This Is What Happens When Fashion And Racing Combine
The worlds of fashion and Formula One rarely mix that well, but when the family-run Benetton fashion house took control of the Toleman race team a short-lived era of livery-dominance commenced. Who better to lead that march against the influx of big faceless brands covering the grid than the exuberant, colorful flair of one of the ’80s most recognisable high street fashion labels? Considering that we’ve never seen a Moschino McLaren, or a Fendi Ferrari, the United Colors Of Benetton, for the time being, hold the mantle of Formula 1’s fashion-forward pioneers.
So far in my writings on iconic racing liveries, the majority of examples have been cigarette sponsors, with those logos embracing the bodywork of all manors of racing cars and bikes. Therefore, I’m ignoring the post-’91, blue-hued years for Benetton (and Michael Schumacher) and focusing instead on the ‘color years’ between 1986 and 1990.
The first few examples from 1986 to 1989 are often left out of the usual “greatest livery” lists, simply down to the (quite frankly) ugly-but-pretty-quick car design by Rory Byrne on the B186, B187, B188, and B189 cars. Give or take a few exceptions, the period from mid-seventies to mid-eighties wasn’t kind to F1 car’s design, so when a great livery appeared, it needed to work twice as hard as the competition!
Even though Benetton had completely covered the 1985 Toleman in its own ‘flags-of-the-world’ livery, it wasn’t until the fashion house finally took over the team in ’86 and rolled out the “brush strokes” design on the grid. It’s amazing to think what a stronghold Benetton had on color as a brand identity back in the ’80s and ’90s; in my previous career as an advertising creative, I could only dream of creating a brand campaign that owned such a massive, simple concept as color!
And boy, did the company use that ownership to its full potential. The multi-colored brush strokes look like a wind tunnel experiment gone right. The perfect shades for each of the colors covering the rest of the bodywork make a three dimensional abstract sculpture, nearly depicting an in-store experience (excuse my slip back into “adland” speak, but it’s true). I am still undecided about the colored Pirelli tires, though. I love the outright dedication to their concept of color, but as soon as they get scuffed or dirty, it takes the sheen off, literally.
The second, third, and fourth incarnations saw the introduction of the most famous color schemes. These cars—although still suffering aesthetically in terms of bodywork styling—absolutely scream Pop art. If you’ve ever stood in front of both Jeff Koons’ Play-Doh sculpture and the Benetton cars, then you’ll clearly see the artistic connections. And with each other sponsor kept within the boundaries of its own color block, it feels like a collection of iconic logos all thoughtfully placed together to create a high-speed Warhol/Koons inspired pop-art sculpture.
The layout of the colors changed subtly over this period, but never had to do too much work to keep things fresh—I mean, how you go wrong with such a beautiful concept? The only real noticeable difference was the exclusion of pink, in the color scheme, one which I feel is a mistake.
It was in 1990 and in the final year of Benetton as the primary sponsor that the most recognisable and successful version appeared, this time thanks to the Rory Byrne and John Barnard designed B190. We’ve now entered the era of the greatest looking post-’50s Grand Prix cars and when decked out in the already-loved United colors livery, the car could rank itself up in the higher echelons of the art car arena.
In fact, the similarities in aesthetics the B190 shared with both the BMW Art Cars of Calder and Warhol are recognisable to any eye. On that point—the highest praise possible for a racing livery—I can safely say it’s also my favourite all-time racing livery.
What do you think about this era of Benetton-sponsored Formula 1 cars?
Images via wheelsage.org