For many individuals on the outside of the automotive culture, it might come as a surprise to hear that a medium so focused on miles, minutes, and inconceivable speeds, also fosters a deep-seated love for design. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that, without companies willing to sponsor drivers (and teams) through the inclusion of bespoke colorways, creative branding, and timeless liveries, racing might not have evolved into the global powerhouse that it is today.
Aside from the essential nature of sponsorship, companies have taken great pride in the cultural significance of dominant racing teams over the decades. Through various wins, trials, and accomplishments, a vehicle’s paint scheme becomes a badge of honor, instilling fear into competitors on the track, and demarcating the world’s most dominant drivers, clubs, and fans. To say that the vehicle’s livery has become as much a part of racing as the car itself wouldn’t be an understatement — so, we’ve decided to aggregate a handful of racing’s most integral colorways for a quick, informative read regarding the influence of brands, advertisers, and corporations on the world’s grandest stage.
BMW M Power
BMW has been a mainstay in autosport for as long as most can remember, but it wasn’t until 1972 that today’s widely-revered “M Division” was established to help the company’s race-faring platforms garner a bit more notoriety. To help its cars stand out on the racetrack, BMW contracted a three-color stripe pattern to represent the pillars of the brand’s racing lineage. Dressed in blue, purple, and red, BMW’s cars became immediately recognizable thanks to their cleanly-tailored linework, rounded detailing, and glorious engines, but it wasn’t long until people began to wonder about the story behind the company’s chosen branding. To honor Bavaria’s flag, BMW had introduced a lightly-hued blue, while a red stripe was solicited to represent BMW’s partnership with Texaco, a popular oil subsidiary of the era. In the middle, a purple (or dark blue) stripe represents the union of both companies, paying homage to art through a mixture of the colors.
Castrol Oil has been a household name in the racing world, mostly by association, since 1906. This was the first year that the company’s newly-formulated “castor oil” made its debut in the automotive realm, and following a series of influential sponsorships, trials, tribulations, and philanthropic endeavors, the company was placed at the forefront of European racing thanks to outfits like the Silver Arrows of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. At the apex of the 1900s, companies began to advertise their use within the world’s fastest cars through marketable colors, stickers, and graphics, becoming a mainstay of various racing leagues, and giving rabid fans a way to promote their love for each club. Naturally, Castrol Oil’s recognizable green and red found its way onto the exterior of the era’s most dominant race cars, including various C- and D-type Jaguars, Mercedes-Benz, and even MotoGP bikes. If the engine could be lubricated, Castrol’s legendary colors were there, and today, the company has retained its title as one of the leading lubrication proprietors for high-end racing, thanks to plant-based oils that perform exceedingly-well under intense operating temperatures.
Porsche had already dominated the racing scene for many years prior to team driver Bob Akin’s success in the IMSA Camel GT, but in the early stages of 1984, the German automotive manufacturer introduced the prototypical 962. Due to his reputation on the track, Akin was one of the first to set the car into motion and debuted it that same year under the flag of Coca-Cola sponsorship. While the company’s prolific red and white livery had been a fan favorite following the introduction of sponsored colors in the latter half of the 1950s, Akin’s Porshe was an instant hit. With the great-looking colorway in tow, he garnered top-10 finishes at both the 1985 Rolex 24 and Daytona in 1987, even going so far as to win the 1986 Sebring Classic. The pronounced pairing of Germany’s finest prototype cars and Coca-Cola’s cultural significance made the 962 (and Akin) legendary. Today, it’s still regarded as one of the most recognizable collaborations in racing history.
Amidst a seemingly endless torrent of sponsorships, liveries, and branding, there are few that can match the prolific nature of Gulf Racing’s baby blue and orange array. It’s true that Gulf’s influence has been felt within the racing community for almost a century now — in the 1930s, especially, due to the company’s inclusion within the medium as a contender of utmost importance. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that the brand had donned the creative collaboration of color that we know today, calling upon a lightly-hued Gulf Powder Blue, contrasting Marigold orange and a bold black line to separate the two. The genre’s winningest vehicles have been dressed in Gulf’s recognizable livery, with the likes of the McLaren M20 Can-Am, McLaren F1 GTR, and Porsche 917 being the most notable. But, the most recognizable vehicle of all — Ford’s lauded GT40 — is perhaps its most reputable, taking top honors in Le Mans during both the 1968 and 1969 season.
John Player Special Lotus
John Player’s Special Lotus is widely considered to be one of the most important, and prolific liveries in Formula 1 history. Under the team’s legendary green and red colorways, a handful of the world’s most talented drivers dominated a number of racing leagues from 1962 to 1978, securing seven Formula One Constructors’ titles, six Drivers’ Championships, and even a win at the Indianapolis 500. During this period, Imperial Tobacco signed a cooperation agreement with Chapman prior to the Spanish Grand Prix in 1968. In a single day, the team’s traditional colors were replaced with the recognizable John Player black and gold, paving the way for additional vehicles (and companies) to market themselves on the track. The John Player Special Lotus is lauded as one of the first vehicles to take on the mantle of sponsorship and cooperative livery design, making it an iconic variant within the world of automotive racing.
Alitalia’s green and white colors were a hit before they adorned the likes of any automotive platform at the start of the 1970s. In fact, the Italian airline’s iconic symbol and colors were crafted by the highly-revered designer, Walter Landor, the same individual who brought legendary brands like Levi’s, Frito-Lay, and FedEx their most notable logos. But, as prominent as the company was during the era, its partnership with the dominant racing team at Lancia (and the Stratos that it adorned) led to the creation of one of the industry’s most memorable liveries. From 1974 to 1976, the Lancia Stratos was one of the medium’s most feared competitors, winning three championships in a row at WRC. An array of reds, greens, and whites dressed the exterior of the car on every podium, but sadly, the airline would file for bankruptcy at a later date, ending the partnership with the now-defunct Stratos platform.
Perhaps the most recognizable of Big Tobacco’s liveries, Marlboro’s staggering, but subtle red and white were a staple of early 1980s racing. Though the company has sponsored and dressed a number of prolific platforms over the years, few have been as dominant at the ones helmed by legendary drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost at the tail end of the decade, garnering 15 victories out of 16 races, and earning 15 pole positions over the course of the season. Like many of the cars that had come before it, the MP4/4 Formula 1 vehicle made a name for itself as one of the most recognizable, and feared vehicles on the track, thanks to the dominance of Marlboro’s drivers. The teams continued to use the company’s iconic red and white livery until the latter half of the 1990s when Marlboro made the transition to a newly-acquired black and silver colorway. Regardless, the years of red and white had been etched into the annals of racing history.
One of Italy’s finest adult beverage companies, Martini, saw the promise of automotive sponsorship during the golden age or racing. In 1968, the brand brought an all-new dark blue, light blue, and red livery to Hockenheimring, making its debut on one of Germany’s tried and true circuits. But it wasn’t until 1970 when the company bought two Porsche 917s — a K and LH version — to do its bidding. As the first company that Martini had ever sponsored, Porsche’s 917 K proved to be a positive investment, bringing the Italian liquor company its first victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1971. From here, the livery began to gain traction within the racing world, and it wasn’t long until Martini approached the medium’s grandest stage, Formula 1. A series of partnerships with the likes of Tecno proved underwhelming, causing the brand to seek alternative avenues of inclusion within the racing world, and resulting in a series of great-looking Porsche 911 RSR Turbo and 908s, marking Martini’s foray into the world of rally racing. It wasn’t until 1981 that the most prolific partnership for the brand took place, calling upon Lancia’s Delta HF, Delta S4, and 037 to secure a number of wins in the World Rally Championship and World Endurance Championship, respectively.
While a bit obscure, one of Porsche’s most notable liveries was promptly named after a beloved farm animal. The company’s dominant 917/20 coupé underwent a single, one-off transformation in 1971, calling upon a striking pink colorway with segments of the car labeled similarly to that of a butcher’s finest cuts. The “Pink Pig” enamored onlookers at the 1971 Le Mans pre-race qualification session, and maintained a fifth-place position until it was disqualified in the latter half of the race due to an accident. Throughout the years, the car would serve as an adventurous showpiece for the brand, placing a bizarre, but interesting emphasis on the 917’s most seductive body parts. Even today, the Pink Pig livery is noted as a classic, with cars like the 911 RSR factory model adorning the famed colorway during its class victory run at 2018’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Following its debut, Renown’s orange and green livery was seen on a handful of notable vehicles throughout racing history. However, few could hold a candle to the Mazda 787B — the winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1991. A single win might not seem that notable, but the 787B was special in that it had made history as the first, and the only car to secure a Le Mans victory with a Wankel rotary engine under its hood, causing an uproar within the automotive community, and sparking debates about the viability of the car’s powertrain. Although short-lived, Renown’s time in the spotlight has earned it a spot on many famous liveries listings, especially considering the Mazda 787B’s historical relevance in the world of automotive racing.
Rothmans’ white and blue livery holds a special place in many race enthusiasts’ hearts, especially when it comes to those who harbor intimate feelings for Porsche’s domineering platforms. For nearly 20 years, the company sat at the helm of racing’s most illustrious clubs; most notably, in 1982, when three of Rothmans’ Porsche 956 vehicles secured first, second, and third-place finishes at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Despite being a staple of racing for many years, Rothmans white and blue were immediately immortalized in the annals of racing history, resulting in widespread adoration. Following its success on the French circuit, the company took to different avenues of racing, including WRC, MotoGP, and Formula 1.
STP rounds out our list with one of the most prominent NASCAR liveries of all time, thanks to decades of notable finishes, placements, and achievements. In 1969, legendary driver Mario Andretti won the Indianapolis 500 under the guise of STP’s orange/red and baby blue colorway, securing the national Driving Championship at the time. In 1971, the brand branched into NASCAR, sponsoring the like of legendary Hall of Fame racer, Fred Lorenzen, while synonymously participating in the Grand Prix and Formula 1 World Championship. Eventually, the brand would sign a contractual agreement with racer Richard Petty, changing the face of NASCAR forever when he would claim back-to-back national championships in 1975, eventually fostering one of the winningest racing careers of all time.