Williams' red F1 liveries: In defence of the Winfield era

OPINION: The 1998 and 1999 Formula 1 seasons marked a major downturn in form for the Williams squad that had won the previous two world championships. But its lack of success in these years shouldn't be used as a stick to beat its non-traditional red liveries with

Williams' red F1 liveries: In defence of the Winfield era

The blue, white and gold branding of Rothmans had become a motorsport staple of the 1980s and ’90s, having emblazoned Porsche’s 956 prototypes, the Prodrive-run Subaru World Rally Championship team and Honda’s 500cc grand prix bikes across the years. Then assuming title sponsorship of Williams’ Formula 1 team at its peak, it enjoyed four successful years culminating in back-to-back titles for Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve in 1996 and 1997.

Then, parent company Rothmans International made the decision to cede its famous colours and instead use the Williams team to promote its Australian brand Winfield. The Williams cars were stripped of the blue the team had run since 1985 and turned out in a red, white and gold scheme for the 1998 season. It was deliciously sacrilegious, particularly following a heated battle with Ferrari for supremacy in the 1997 title fight, that it would cast aside its heritage and fall in line with its rival team.

Had any other team painted its car red in 1998 (except perhaps McLaren), then it’s doubtful that anyone would have batted an eyelid. Given that context of Williams and Ferrari having fought so fractiously against each other the previous year, culminating in Michael Schumacher’s botched swipe at Villeneuve, for Williams to ring the change seemed decidedly off the mark in many peoples’ eyes.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that the switch to a red scheme coincided with a decline in fortunes for Williams, having been continuously at the sharp end of the grid. The loss of design dynamo Adrian Newey had deprived Williams of its driving force on the technical team, while Renault’s departure also left the team fielding the second-string Mecachrome engines. Villeneuve duly went from winning a title to finishing fifth in the standings, 79 points away from eventual title winner Mika Hakkinen as Williams embarked upon a fallow period.

Most of that performance shortfall was wrapped in Williams’ inability to adapt successfully to the narrow-track regulations that were installed to slow the cars down. McLaren, now under the technical guidance of Newey, did so expertly – moving the leading edge of the sidepod forward to cope more adeptly with the further-inboard tyre wake.

Ralf Schumacher, Michael Schumacher 1999 French GP

Ralf Schumacher, Michael Schumacher 1999 French GP

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Naturally, history does not look favourably on the red period at Williams. But, taking out the context of a plunge in fortunes, and the car looking a bit too similar to the Ferrari at a distance, the cars looked great. The FW20 of 1998 perhaps took some refining, and eventually the livery had some of the white patches whittled away to clean up the block of sponsors at the front, but the 1999 rendition was a wonderfully ’90s concoction – fitting before the transition to the new millennium. The gold and blue flashes, and the more sculpted white fill down the centre produced a very cool looking car.

The switch in Winfield’s font design also helped the car too, as the serifs played with the brush-stroke flashes around the sidepod area. Perhaps from a true livery design standpoint, the 1999 edition shouldn’t have worked but, among an already-colourful field that season, you could see it coming a mile off.

That year’s FW21 was an altogether neater machine too, as designers Geoff Willis and Gavin Fisher had understood the previous year’s foibles. The team had lowered the centre of gravity in the new car, and although the Mecachrome – now badged as Supertec – received upgrades, it was still plenty of horsepower down on the leading powerplants.

Williams had expected the car to be much stronger than the 1998 machine, however, and although Ralf Schumacher scored an impressive 35 points in his first year with the team, CART champion Alessandro Zanardi’s inability to score left Williams fifth overall in a congested midfield. Zanardi’s struggles were well publicised, being unable to deal with the rock-hard grooved tyres in low-speed corners.

Schumacher almost won the madcap 1999 European Grand Prix, however, which would have earned the red scheme more adulation – after all, the general consensus is that a successful car is a beautiful one. Unfortunately, a puncture tore victory from his hands, and Williams never managed to take either of its red Formula 1 cars to the top step of the podium.

F1 European GP ’99 retrospective: The day Ralf stepped out of Michael’s shadow 

Perhaps it’s just the nostalgia talking, given that the 1999 season was the first full season this writer watched, but the ugly ducklings of the Williams era should be celebrated as daring designs.

Ralf Schumacher, 1999 European GP

Ralf Schumacher, 1999 European GP

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Woody Woodpecker’s avian mug on the nose only adds to the nostalgia factor, and although it’s hard to fully defend something’s sartorial qualities – especially when it’s completely subjective – the red Williams liveries were not the monsters they were made out to be.

Although the following BMW-influenced liveries arguably looked cleaner, their corporate nature took away some of the soul. Admittedly, they weren’t all bad; BMW’s test livery grafted onto the FW20 was wonderful. The dark blue car, marked by pinstripes which all faded to white on the nose, looked incredibly slick.

As a child, that livery got me very excited about BMW’s return to F1 – only for me to open up a copy of F1 Racing (now GP Racing, of course) a couple of months later to be dismayed by the much more insipid 2000 livery. Perhaps that crushing disappointment was the reason I cherish the red ones so much...

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Woody Woodpecker 1998

Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Woody Woodpecker 1998

Photo by: Motorsport Images

shares
comments
Russell - Alfa Romeo "most surprising team" in F1 testing
Previous article

Russell - Alfa Romeo "most surprising team" in F1 testing

Next article

Why grounded Mercedes isn’t worried about ‘camouflage’ games

Why grounded Mercedes isn’t worried about ‘camouflage’ games
How Red Bull's dynamic leader shaped its F1 philosophy Plus

How Red Bull's dynamic leader shaped its F1 philosophy

The death of Dietrich Mateschitz last month has not only deprived Red Bull of its visionary founder, it has shorn Formula 1 of one of its most influential benefactors. Mateschitz himself was famously media-shy, preferring to let the brand do the talking on his behalf. And, while it’s now normal to speak of Red Bull F1 titles and champions made, Mateschitz never assumed it would be easy or even possible – as ANTHONY ROWLINSON discovered during this previously unpublished interview from 2006…

Can Mercedes break Formula 1's cycle of doom? Plus

Can Mercedes break Formula 1's cycle of doom?

OPINION: Teams that have dominated for long periods throughout Formula 1's history often take years to get back to the top of the tree once they've slipped down. But it remains to be seen whether the same will happen to Mercedes after a challenging 2022 season

Formula 1
Nov 24, 2022
What hurt Perez most in his ill-fated fight for second in Abu Dhabi Plus

What hurt Perez most in his ill-fated fight for second in Abu Dhabi

Arguably the favourite in the battle to finish second best in 2022's Formula 1 standings, Sergio Perez's two-stop strategy at Abu Dhabi couldn't take him ahead of Charles Leclerc when the music stopped - and several key factors ultimately precluded him from the much-coveted runner-up spot

Formula 1
Nov 23, 2022
The Abu Dhabi momentum that can propel Leclerc and Ferrari to F1 2023 success Plus

The Abu Dhabi momentum that can propel Leclerc and Ferrari to F1 2023 success

OPINION: Charles Leclerc achieved his target of sealing runner-up in the 2022 world championship with a masterful drive behind Max Verstappen in Abu Dhabi. And that race contained key elements that may help him, and Ferrari, go one better in Formula 1 2023

Formula 1
Nov 22, 2022
How Verstappen's record-breaking 2022 season compares to the F1 greats Plus

How Verstappen's record-breaking 2022 season compares to the F1 greats

The 2022 Formula 1 season will be remembered as a record book rewriting Max Verstappen masterclass, a completely different challenge to his maiden world championship last year, and a clear sign he is still raising his own level. But where does it stack up against the all-time great F1 campaigns?

Formula 1
Nov 22, 2022
Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Driver Ratings Plus

Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Driver Ratings

The 2022 Formula 1 season came to a close at the Yas Marina Circuit, where the battle for second in the standings was decided, the wins in a season record extended and a retiring four-time world champion bowed out on a high. Here's how we rated the drivers

Formula 1
Nov 21, 2022
The factors that stopped Perez catching Leclerc in Verstappen's Abu Dhabi triumph Plus

The factors that stopped Perez catching Leclerc in Verstappen's Abu Dhabi triumph

Max Verstappen ended the 2022 Formula 1 season in fitting fashion with a dominant drive to victory in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But behind him, early season rival Charles Leclerc achieved his target of securing the runner-up spot with a well-executed a one-stop strategy to beat Sergio Perez, whose pursuit on a two-stop strategy was hampered by several critical factors

Formula 1
Nov 21, 2022
Why the impact of FIA’s anti-bouncing metric is hard to judge Plus

Why the impact of FIA’s anti-bouncing metric is hard to judge

Faced with drivers complaining about the long-term health effects of car ‘bouncing’, the FIA stepped in to deal with it. JAKE BOXALL-LEGGE explains how the so-called ‘Aerodynamic Oscillation Metric’ works, and asks if it is fit for purpose?

Formula 1
Nov 20, 2022