There used to be a time when Formula 1 team liveries were predictable and structured. The Italian teams ran in ‘rosso corsa’ racing red, the British outfits in a stately racing green, the French in a Gallic blue and the Germans in white – or bare-metal ‘silver’, as Mercedes’ well-hewn motorsport folk tale popularly recounts.
Conventional wisdom has it that Lotus were the first team to end the established practice of racing in national liveries. True, Colin Chapman’s team were usually at the sharp end of innovation, particularly throughout the 1960s and 1970s; indeed, Colin famously entered a 49B for Graham Hill into the second round of the 1968 world championship as ‘Gold Leaf Team Lotus’, running the car in the distinctive red, white and gold livery of the cigarette brand.
But it was McLaren who effectively tore up the rulebook, eschewing the convention of running under the national racing colours of New Zealand (which would have resulted in the first successful McLarens being painted green, black and silver).
"McLaren had never held true to the concept of adhering to a singular racing livery."
McLaren’s approach was simpler and, arguably, less commercial than Lotus, who’d realised that their burgeoning supplier/sponsor portfolio could be augmented by offering up more and more of the car’s valuable real-estate. They merely inquired, ‘where is it written in the rules that we have to carry New Zealand’s national racing colours? Or anybody else’s, come to that.’
In truth, McLaren had never held true to the concept of adhering to a singular racing livery. When McLaren made its Formula 1 debut at the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix , its Ford V8-propelled M2B was famously painted white with a green central stripe.
The unique colour-scheme enabled Bruce McLaren to double as Pete Aron, the droll American racer played by James Garner in John Frankenheimer’s famous ‘Grand Prix!’ movie, which followed the circus throughout that summer.
Incidentally, Bruce would run the same livery in the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch. Indeed, Aron would go on to ‘win’ the title that year, in some ways claiming McLaren’s first world championship – albeit only on celluloid!
As if to demonstrate that McLaren had no strong allegiance to a particular paint-scheme, Bruce very nearly won the following year’s Canadian Grand Prix aboard an M5A decked out in a striking red livery with pale stripes.
However, by this stage, Bruce’s co-director Teddy Mayer was becoming increasingly concerned about the car’s lack of visual oomph. He spied a bright orange livery sported by one of the team’s Can-Am sports car racing rivals, and realised it had potential: the car was not only visible around the circuit, it would also look fantastic on the TV.
Suddenly, the new generation of Cosworth-engined F1 McLarens started carrying the same striking colour-scheme from the start of 1968. And, as McLaren became a winning force – taking victories at Spa, Monza and Canada’s Mont Tremblant – they also indelibly stamped their new identity on the motor racing community.
The colour scheme was shortlived: McLaren only ran in orange F1 livery between 1968 and 1971, incorporated a notional orange streak into its Yardley-liveried cars of ’72 and ’73 and phased it out completely when Emerson Fittipaldi brought the full red-and-white might of Philip Morris Tobacco onboard when he joined for 1974.
Somehow, though, the colour stuck. Perhaps it was the iconic imagery of those thundering orange Can-Am cars winning everything across the pond, maybe it was the romantic notion of Bruce and Denny reaching out for success with their small band of industrious workers that evoked memories of a simpler time. Somehow, inexorably, orange became synonymous with McLaren.
To this day, it still pervades. From time to time, McLaren Racing will launch its fledgling Formula 1 cars in an interim orange livery (as happened in 1997 and ’98, and, more recently, in 2005), and one of the most popular paint options for our automotive customers is McLaren Orange.
It’s just another example of how, back in those pioneering early days, the combination of Bruce, Teddy and Tyler pretty much got it spot-on first time around…