Professor Peter Stevens is one of the world’s most sought-after automotive designers, having penned the McLaren F1 road car, which marked a paradigm shift in high performance cars and remains highly influential and acclaimed.
He also designed a number of high-performance vehicles, including the Jaguar XJR-15, Prodrive’s Subaru World Rally Championship-winning car, the Lotus Esprit Mark Two, Lotus Excel and Elan SE as well as BMW’s 1999 Le Mans winner. Less known is that he designed race-car graphics and liveries for Formula 1 teams – including Brabham, Benetton, Prost and Arrows – for Jaguar’s Le Mans winners, and for touring car projects.
“I heard Brabham had secured a new sponsor [in Parmalat],” recalls Peter of his first F1 livery gig in 1978, “so I called Bernie [Ecclestone] up, introduced myself and asked whether he would like some new ideas. He said, ‘Get down here by 12’.
“I presented myself and Bernie said, ‘Yeah. Just what we want. We’ve got a bit of trouble actually,’ and took me to the workshop. There’s Niki Lauda, and he’s stomping around this car. It’s light green, dark green, yellow, red, blue, white, gold. Niki said, ‘Bernie, what the hell is this? I ain’t never going to drive a car looks like shit. And this looks like shit.’
“So Bernie says, ‘This is Peter Stevens. He’s going to come up with some new schemes for us by midday tomorrow.’ Thereafter I did all the Parmalat Brabham liveries.”
When Brabham decided they were going to do in-race refuelling they used aluminium, high pressure ‘beer cans’. “There were these horrible things that looked like they had fallen off the back of a truck. Bernie said to me, “Come have a look.’ I said, ‘You have to have those anodised blue because they just look awful.’ Bernie said, ‘Herbie [Blash, team manager], have those anodised blue.’ Just like that.”
When designing liveries Stevens starts by asking asks himself: Why would people do it? From the team point of view, it’s for the money, but what is it that the sponsor wants to get out of?
“One of my criticisms when I first looked at the Benettons [in 1997] was that they looked like part of a fairground ride, and I asked why they wanted that. A lot of people go into sponsoring cars because of the high profile and the high worth of everything around Formula 1, but it only works if a car exudes that sense of quality and style. Otherwise, it’s a bit of a mystery to me why people would do it.”
Peter was twice nominated for the Prince Phillip Designer’s Prize, was Autocar magazine’s Designer of the Year in 2002 and received the British Design Council Award for the Lotus Elan SE in 1991.
His PSD LLP consultancy is currently involved in the design and conceptualisation for a variety of vehicles for home and international markets, while recent (embargoed) projects include low-cost vehicles for developing countries and inner city streets, and high performance electric race car and road vehicles.
He writes internationally on design matters, races a vintage Ford Dry Lakes Hot-Rod, and makes excellent Sloe Gin. With the first cars of the 2021 F1 season due to appear next week, RaceFans asked him to rate modern livery designs. Here are his thoughts.
“The thing about Alfa Romeo is they hadn’t been in Formula 1 [since the mid-eighties], so it has to be a very clear, straightforward message. It works well on TV, because of the fleeting moment that you have to register what you’re seeing.
“One of the problems is these are not beautiful cars these days with some weird bits, and the nose is really grim. They want to play those down but on the Alfa Romeo the bit that stands out is the bit they want to stand out, which is that glorious white [serpent] graphic on the engine cover.
“The metallic red works really well in sunlight, which interesting because it’s not really Italian racing red. They’ve given it that metallic edge, which makes it really stand out. In the past Alfas were a darker red, more kind of brooding red.”
Stevens credits Marlboro – Alfa Romeo’s early eighties title sponsor – for the change from 1950s scarlet to the edgier red used from 1980-83: “(Parent) Philip Morris was pretty good; some of those companies had a culture of good graphics which they brought with them to Formula 1.”
Stevens’ rating: 9/10
“I have a problem, because if I like a team, then I may be a little more likely to like the graphic presentation – and I like that team. It’s cool. That [Monza 2020] win was just a knockout.
“The [livery] is very clear and crisp on there, and it’s terribly simple. The lines don’t try and defeat the shape of the car. I was intrigued to know what AlphaTauri is, so I looked it up and saw it’s a clothing brand owned by Red Bull. It worked in that it got my attention, which is really what they are trying to do in this internet age.
“People recognise the Red Bull connection instantly. Whether that will happen with the clothes is a separate marketing thing, but from a visual point of view doesn’t need to worry us. There’s no doubt, you know, it looks good on the grid.”
Stevens draws parallels to the inverted blue/white Brabham liveries he designed during the eighties, and leaves no doubts that the AlphaTauri graphics are amongst his favourites.
“Dark blue and white, those were our two colours, and anything on the white would be dark blue, and anything on the dark blue would be white. That was it.”
Stevens’ rating: 9/10
“Ferrari, yeah, it’s Ferrari, it’s red. It’s almost like it’s a matter of ‘It’s red; job done’. But that isn’t really the case because you have Ferrari, it’s an expensive thing they’re marketing, and just painting the cars red doesn’t give the same imagery you get from the road cars, which are kind of gorgeous and expensive and nicely detailed and well built.
“Where Ferrari use black on the car is pretty unimaginative. They’ve got that strip of sponsors along the bottom on the black bit – which I can recognise from what we did on [Richard] Lloyd’s [WSC Porsche] 40 years ago.
“[The livery] relies on stickers, Shell and UPS. The Rayban [logo] looks cool because it looks almost like it was done by hand, like when sign painters did the cars. Once UPS is a sticker, it’s a sticker. It undermines what I think UPS wants the message to be – we’re fast moving, modern, we understand all this stuff – not ‘We give you some money, and you put a sticker on the car.’
“The matte red – once it’s matte it’s sort of dead, and you can’t read the shape. Which is a good thing if you think the shapes are awful [or you’re hiding things], but at the same time there’s a sensuousness in the shapes that tells you it’s powerful and efficient and all those things. If you hide it with the matte, there’s nothing on the Ferrari to tell you the shape. But, we’d be in trouble if we didn’t have a red car on the grid…”
Stevens’ rating: 5/10
“It’s kind of funny, a black front of the car and a white back of the car. It looks stationary because if you just divide it in these two sections ahead of the radiators, it all goes black because in the side-on views you don’t see the little white [stripe] down the nose.
“What I like about the white down the nose is they’ve hidden the weird shape of the nose by simply making that white and that pale grey. But from a side view there’s an abrupt kind of vertical break.”
Stevens picks up on the industrial grey colouring font – apt given machine tools are the product advertised. “It’s like the lettering was done with some kind of machine tool, a milling machine. There’s an angle to those letters, you could pick up on the angle [for the rest of the livery]. That’s so strange, people don’t pick up on the bit they have.
“It’s a great brave effort, and I could find myself saying, ‘They’re really in at the deep end, and they can’t really swim terribly well so maybe it’s okay’. But I don’t, because when you have a car that looks ugly, I kind of analyse it in my mind as to why it’s ugly. But people who just look at it just say ‘that’s ugly’, and they don’t need to examine why.”
Stevens’ rating: 2/10
“They’ve gone to the orange [but] whether it rings a [historic] bell with some people [is debatable]. The frustrating thing is, it’s partly the way that the schemes are done by an agency. Somebody gets a side view, a plan view of the car and they kind of do the colours on that.
“I used to lay masking tape lines on a car, follow the shape of the car. I used to love doing that, because then I’d look along the tape and tweak it so it flowed with the surface. When I look at the McLaren now, between the blue and the orange on the airbox, that junction line in the side view just kind of wanders about. Same on the side pod: the join lines wander about for no reason.
“[It also depends on] whether you think blue and orange go together, I can’t really argue against it. It’s a subtle range of colours. But the number they put on the fin, it drives me bonkers! They’ve just stuck on a colour, like a club racer.”
Stevens’ rating: 4/10
Having run their usual silver livery in pre-season testing, Mercedes unexpectedly switched to a new black colour scheme when the 2020 season began, recognising their commitment to promoting diversity and tackling racism.
“[It] was a big surprise,” says Stevens. “No doubt about it – it’s pretty strong in the field, but it just looks like a black car in the field and your mind says, ‘That’s Mercedes’. What I don’t like about it is that squiggly blue line that wanders along the side and I’m asking, ‘Why did you need to do that, do it so wiggly?’
“But the bit I really don’t like is that red sticker on the airbox that says, ‘Ineos’ – an afterthought beyond belief. Something that looks like an afterthought never gains the value that there should be in being involved in Formula 1. Having previously been involved with Guy Edwards [known for his last-minute sponsorship deals] it said to me, ‘Oh, somebody rushed up with some money at the last moment, so we’ll stick it on here…’
“The little silver three-pointed stars, that’s a nice thing. But it’s a thing for still photography because you really don’t see it on the circuit, certainly not at speed. But the car, it’s a very strong image and there’s no doubt in a crowded field you really do it pick out. The two things you pick out are the pink [car] and the black theme. If you look far enough down the grid, you might see red…”
Stevens’ rating: 6/10
Racing Point (Aston Martin from 2021)
“The pink is a sucking-a-lemon sort of pink, and the way the BWT is just stuck across reminds me of when I went to Benetton to see what we could do about the cars when there was a lot of stuff stuck on them. I thought ‘Why did you have to do it [like this]?’
“I think it’s because people don’t really think sufficiently strongly about what they are trying to achieve. Either BWT said ‘Yeah, we love it’ for reasons which are quite obscure, or the person at Racing Point said, ‘That’s what it’s gonna be like.’ Neither of those are good reasons for doing something so untidy.”
The team races under the Aston Martin banner from this year – likely in British Racing Green – which Stevens finds concerning: “I never thought that green actually works that well on TV. What’s interesting is that people rarely, if ever, launch a [road] car in green. Even Aston Martin and Jaguar don’t launch in that. It’s not a colour that jumps off the page.”
Stevens’ rating: 2/10
“One of the strongest [liveries]; the way Red Bull handle their graphics it’s obvious somebody knows what they’re doing. There’s an overhead shot of the Red Bull and the letters on separate elements of the front wing could just have ‘ED’ and ‘BU’, and everybody would know it’s Red Bull. That’s a real mark of success, and the bull itself in yellow is just so strong.
“The satin paint finish looks like a wrap, and that’s pretty tricky when you’ve got removable panels. I remember with some of the more complex front ends I did you might easily need a spare nose, and you’d have to sticker them up so that they still fit properly.
“It’s neat that they use the same red for numbers as for Red Bull. They don’t impose a different colour, and all that thinking really works pretty darn well. It’s cohesive, and quite cunning because it hides all of (designer) Adrian Newey’s tricky bits. It’s a lesson in hiding the interesting bits.
“But the Aston Martin looks weedy on the rear wing, it’s kind of weak. This car says ‘Red Bull’ and suddenly the rear wing sticks its hand up and says in a squeaky voice, ‘Hello, I’m Aston Martin’.”
Stevens’ rating: 8/10
Renault (Alpine from 2021)
“I was so disappointed because Renault had done some much stronger schemes with the yellow and black. They did a future concept Formula 1 car and the use of the yellow was just terrific. They have kind of ended up with the weakest solution.
“It’s a shame because I’ve got friends in design at Renault, and they told me they don’t really have a say [in F1 livery design], which they did in that concept, of course. That black and yellow was good.
“Anyway [in 2021] it’s going to be Alpine, which is a wonderful blue. It’s all about marketing business, but I can’t, at the moment, see what the marketing advantage is by calling it Alpine instead of Renault.”
Stevens’ rating: 3/10
“I’ve watched the downs and downs of Williams, and it’s just colours on a car here. Frank never panicked, but [the livery] represents panic within the company: ‘We’ve got to make it look like this, put some stuff on it.’ It’s a shame, I was sad every time I saw it because I wanted it to look better and go better.”
The team unexpectedly lost title sponsor Rokit shortly before the 2020 season started. Their logos dominated its original livery, and the spaces they left behind were largely filled by driver-linked support.
“The tricky bit is they don’t attract me to go and find out who they are,” says Stevens. “The car has to look confident. During that period when McLaren didn’t have many sponsors, it exuded a lack of confidence in what they were doing. I’d hoped they’d have realised ‘we’ve got to make it look like we have all these good sponsors.’ But somebody did a marvellous job to get some sponsorship on there.”
Stevens’ rating: 4/10