Why is red still Ferrari’s signature colour? Why aren’t English cars green and French cars blue any longer? National colours have fallen out of favour in racing. Only Ferrari has resisted the temptation – and pressure from sponsors – to stray from its signature red
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
If you’re a fan of the Ferrari racing team, all you need to tell the world about where your loyalty lies is a plain red shirt. Most fans like to have the genuine Ferrari garment, decorated with the distinctive Prancing Horse motif that was presented to Enzo Ferrari himself after the first World War by the grieving family of a fallen fighter pilot who had carried it into combat. Red says it all, though, and the worldwide popularity of the marque from Maranello means that the only grandstands at a grand prix event not to be drenched in a sea of scarlet are those reserved for the guests or employees of a rival marque. Today, those fans automatically associate red with Ferrari, Italy’s all-conquering racing team. That is hardly surprising, for the famous cars have worn it right from the beginning of the Scuderia when Mr Ferrari started building his own cars more than 60 years ago. But red is, of course, the national racing colour of Italy, allocated at the dawn of grand prix racing, before the Great War. However, it was not always so, and at one time as many as three different Italian manufacturers competed in red. Indeed, Enzo’s own patriotism was stretched so far at times that not all of his team’s great triumphs have been won (as we shall see) by cars bearing the proud flame-coloured livery.
Car racing in one form or another became inevitable almost as soon as the world’s first two cars had been built. The early city-to-city road races were a splendid concept, with an instant marketing appeal to the freshly established car manufacturers and their young proprietors, many of whom took the wheel (or tiller) themselves. Suicidally dangerous as these open-road events would prove to be, however, competition activities were soon restricted to closed circuits. The most famous of these were the races for the Gordon Bennett Trophy, contested for six years starting in 1900. The rules laid down for the Gordon Bennett races were aimed at ensuring competition between countries rather than individual makes of car. In 1900, the cars representing the three participating countries – the united States, Germany and France – were to be identified by being painted in red, white and blue respectively.
Italy had its own burgeoning car industry at the time, of course, and racing was already developing, but Italian manufacturers preferred to compete ‘at home’. If Fiat or Lancia had wished to take part in the Gordon Bennett races, they would probably have argued with the french team for the right to wear blue, which is the colour worn then, as now, by Italian athletes and footballers.
It would not be until 1906, and the first Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France at Le Mans, that red made its first appearance on an Italian racing car. Another 15 years would elapse before any attempt at codifying racing colours was made, and while Germany and France retained white and blue as their primary racing colours, Italy took red. By now it was recognised that the public identified more with individual drivers than with makes of car or even nationality, so the colour was expected to be worn accordingly – i.e. a French driver entered in an Alfa Romeo would be required to present his car in blue. The rules were exquisitely precise, with separate colours for chassis, bodywork and, in some cases, wheels. The limited number of primary colours forced certain outrageous shades to be listed, so it is perhaps fortunate that Egypt never amounted to much in the racing business. unless, that is, you are attracted by something painted in pale violet. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the precision of the rules was not strictly observed. Britain’s colour is listed as green, which dates back to the Gordon Bennett days and the 1904 race that was scheduled to be held in England, home of the previous year’s race winner. even as early as the turn of the century, however, racing on public roads was banned in that country, but it was discovered that the laws of Ireland (still part of the united Kingdom at that time) were more flexible, which explains why the race took place in County Kildare. It is believed that the dark green hue adopted by the Napier team, though rather dull, was a tribute to the so-called ‘emerald Isle’. It quickly became associated with British racing, although there would be a wide variety of greens to be seen on British cars over the course of the years. There was a particularly unpleasant lime green used by the British racing Partnership (BrP), which in 1962 found its way onto a Ferrari that had been loaned to the team for Stirling Moss to race. Moss suffered his career-ending crash at Goodwood before he ever sat in the car, which only raced once as a BrP entry. It was a touch of rebelliousness at Maranello in 1964 that resulted in the British driver John Surtees claiming the World Championship for Ferrari at the wheel of a car painted blue and white. At the time, Enzo Ferrari was having difficulty in persuading the international sporting authority to homologate (recognise) a new car for the following season’s sports car championship.
Convinced that the Italian national body was not giving him the support he deserved as a licence holder, he called in Luigi Chinetti, Ferrari’s united States dealer, and invited him to enter the cars for the two final races of the season under the name of Chinetti’s privately owned North American Racing Team. Thus it was that Surtees claimed his title in Mexico in a car wearing uS colours. Despite the rules (which were never seriously enforced), national colours were worn by most of the formula one teams until 1968. In 1949, when Enzo Ferrari decided to sell two of his type 125 cars, one of them went to British industrialist Tony Vandervell, who not only painted it green but even changed its name (‘Thin Wall Special’) to promote his brand of bearings. In those early years there were also close links between Maranello and Belgium, where the Ferrari concessionaire provided strong support for the racing activities of Belgian drivers and teams like Ecurie Francorchamps. The Belgian cars were painted in sunny yellow, a colour that is still popular today among Ferrari customers who seek an alternative to the familiar red. For many years, the most important income received by formula one teams came in the form of generous performance bonuses from the major oil companies. Conveniently, Shell, Esso, BP and the rest were happy to advertise their successes by featuring their star drivers in their advertising. This allowed constructors to avoid painting brand names on their cars, a custom that was regarded at the time as garishly American. But when Esso withdrew its support from his cars at the end of 1967, Lotus boss Colin Chapman knew he had to find money elsewhere. He was able to take advantage of a new ruling that had discreetly lifted the requirement for cars to wear national colours. Tipped off by a Lotus mechanic, who was romantically involved with a woman who worked for the marketing agency that handled Imperial Tobacco, Chapman’s team manager approached the cigarette company and quickly secured a deal.
Inconveniently, the Lotus cars were already on their way to the other side of the world, ready to contest the Tasman series of races. Once off the ship, they were hastily painted in the colours of Imperial’s Gold Leaf brand, which explains why startled spectators in New Zealand were the first to see the familiar green Lotuses compete in the garish red, white and gold of a cigarette packet. Formula One was about to undergo one of the most seismic shifts in the sport’s history. (Students of modern political history might even like to note that the ethics of tobacco sponsorship became one of the first imbroglios to face former British Prime Minister Tony Blair when F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to the Labour Party coincided with a delay in the banning of tobacco sponsorship, but that’s another, much more complicated, story.) Not surprisingly, other sponsors stepped forward to take advantage of this new advertising opportunity. One of the most memorable new multicoloured liveries was that of the Yardley perfume company, worn in the 70s on BrM and McLaren cars. By linking its range of toiletries to F1 racing, Yardley’s campaign successfully revived the fortunes of a brand that had become dull and unattractive. As for Mr Ferrari, an idealistic attitude towards commercialism meant that the inevitable move towards cigarette sponsorship would be delayed. Even when the Scuderia signed an agreement with Philip Morris/Marlboro, the livery was far less flamboyant than on rival cars. While it was a happy coincidence that Marlboro’s primary colour was red, the colour itself was not always the pure red familiar from the old days. Indeed, some fans became slightly nervous when they saw the much-loved rosso corsa morph into shades of pink and near-orange.
The change had been made on an experimental basis, in the interests of ensuring that television broadcasts transmitted the maximum impact. On television, pure red has a tendency to appear as an unattractive brown shade. However, since 2007, Ferrari’s F1 cars have competed in true rosso corsa, and though 2009’s F60 wears rosso perlato (it’s 1kg lighter, they say), it is still unequivocally red. It remains an exclusively Ferrari colour, the favourite of racing fans but also of Ferrari’s devoted road car customers.
Surely no colour has held as much sporting significance for any group of fans as the red of those glorious racing Ferraris. And it could so easily have been blue…