Since their formation in 1977, the storied Williams team have had a number of memorable and distinctive liveries – but they’re also a team who, when they found a design that they liked, tended to stick with it for a good while with minimal changes. At times, this could see them considered as a somewhat boring or conservative team – but despite this, there are still plenty of classic moments in their livery history that deserve attention. After all, has any other team ever put Sonic the Hedgehog on their car…?
Frank Williams Racing Cars, also known as Iso-Marlboro and later Walter Wolf Racing, had raced throughout the 1970s – but it was in 1977 that a separate and relaunched Williams Grand Prix Engineering, the “Williams F1” that we now know and love, raced for the first time. Their March chassis was decked out in a fairly functional red-and-white livery, with sponsorship from Belle Vue beer. Later in the season, the logo of airline Saudia was added – an innovative deal struck by Frank Williams that would come to define the team in their earliest years of success.
For 1978, Saudia became the team’s primary sponsor – and their green and blue accents adorned a now predominantly white car.
The livery evolved over the seasons that followed, gaining smart stripes on the side and green tops to the sidepods in 1979, with the addition of Leyland sponsorship on Alan Jones’ title-winning car of 1980.
Stylish race numbers completed the look, although they had become a little more simplified by the time 1982 rolled around.
Saudia were still on the car for 1983, but their prominence was reduced – as was their influence on the colour scheme of the car. Now predominantly white, with the amount of green and gold striping reduced, there was also for the first time a yellow patch on the airbox. It was initially occupied by ICI, but in the years that followed would become a recurring feature of Williams’ cars.
The amount of yellow was increased further for 1984, as was the prominence of Denim, a sponsor who bounced around various F1 teams in the 1980s but spent these two seasons on the side of the Williams.
Saudia and Denim stepped their involvement with Williams down at the end of 1984, although they would still remain in place in small locations for the 1985 season. In their place as title sponsor came Canon, although for the duration of their sponsorship of Williams they would only dominate the white sidepods with their red logo. The rest of the car was decked out in a colour scheme that would define Williams for almost a decade – continuing the yellow patches on the top, and with those white sidepods, but with blue introduced as the main colour of the monocoque and nose.
Another notable feature of this period, of course, was the “Red 5” on the car of Nigel Mansell – while the number 6 carried by the likes of Piquet and Patrese was in a standard white.
1987 saw Williams gain tobacco sponsorship for the first time, with Barclay sitting on the side of the car and gradually increasing their prominence towards the end of the decade.
This period also saw the increase in size of the cars’ airboxes – in the post-turbo era – which meant that the yellow came to dominate the car more. In 1990, brewery Labatt’s also joined, encroaching on the sidepod with an extra blue area.
With yellow already so prominent on the car, there was a ready-made space for a new sponsor to join the team in 1991: Camel, who were fresh from decking out the Lotus. They took the space vacated by ICI, although the overall livery still remained an evolution of the colour scheme Williams had brought in in 1990.
The biggest difference, partly triggered by the arrival of Labatt’s in 1989, was that the entire side of the monocoque was now blue, whereas previously just a white stripe on the engine cover had extended upwards to the nose. The 1991 and 1992 liveries were barely distinguishable from one-another, though it would be the 1992 variant that would live longest in the memory thanks to powering Nigel Mansell to his title win.
There was more of a change to the scheme for 1993, as Labatt’s reduced the size of their placement and moved to a small area atop the sidepods. Meanwhile, in a deal that also saw extensive commercial activity (and multiple appearances by Damon Hill in Sonic the Comic!), in came the hip young gunslingers of videogame company Sega. This single-season tie-up not only saw the company’s logo appear on the monocoque sides and rear wing endplates, but at some races there was a cheeky illustration showing an apparent cutaway of the car, with Sonic the Hedgehog’s distinctive feet at the pedals!
1994 brought dramatic change for Williams, with a jettisoning not only of the yellow and blue scheme that had adorned the cars since 1985, but most of the sponsors associated with it, too. Canon, Camel and Labatt’s were all gone – with rival cigarette brand Rothmans coming in as title sponsor. New secondary sponsors, meanwhile, included Segafredo and Divella. Just about the only element that remained was the blue engine cover strip featuring the logos of Renault and Elf.
The 1994 car was a beautiful machine, and the striking new Rothmans livery suited its curved lines perfectly. Unfortunately, the look of the car would forever be associated with tragedy, thanks to the death of Ayrton Senna at the San Marino Grand Prix in May.
1995 saw the Williams change shape somewhat dramatically, giving quite a different look to the livery even though the only real changes were the addition of new sponsors Sanyo and Black Tower. While the boxier lines of the new car didn’t quite suit the Rothmans livery as well, it was still a striking design.
Changes for 1996 were subtle, with Segafredo leaving and the rear wing endplates turning blue as a result. White boxouts were added to the Sanyo and Mirage logos – and also, when the profile of the nose cone changed later in the season, the race numbers were moved downards to the tip.
It was 1997 that saw much more significant changes to the Rothmans livery. The colours on the engine cover were flipped, so that the Renault logo now sat on a white background (and in another change, the fuel supplier had become Castrol rather than Elf), and Rothmans switched to white on blue. An extra white panel was added to the nose cone to accommodate the Castrol logo, which was also placed on a returned-to-white rear wing endplate. And there were a range of sponsors applied to the barge boards throughout the season – including at one point, jarringly, the fluorescent logos of energy drink Hype.
Another quirk was that at a handful of races early in the season, the team also flipped the colours of the rear wing – matching the rest of the car by displaying Rothmans in white on blue.
As mentioned at the start, it’s a recurring characteristic for Williams that when they settle on a livery, they don’t really change it unless they have to. So that’s what made 1998 really strange, as the team unveiled their double-title-defending car at in what onlookers described as a switch to “Ferrari red”.
The change was down to a switch in title sponsor, although the Australian brand Winfield were owned by Rothmans, so this wasn’t so much a necessity as a deliberate commercial choice. Many felt that the team were actively trolling their Scuderia rivals after a somewhat contentious battle throughout 1997. Either way, it’s safe to say the livery wasn’t especially popular… unless you’re me. Because despite the weirdness of a red Williams… I bloody love this livery.
It actually went through a few iterations – at the launch, testing and in early races, there were features such as the Winfield logo breaking out past the length of the sidepod, the Castrol underneath the cockpit sitting on a white block, and the side of the nosecone putting the logo of Universal Studios on a white background. But later in the season several of these elements would switch to a red background, improving the overall look. The tie-up with Universal also saw a number of different film and TV properties advertised – including the wretched Blues Brothers 2000, and cartoon character Woody Woodpecker (who, once he arrived on the car, would also persist into 1999).
The livery was then surprisingly given an overhaul for 1999, with Winfield getting a slightly updated logotype and the amount of white on the car increased. The new design made better use of strong lines, and added a swooshy blue section to the very rear.
This could have been a strong new identity for the team, were it not for the fact that at the end of 1999, their tobacco sponsorship contract was up, and they were on the verge of heading into a new era entirely…
It was all change for Williams in 2000, as not only did they end their association with Rothmans/Winfield, but they also joined up with BMW, who were returning to the sport as an engine manufacturer. As Williams didn’t have a dominant title sponsor and were becoming BMW’s “works” team (even renaming on the entry list to “BMW Williams F1 Team”), it was no surprise that the new car’s livery would take on BMW’s classic colours of white and dark blue. Although the livery that they spent the winter testing in (above) looked somewhat more BMW-ish than the predominantly white design that the car was then launched in.
The other major sponsor to join the team at the start of 2000 was computer manufacturer Compaq; and later in the season, a darker strip enlivened the otherwise plain white engine cover with the addition of Allianz.
Both these sponsors would go on to have long associations with the team.
The first iteration of the BMW Williams livery only lasted a single season; yet when it was revamped in 2001, it was a design that the team liked so much they kept for the next five seasons, with only minor tweaks each time. The blue was lightened up, and separated from the white in angular patterns with silver strips.
The car was barely distinguishable at the start of 2002, with just the addition of Petrobras to the rear wing endplates. Unusually, this meant the team had two fuel brands on the car in one season, as Castrol were still the team’s supplier.
Later in the season, however, a necessary change was made as Compaq’s logo was replaced by that of HP upon the acquisition of the former by the latter. Initially, the HP logo fit somewhat awkwardly on the car due to being such a different size and shape from the Compaq logotype – the placement of two small logos on the rear wing was particularly unsatisfying.
For 2003, however, the livery could be reworked to properly include HP’s branding. In truth, though, all that really changed was that the logo was applied diagonally on the sidepods, to fit better; and on the rear wing, instead of the company’s logo, their “invent” slogan was printed.
Partway through 2003, the logo of anti-smoking-aid firm NiQuitin had made its way onto the car, and was also present on the 2004 version. The other main change this year – aside from changing the shape of the nose pattern to match the peculiar “walrus nose” of the car – was the addition of Budweiser’s “Bud” brand to the airbox.
Although the arrival of NiQuitin was much-heralded as starting a new “post-tobacco” era of F1, however, it turned out to be a short-lived deal. Williams’ last car with BMW, in 2005, saw the arrival of RBS on the airbox, with Allianz moving to the smaller spot vacated by NiQuitin. And by now there was a more discernible alteration of the shape of the blue and white livery – it had always evolved slightly to fit the lines of the car, but set the 2005 car alongside the 2001 one and you can see a marked difference in shape, with more curve to the lines and a greater amount of blue in the side-on view.
By 2006, it certainly felt like Williams were ready for a change. But once again, they got it due to external factors – with the departure not only of BMW, but also of main sponsors HP. In their place came AT&T, although an unusual title sponsorship deal meant that the telecommunications firm’s logos actually didn’t get much space on the car. It was a lovely livery, though, with an accent of turquoise breaking up the sections of white and a new, darker blue.
2007 saw a change in the accent colour to more of a light blue, and the removal of the dark blue section on the nose cone. And a major new sponsor in the shape of Lenovo, who took over the plum spots on both the rear wing and sidepods – despite AT&T still being title sponsors.
For the last few years of the decade, Williams began to struggle for a visual identity – each year brought a slightly different variant of a blue and white livery, with no sponsors (aside from AT&T) seeming to commit to being on the car long-term. For 2008, the blue nose cone returned – but the whole car was in a much darker blue, with the lighter splash of accent colour disappointingly replaced with a silver. Toy store Hamley’s popped up on the sidepod for this single season.
In 2009 things were looking particularly bereft, thanks to an exodus of sponsors that included Lenovo and Petrobras; although Philips were a new major name to take the sidepod and wing spaces. 2010 saw the team keep basically the same livery for the first time since the BMW days, with a few sponsors popping on and off the car over the course of the season.
Further bad news on the sponsor front would come at the end of 2010, as RBS – now government-owned following the banking crisis – had to end their long-standing involvement with the team. Fortunately, something new was around the corner that could start to have an effect on the liveries…
Signing Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado for the 2011 season gave Williams a new sponsor in the form of state-owned oil and gas company PDVSA – and the red of their logo gave the team a new hook around which to base their livery. The 2011 car raised eyebrows by seemingly drawing inspiration from the mid-90s Rothmans livery – although if you looked closely, the secondary accent lines were silver rather than gold.
2012, meanwhile, dialled down the Rothmans-ness – although seeing those colours on a car driven by Bruno Senna, with a helmet in the style of his late uncle, did create a slightly jarring effect.
Williams’ final year with Maldonado and PDVSA saw the livery made somewhat duller by swapping the blue Renault and white PDVSA areas – giving the design fewer overall lines and frankly making it look even flatter than it already did. But for the 2014 season, there was something new and exciting on the horizon…
After several years in the sponsorship wilderness, Williams uncharacteristically pulled something huge out of the bag in 2014 – with rumours gathering pace for weeks and months before the official announcement (giving us lots of lovely fantasy livery designs in the process), they finally confirmed in 2014 that their new title sponsors would be Martini, the drinks brand that had been the source of so many classic racing liveries in the 1970s and 1980s.
When it actually came to it, though, the Martini Williams was smart rather than spectacular. It was still comfortably the best-looking car on the grid in 2014 – and the teamwear was especially good – but there was a slight feeling that the team could have been a bit less conservative in how they used the colour scheme. But this was Williams, after all. Another difficulty was that there still weren’t that many other sponsors kicking around, so the white areas of the car did feel a bit back-of-the-grid bereft. Although the departure of Maldonado and arrival of Felipe Massa did mean that Petrobras made a return.
The sponsor situation did improve in 2015, when Rexona (the deodorant brand known as Sure in the UK) joined on the sidepod.
The swooping Martini colour lines on the engine cover changed shape and increased in size slightly as the years went on, but also presented an issue for races where alcohol advertising was banned: as the colours were such an integral part of the brand, the red had to be removed, and this had a negative effect on the livery, making it immediately somewhat blander.
2017 saw the biggest change to the livery, as the Martini area increased dramatically to fill out the shark fin at the rear of the car; and a new black rear wing that included JCB as a new sponsor.
Conversely, there was much less to discuss as the livery went into a fifth season – as the newly back-of-the-grid Williams was an ugly car with excessive black carbon fibre areas that wasted having the Martini livery to play with. There was already a sense that it might be time for a change – but it would have been better to see a new interpretation of the Martini livery than to get the news that the deal was not going to be renewed at the end of 2018.
And so to the new Williams era – with the team maintaining the overall white and light blue look, but in a drastically different fashion from the Martini livery. The sky blue is applied almost in a spray-paint style, while again the black carbon fibre areas are actually made to be a part of the livery, albeit one that shrinks and somewhat weakens the overall look of the colour scheme. Title sponsor RoKiT came onboard late in the day, which might explain why their red isn’t present anywhere in the livery – perhaps in 2020 (where they’re still listed as title sponsors on the entry list) we’ll see them take over the look of the car a bit more? That would certainly be welcomed by most fans, as this was an unpopular livery (in a cataclysmically bad season performance-wise) that you suspect most people would be happy to see the back of…