The latest of our Livery Histories looks at a team that were close to my heart in the mid to late ’90s: Benetton Formula. The team didn’t win a lot of friends in the early ’90s, thanks to a series of controversies including the “poaching” of Michael Schumacher from Jordan in 1991 and persistent rumours of skullduggery and technical infringements during their first title-winning season in ’94. But by 1997, they’d become underdogs of a sort, never challenging for titles but able to pick up a podium or even a win here and there and with the likeable driver combo of Alesi and Berger – so they were the ideal team to which to hitch my wagon at a time when I was disillusioned with Williams for sacking Damon Hill.
And, of course, it helps that they had some pretty smart liveries around that time. But the sky blue and white Mild Seven livery was just one in a series of multi-coloured efforts that the team would employ during their fifteen-year tenure in the sport – fitting, really, for a company whose main brand includes the words “United Colors”…
Having entered F1 in the early ’80s as a sponsor – hopping between Tyrrell, Alfa Romeo and Toleman between 1983 and 1985, Benetton turned their backing of the latter into full-on ownership as of the 1986 season. The writing had arguably been on the wall the year before, when the entire car was decked out in a quite fetching “United Colors” livery featuring assorted flags of the world – but rather than carry this through to their full-on ownership, the company came up with something else new for their first season as “Benetton Formula”.
I’m quite fond of this car – I featured it in my top liveries of all time in a highly respectable twelfth place, commenting that the most striking aspect was the way the multi-coloured brush strokes conveyed a message of “speed”. I have to admit, though, that I greatly prefer it in the configuration pictured above to the times it raced with multi-coloured tyres…
The team decided to take the multi-coloured concept a different way from 1987 onwards – although it took a while for them to get the new concept, which would see them through the remainder of the years for which they were the primary sponsors of their own team, quite right. Certainly, the first attempt – at right – just doesn’t hit the mark. The main problem is that there’s one too many colours in there – and the other problem is that said colour too many is pink. Messing up the otherwise smart green nose section, the pink isn’t the only problem with this layout, which is a flawed execution of a neat idea, but it certainly doesn’t help.
The pink was gone for 1988, and it’s an immediate and marked improvement. What’s more, the blocks of colour actually seem better-designed to fit the lines of a racing car. There’s also a better choice of shades at play, meaning the team can actually get away with having four main colours on the body of the car.
The colours fit the lines of the 1989 car, too – but sadly, the car itself is such an utterly horrendous beast that it’s actually to the detriment of the livery. Suddenly the yellow section is flat and squashed, and the blue and red sections simply come up far too high. It’s odd how essentially the same livery can look so dramatically different on two different chassis – but undoubtedly, the B189 is an ugly machine (despite the addition of 7up as a perfectly harmonious sponsor addition on the rear wing).
There were further changes for 1990 – the new airbox meant that the yellow section could be shifted upwards, and so the green could expand to the engine cover. This actually works a bit better – the red and blue go better into the green than they do the yellow – but what ruins this effort is an abundance of boxed sponsor logos that break up its lines. Particularly, having a green United Colors Of Benetton section on the engine cover just seems counter-intuitive – couldn’t space have been found for this somewhere among the green bits?
Having sat unobtrusively on the yellow sections of the previous few years’ cars, cigarette brand Camel took over as main sponsor of the team for 1991. Immediately, this was a much smarter car – red was gone from the paint job (now only appearing in sponsor decals), and Benetton’s own green was relegated to the nosecone with blue taking over as a secondary colour.
Things got confusing in 1992, however, as the team ended up running two distinct paint jobs. This is perhaps partly due to the fact that they started the season running a modified version of the 1991 B191, before switching to the new B192 later in the year – but the other obvious reason for the change is the departure of Autopolis as a major sponsor. The owners of this racing circuit were on a publicity drive in their attempts to secure a contract for the Japanese GP – but evidently by 1992 these efforts had stalled somewhat. They were still able to afford a nose-cone sponsor’s contract, but their sidepod placement was hastily replaced by a couple of Benetton logos on a design that was otherwise almost identical to the previous year.
By the time the B192 was successfully rolled out, the team’s owners had evidently decided to push their clothing brand back to the forefront of the operation – and so the new car also had a new livery, with the blue almost entirely replaced by green instead. The Benetton brand now occupied the entirety of the sidepod, and would continue to do so in the coming years – but this space would also be used to push other Benetton brands depending on the race venue, such as Prince (tennis equipment) and Nordica (skiing equipment).
The ’93 livery was a simple evolution of the later-92 design, with the blue stripe on the nose now acting as a handy place for engine supplier Ford to grab a little extra branding in the now-complete absence of Autopolis. The only other major changes were the switch from Mobil 1 to Elf – represented, unfortunately, by an ugly box on the airbox that didn’t really fit in with the scheme – and the removal of Sanyo’s white tip from the rear endplates.
There were much more significant changes to the livery for 1994, however, as the Americans of Camel were replaced with their Japanese competitors Mild Seven. At first glance the livery simply looks like it’s done a straight swapping of the yellow of Camel for the blue, turquoise and white of Mild Seven – but the pattern is subtly different, even though green remained the sidepod colour and Ford kept their blue nose stripe. What’s more, Benetton had decided to add a flourish of their own branding that would remain through all but the very last of their F1 cars – the four “United Colors” now adorned the top rear of the sidepods. The sidepod space, meanwhile, alternated between Benetton brands and other guest sponsors such as Minichamps and Bitburger.
Despite being a bold new look, however, the 1994 car felt like a disappointing hodge-podge of concepts. The requirement to include three colours on behalf of their new sponsor, in addition to their own green, meant that at least one came off as superfluous. On the 1994 car it was probably the white – the green and blue actually went together quite nicely – but it would be Benetton’s own green (along with the dark blue of departed engine supplier Ford) that was sacrificed as the team went into 1995 as newly-crowned constructors champions Benetton-Renault. Here was a much slicker effort, borne of the team’s newfound confidence as champions – it felt much more like a specifically Mild Seven-branded car, and even the yellow sidepods couldn’t throw it off too much.
The Schumacher era – and Benetton’s brief reign at the top of the sport – came to an end at the close of 1995, but the same basic colour scheme was kept for the 1996 season. The most notable difference was the sheer amount of white on the car – far more than at any other time since 1986. With Bitburger having followed their countryman out of the door, meanwhile, it was left to Benetton themselves to take over the sidepod again. For the first time, though, rather than being a rigid rectangle the sponsor’s box was allowed to fit to the sculpted line of those (really rather tiny) sidepods.
This still felt like a team slightly struggling for an identity following the departure of their talismen, though, and the combination of white bodywork, Mild Seven patches and Fondmetal on the rear wing made the car look surprisingly like a Tyrrell.
Although an evolution of the design, the 1997 car was a significant improvement. For the first time it looked like the two-blue and white colour scheme had been built from the ground up, and everything fit significantly better with the lines of the car. The addition of red into the mix didn’t hurt, either – there for the sake of Kickers sponsorship, it was kept to specific, narrow areas, but looked smart rather than messy. Indeed, the more I look at this car, the more I wonder why it wasn’t in my top 25 list – especially as it coincides with the time that Benetton became “my” team to support.
Change was afoot for 1998, though – and as young drivers Fisichella and Wurz replaced the old hands Alesi and Berger, and Renault made their (latest) departure from the sport, Mild Seven took over the new Benetton-Playlife car in its entirety for the first time. Gone were the compromising “stripes”, replaced by an almost entirely sky blue car with white sidepods. And it was utterly, utterly beautiful. My third-favourite F1 livery of all time, it helps that it adorned such a cute and tidy chassis design (albeit one that sadly didn’t go anywhere near as fast as everyone thought it would) – but it simply gets everything right. Multi-coloured sponsor logos (there’s red in Korean Air and Akai, orange in FedEx) are allowed to breathe on clean white space, separated by a classy, swooping section of Mild Seven’s darker blue from the sky blue that dominates the nose and monocoque. Even the race numbers are in a smart serif font. Elegant, beautiful and classic.
It was inevitable, then, that the follow-up would be a disappointment. The ’99 car isn’t a bad design, by any means – it’s just got little detail changes here and there that don’t work quite as well as the previous version. At least the fundamental colour scheme remains in place, but it’s a shame to lose the red barge boards, replaced with trusty old Benetton green. And while the D2 logo works nicely on the rear wing endplate, it’s rather less so in a box that sticks out something rotten on the side of the nose. The biggest change, of course, was the deployment of the main Mild Seven logo on the engine cover – it was apparently part of a technique to enhance the logo at a distance and at speed on TV coverage, although it’s anyone’s guess as to whether it succeeded.
There was a bit more of a change in 2000, as the new car did away with the white sidepods in favour of an all-over sky blue look. Even Mild Seven’s secondary darker blue was largely absent, appearing only on the barge boards. Sadly, the car lost something in the process – still relatively smart, the lack of any sort of lines on the paint job meant it lost the dynamism of the two that preceded it, and veered dangerously towards “pretty bland”. By this point, the team was actually owned by Renault – hence the fact that the car, upon its launch, featured absolutely no reference to the Benetton brand for the first time in the team’s existence (although small green United Colors boxes would be added once the car went racing).
The scheme was definitely becoming tiresome by 2001, the team’s last in the sport. The logos of Vodafone, in their brief stopoff before pitching up at Ferrari, actually slotted in quite nicely (although they would have looked even better on the ’98 car), notwithstanding the continued insistence on a “patch” effect on the side of the nose; but the extra dark blue section housing the name of the returning fuel supplier Elf just felt like an unnecessary embellishment. By this point – perhaps understandably, as they were on their way out – there was a lack of imagination that suggested the team didn’t really care about their livery any more. Certainly, the cars were far from ugly – but neither were they particularly inspired. It was a far cry from the days of “United Colors” and painted tyres, and looking at the final Mild Seven car you could be forgiven for wondering why Renault hadn’t rebranded straight away in 2000, rather than carrying on with a name that was now almost entirely meaningless.
Of course, it was with the eventual rebranding that a bit of life was breathed into the Mild Seven colour scheme, courtesy of the addition of Renault’s own yellow – but that’s another story…