offend with livery comments:

            @bosyber
            “…the red Winfield Williams, another loathed by many, but not actually that bad livery”

            =P

          2. @gongtong heh, yeah stirring up snakes and hornets I guess ;)

    2. someone or something
      17th May 2021, 11:29

      @cduk_mugello

      This will probably offend everyone but I absolutely loved the 1999 BAR.

      Certainly doesn’t offend me, I loved the livery as well. The team, not so much.
      I had fun recreating the livery for a modded GP3, looked great.

      Reply moderated
    3. @cduk_mugello to me personally, I think it looks pretty ridiculous; but for trackside spectators and most photos, you only ever see one side of the car. So, on track, probably wasn’t all that bad, really.

      I prefer it to many of the bland designs we’ve seen over the years.

    4. i’ve always liked the zipped up BAR livery.

  3. I prefer it to the normal livery, but then again, the Gulf 917 is my all-time favourite car.

    I’ve never liked the mango coloured McLaren as I’ve always thought using the word papaya was to steer people away from calling it the mango McLaren, yes, I know Bruce chose papaya as the original colour but it is definitely a lighter, more yellowy orange than the current one. Still don’t like it, I’m of the Marlboro McLaren days so even the silver ones look wrong.

    Either way, I think they should keep it as it is an absolutely iconic colour scheme through decades of multiple series and it has never been an unsuccessful combination of car and colour scheme.

    Even Steve McQueen drove a 917 in these colours and you can’t get better than that.

  4. Time was when a team could and would turn up in several different liveries over the course of a season – sometimes changing from race to race – if it was struggling for long-term sponsorship. And good for them. So what if a team wants to change its paintwork? It’s truly the most anal rule in the F1 book.

    1. To be fair, Haas changed their livery mid-season after falling out with that fake energy drinks company (the name of which I can’t remember, so failed branding exercise haha).

    2. It’s not.

      Try explaining who is who to a newcomer. “Norris? I thought his car was orange.”
      “It was. Now it’s blue”

      Having differing liveries every week smacks of a lack of professionalism. These special liveries are great, but I remember when I first got into IndyCar with its ever changing liveried cars. Not easy follow.

  5. Indycar seems to manage fine with livery changes and even individually driver liveries based on their sponsors. Makes the cars more Iconic when the scheme is associated with a racing legend. When I see a photograph of a recent Mercedes F1 car, it’s difficult to tell who the driver is.

    1. I do have to say that I have trouble following who’s who at times with indycar @emu55 so I don’t quite agree there, but I will also admit that I don’t really have a good way to view, and that often the races are a bit too late for me (esp. if they are then multi hours oval races) in my middle-European timezone, so I am not a regular watcher.

      1. That is true, it becomes more familiar with more viewing, I did struggle at first. It doesn’t help that the broadcasters don’t go into depth with the alternative strategies teams use, so suddenly a car is in the lead and it was never explained how.

    2. Indy does it too much for my taste. Sometimes it’s very difficult to keep track of who’s who and which car belongs to which team. At the most recent race Joseph Newgarden’s car looked a lot like Will Power’s car, and i often confused the two. Alexander Rossi’s pink livery also looked a lot like Marco Andretti’s in some occasions in the past seasons.

      Some livery change to spice things up here and there is great and i really like Indycar for allowing the teams and drivers to do that. Not fun when you’re changing them (and your whole team’s identity) every other race.

  6. Now comes news that McLaren will race under a special Gulf livery in Monaco…

    I’ve heard some sports allow teams to use different colours when they’re playing at home compared to when they’re playing an away game. Maybe F1 should allow teams to have a different livery when they or a driver are competing in a home race compared to what the car normally has. For example Spa seems to be considered to be the home race for Max Verstappen, and many Dutch people seem to consider orange as a national colour, so why not allow Red Bull to add a splash of orange to his car when he’s racing at Spa?

    1. @drycrust

      “Dutch people seem to consider orange as a national colour, so why not allow Red Bull to add a splash of orange to his car when he’s racing at Spa?”

      Because then every driver on the grid would want a special “home livery” every home race so for about half or more of the year we would have teams with each of their cars with different liveries and it would start to get a bit silly.

  7. A last a decent looking McLaren.
    I hope they keep this livery.

  8. Keke Rosberg used a one-off livery in the 1986 Portugese Grand Prix. The car was yellow and white instead of red and white.

    https://www.deviantart.com/f1-history/art/Keke-Rosberg-Portugal-1986-344868915

  9. I remember Red Bull doing a special Star Wars liveried car in Monaco a long time back when David Coulthard was still driving for them. How did that get past the rules?

    Reply moderated
  10. Reading the above comments I find myself torn. As a kid the association to my favourite teams were the colours, and ultimately I never truly associated it to cigarettes until I was smoking age, and when I was a was drawn to Marlboro and Camel. I don’t smoke now butbas an ex smoker I way prefer “heritage brand colours” such as silver mercedes, orange McLaren and Redbull corperate colours over sponsor branding colours. As much as I like the one off McLaren livery, it is only the colour of a sponser.

  11. David Coulthard ran a special last f1 race livery and crashed at turn 1

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