Since 1968 when sponsors and official commercial agreements were allowed in, we saw the entry of big brands paying vast amounts of money to plant their logos on the cars of the great circus.
The Formula 1 world championship has come a long way since its first Grand Prix at Silverstone on 13 May 1950. In the early years, pilots such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss lined up next to Prince Bira of Siam, Count Carel Godin de Beaufort, and Alfonso, Marquis of Portago delighted the early eras.
The cars competed in the colors of the national flags of their countries of origin. The closest thing to sponsorship came from the tire and oil companies that supplied their products in exchange for a small logo on the drivers’ overalls.
Initially, sponsorship was banned. However, in 1968, BP and Shell withdrew from F1 and Firestone decided to charge for the tires. To increase team revenue, sponsorship was allowed for the first time. It was the most significant movement in the commercial history of the sport.
Colin Chapman, the shrewd owner of Team Lotus, quickly signed an £85,000-a-year contract with Imperial Tobacco. To the surprise of many, when Chapman’s cars hit the track for the Monaco Grand Prix, it was British green livery had been replaced by paint similar, in dimensions and proportions, to Gold Leaf’s cigarette packs.
There was no turning back from that wave of brand entry. More than 300 brands sponsor F1, spending close to £1 billion annually.
The start of the world championship was dominated by the Italian scarlet teams, but only one is still around today. Ferrari is among the most popular teams in F1 and is the oldest, with a track record of 16 constructors’ championships.
In the early days of the sport, the only sponsors were those directly involved in the competition, such as tire and oil suppliers. Shell partnered with Ferrari and oil companies and remains one of F1’s main sources of funding.
In the wake of World War II, German teams were unable to compete in F1. Mercedes’ distinctive silver arrows returned to racing in 1954 and were the first cars to break Italian dominance.
Teams that were car manufacturers dominated early F1. That changed with the introduction of the powerful and reliable Ford DFV engine for customers, which quickly became the power unit of choice for most grid teams, allowing independent teams like Lotus, Tyrrell, and McLaren to thrive.
1968: Gold Leaf
As I said at the beginning of the article, commercial sponsorship was banned in F1 until early 1968. Colin Chapman, the boss of Lotus; immediately left his British racing green livery in favor of the Gold Leaf cigarette brand. F1 would never be the same again.
Elf Aquitaine was a French oil company that merged with TotalFina to form TotalFinaElf. The new company changed its name to Total in 2003. Elf has remained one of Total’s main brands.
From its beginnings, Elf used motorsport as a means of promotion. It began with a four-year partnership with Matra in a French Formula Three program. This resulted in Henri Pescarolo winning the title. The European Formula Two Championship went to Matra the following year with Jean-Pierre Beltoise. In 1969, the combination won the Formula One World Championship with Tyrrell and Jackie Stewart.
1972: John Player Special
Lotus’ famous black and gold livery was launched in 1972 and proved that sponsorship cars could be beautiful. The color scheme was removed in 1987, but for many fans it still evokes F1.
Marlboro joined the influx of tobacco brands into F1 in 1973, starting its famous deal with McLaren the following year. It became Ferrari’s main partner in 1996 and is the only tobacco brand still associated with the sport. Controversially, Marlboro displayed his “barcodes” on Maranello’s cars.
Tremendous commotion and controversy were seen when Durex sponsored the Surtees team in 1976, there was a protest from the announcers who felt it lowered the moral tone. It represented the hedonistic image of F1 in the 1970s when advertising for Penthouse and Swedish pop group ABBA also appeared in cars.
When Renault first entered F1 in 1977, its turbocharged engine was so unreliable that the car received the nickname “Yellow Teapot”. But in 1979 it was a winner, ushering in the turbo era and causing the eventual downfall of the ubiquitous DFV engine (aspirated as we still know it).
1979: Gitanes Ligier
Gitanes, a tobacco brand, was for more than a decade one of the most popular sponsors of Formula 1. The gitanes text was removed (1991-1993), the Gitanes logo with a barcode with the name (1994-1995), or “Gitanes” was replaced by “Ligier” and the Gitanes logo was replaced by a man with the French flag (1995).
The TAG Group sponsored the Williams championship winner in 1980, before buying shares in McLaren in 1983. He bought the swiss watch house: Heuer two years later. McLaren’s resulting sponsorship by TAG Heuer was one of the longest and ended last season at the age of 37 seasons of associates. It is not known if Ron Dennis’ departure from McLaren had anything to do with the breakup; the mark came with Ron Dennis and went with him. We could say that the effective relationship was Dennis-TAG.
Honda has competed in F1 several times as a team, constructor, and engine supplier, but its most successful period was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. First with Williams and then with McLaren, Honda won six consecutive titles between 1986 and 1991.
Most sponsors have poor visibility, but Brazilian bank Nacional was different. For nine seasons, the brand and Senna were confused; he was synonymous with three-time world champion Ayrton Senna, who appears on his distinctive yellow helmet and blue cap.
The idea of a clothing manufacturer owning an F1 team seemed surreal in 1986, but Benetton proved serious and won two drivers’ titles and one constructors’ title. Its success paved the way for people like Red Bull.
From 1972 to 1993, Camel was the official sponsor of the then-popular IMSA car racing series, titled Camel GT. From 1987 to 1990, Camel sponsored the Lotus Formula One team and then sponsored the Benetton team and the Williams team from 1991 to 1993, Camel’s last year as a sponsor in Formula One.
It may only have existed for a single season, but the 7UP Jordan is consistently voted one of the greatest F1 liveries of all time. It was also the car that took Michael Schumacher on his brief, but brilliant F1 debut.
1997: Bitten & Hisses
As tobacco advertising rules tightened, F1 teams were forced to invent innovative replacement livery. The most famous of these was the case of Bitten & Hisses, that unique and unmistakable snake design by Jordan for Benson & Hedges. In 2005, a European Union ban paid for most tobacco ads in F1.
Toyota was one of the few major automakers that never entered F1. That changed in 2002 when the big-spending Japanese brand was drawn to F1’s increasingly corporate and confident image. A Toyota F1 car never won a Grand Prix but came second five times.
2005: Red Bull
Red Bull had been in F1 for several years when he decided to buy his own team in 2005. He started in the lower half of the peloton but was not deterred. Between 2010 and 2013 he won four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles.
ING was one of many big-spending financial brands that entered F1 in the mid-2000s. It looked like they would become a major force in the sport, but it all ended with the credit crisis and the Dutch multinational disappeared in less than three years.
Rolex became a sponsor of F1 in 2013. Sport boss Bernie Ecclestone used sponsorship to justify F1’s lack of focus on young people and social media: “Young children will see the Rolex brand, but are they going to buy one? I’d rather reach the 70-year-old man who has a lot of cash.”