Those of you who predicted this one for the top five – give yourselves a pat on the back…
At the end of 1996, McLaren’s famous and long-running deal with Marlboro finally expired, with the tobacco brand moving to Ferrari as primary sponsors. Few predicted that the team would come up with a replacement livery that would be in any way as iconic or memorable – but they hadn’t banked on new sponsors West or the growing influence of Mercedes-Benz on the team they would come to part-own. Initially, the racing press were teased with testing images of an orange livery reminiscent of Bruce McLaren’s original cars of the 1960s. But this turned out to be a deceptive gambit – and when the new car was unveiled at its early 1997 launch, it was resplendent in a shimmering shade of silver, decked out in black and red trim.
Calling to mind the famous Mercedes cars of the 1950s – and allowing the nickname “Silver Arrows” to be associated with the marque all over again – it was an absolute triumph of design, and the defining F1 car of the late ‘90s. The way that “silver” so suddenly became the team’s visual identity – spreading across all aspects from their team headquarters outwards – you could have been forgiven for thinking they’d always painted their cars that colour. That first 1997 car wasn’t the best-looking of the cars that would carry the livery, however – Adrian Newey’s influence had yet to be fully felt, and so there remained something of the bulkiness of the ’96 car, even though they’d finally begun to win races once more.
The 1998 car, however – in which Mika Hakkinen won his first world title – was a thing of absolute beauty. Even if you were pro-Ferrari/Schumacher at the time (as I myself was), you couldn’t help but admire its sleek, curved lines and the class it exuded in motion – it looked just as good on TV as it did in photos. The tone of silver – which actually varied over different parts of the car – was perfectly judged, with just a hint of reflectivity but retaining the workmanlike feel of Ron Dennis’ operation.
So successful was the livery that it lasted for almost a decade with only minor changes – concessions to sponsorship deals, and adjusting the layout of the black sections to fit the lines of each year’s machine – and while we’d all become rather used to it by the time it was retired at the end of 2005, we found ourselves yearning for it after the introduction of the current “chrome” design the following year, which plunged into the overt tackiness that the West design had always managed to avoid.