Formula 1 has tried for many years to give a professional impression with its use of car liveries. Back in the 1950s the cars were painted up in national colours. The advent of sponsorship led to some real Spanish omelettes and then gradually the teams were convinced to smarten up and present the same basic livery at each race in a season. Ferrari stayed with Italian racing red, Ligier went with French blue and so on. Colours became visual real estate: Lotus claimed black and gold, McLarens were fag packets on wheels, Jordan grabbed green and then went yellow because it paid more money. The concept was a good one. TV viewers and fans at the track are all able to instantly recognise the cars. There are two-car teams and they have the cars have the same liveries. The F1 Sporting Regulations actually dictate that a team must have the two cars in the same colours and they must even get permission from the Formula One Commission if they want a change the livery during a season. This may seem odd but it means that the fans know what they are looking out.
In comparison, most of the big NASCAR teams have nothing to link their cars, they change liveries all the time and have a bunch of hideous little stickers on each car that make them look rather messy. However, the advantage of doing business the NASCAR way is that major sponsors can change from one race to the next. The downside of this was that sponsors quickly realised that there was more return on paying for a title sponsorship on a top car, than there was from spending the same money for more races on a car in the midfield, which meant that sponsorship was sucked into the big teams and many smaller operations struggled or went out of business. Today the top NASCAR team is Hendrick Motorsports but if you look at the team’s four cars (48, 24, 88 and 5) there is nothing in their liveries which links them. The F1 view of this is that if you line then up in a row, they just look messy. Do that again a week later and they all look different – and still messy. There is no consistency (except the car number) but the fans seem not to mind. There is an argument, which F1 uses, that it is wiser to spread the money between the team’s cars and then the sponsors all get a look-in if one of the cars wins the race. The space available may be different but the odds are better – and a team looks like a team if everything is uniform. The logic of the NASCAR way is that it brings in more money (which may or may not be the case).
The NASCAR fans don’t seem to complain much at all the livery changes that happen and so one must assume that they either have not thought about the systems and just accept what they are given, or are better informed than F1 fans. This year the F1 teams decide to allow the drivers to have their own numbers, which is helpful in marketing terms although it is still quite hard to see the numbers on most of the cars because they are still very small, or located in places that make them difficult to see. The F1 teams do not wish to give up square inches of sponsorship space.
The F1 system is fine as long there is money about but it was very interesting in Melbourne to see that both McLaren and Lotus decided to use their empty sponsorship space to give their smaller sponsors a bigger bang for their buck. One presumes that the sponsors paid a little extra for the space but do not expect to see Mobil on the side of the McLaren all year, nor Clear (a Unilever brand) on the side of the Lotus. These were, in effect, one-off deals to get the teams more cash while they search for title sponsorship deals. There is nothing wrong with this as the livery remains the same, but it is an indication that even the competitive teams are these days looking for cash wherever they can get it. The fact that such successful teams cannot find title sponsorships (even cheap deals) is slightly worrying, but with pay-per-view TV and stiff competition not just between the teams but also with the Formula One group, the message is clear: times are hard.