The 9 best McLaren F1 liveries ever

13th February 2023
Simon Ostler

As McLaren launches its 2024 F1 car, the MCL38, I can't help but wish there was a little more paint on it. There's the start of a good livery there, but it's 90 per cent carbon-fibre.

McLaren has enjoyed a new influx of creative freedom when it comes to liveries since the new regime took over in 2017. The original papaya colour of the ‘60s returned, and since then the McLaren car has been one of the more varied on the grid.

It's been good fun watching McLaren transform itself into a modern and exciting new entity with young drivers and an enthusiastic fanbase. But in the past 60 years, the team and its cars have undergone several transformations, including perhaps the most iconic racing livery of all time. The team has been around for a long time, so there are plenty to choose from, but these are the best McLaren F1 liveries of all time.


9. McLaren M19C

I’m skipping over the original white livery that Bruce ran with his first McLaren F1 car – the M2A – and instead kicking off with this, and what was the first major sponsorship livery for the team. Yardley of London brought some serious funding for the 1972 season, which allowed for a more consistent and substantial presence on the grid.

The new Yardley-McLaren partnership was also accompanied by a swift upturn in form, following four years of relative struggles which included the death of Bruce McLaren in 1970. The partnership of Denny Hulme and Peter Revson brought a win and several podiums on the way to third place in the constructors’ championship.

Also new for the Yardley-McLaren era was the livery. In place of the full orange get-up, the papaya colour was restricted to the side pods only and replaced with white. The simplicity is what gets this look onto the list. It suits the car's shape, and that's important in a good livery.


8. McLaren M23

In 1974, McLaren signed what would become one of the most important, and longest-running sponsorship deals in F1 history. Phillip Morris wanted a billboard for its Marlboro brand, so the M23 was decked out in that now incredibly famous white and red livery.

But it took a couple of years for the designers behind the colour scheme to really nail a strong look. In my eyes, the Marlboro McLaren livery in 1976 was the first successful effort. It tidied up a lot of what was wrong with earlier cars, namely the placing of logos, although that was helped somewhat by the shape of the airbox necessitated by a mid-season regulation change. A clean stripe of red on each side met in the middle to form the instantly recognisable logo on the nose.

The fact this car was also involved in one of the most famous championship battles is worth a mention. James Hunt’s championship success remains a famous chapter of F1 folklore, so it’s a good job the car he was driving looked as good as this.


7. McLaren M7A

As Bruce McLaren began to forge his way in F1, driving his own car alongside the likes of Ferrari and Lotus, he embarked on his first full season in 1968 alongside reigning world champion and fellow New Zealander Denny Hulme. The car they drove was the M7A, and it was painted in the colour that McLaren would become known for.

McLaren first used the papaya orange colour on his Can-Am car in 1967 but decided the M7A would benefit from a splash of colour as well. He was right. Who knew such a simple use of a single colour could look so damn good on an F1 car?

It was quick too. Hulme took two wins and McLaren the driver took one, as the team rose to second in the constructors’ championship. It’s a shame this colour was lost to the sport for quite so long, although the decision to bring papaya back will forever be one of the best ever made when it comes to F1 liveries – more on that later.


6. McLaren MP4/22

The 2007 season was a tumultuous one for McLaren. It all started so well. Reigning double world champion Fernando Alonso had joined from Renault and a certain Lewis Hamilton had arrived on the scene. Surely nothing could stop McLaren from finally returning to the top of the sport for the first time in almost ten years?

Well, the year of drama that followed certainly put paid to any hopes of championship success. Alonso did not take kindly to the stern contest his upstart team-mate was putting up and ensured that if he couldn’t win, neither would his team-mate. But that wasn’t even the biggest problem for McLaren in 2007, as the team was thrown out of the championship standings due to the infamous Spygate scandal.

One positive for McLaren in 2007 at least was the livery. The team had first introduced the chrome effect livery back in 2006 and it looked kind of cool, certainly unique. But the livery came into its own a year later when McLaren also picked up Vodafone sponsorship, which incorporated much more red into the colour scheme and added the ideal finishing touch.


5. McLaren MP4/30

This was supposed to be the start of something magical for McLaren. The return of Honda power to Woking promised a rekindling of the kind of dominance the team had enjoyed during its championship domination in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be.

The MP4/30 was a deeply troubled machine. It lacked power, it struggled for reliability and was generally considered to be a massive disappointment by the team, its drivers, and its fans.

The car also didn’t look particularly good, at least to start with. A distinct lack of a title sponsor meant the initial racing livery was a bland grey/chrome with a papaya accent around the nose. Fortunately, the team did manage to address this. The designers came up with an incredibly sharp black and red colour scheme which made the car look fast, even if it wasn’t.


4. MCL35M (Gulf one-off)

The MCL35 is an odd car when it comes to statistics. Looking back at its results, it’s difficult to see how McLaren managed to finish third in the constructors’ championship in 2020. Behind the dominance of Mercedes and Red Bull, consistency was the order of the day, as McLaren bested the rest of the midfield despite achieving just two podium finishes.

Amid the Covid chaos, the MCL35 was carried over to the 2021 season in the form of the MCL35M, and McLaren did something very special with it at the Monaco Grand Prix. In celebration of the team’s partnership with Gulf, a one-off livery was used for one race only at the blue ribband event.

We’ve spoken many times about the Gulf livery here on GRR, and this use of the colour scheme is equally brilliant. There is just no bad word to say about that particular combination of blue and orange.


3. McLaren MP4/12

When the Marlboro era ended in 1996 McLaren went through the next decade with a more toned-down look. White and red gave way to black and silver, and I for one think it looked absolutely incredible.

One cigarette brand gave way to another as West came in as title sponsor for the team and brought about a substantial change in livery, but one that quickly became one of the most recognisable in motorsport through the turn of the century. The change, much like the introduction of Marlboro in 1974, saw McLaren enjoy a substantial upturn in form as Mika Häkkinen took two consecutive drivers’ titles in 1998 and 1999.

But the first West livery of 1997 is by far the best in my eyes because the two-tone grey gives the car an extra layer of depth that was lost in subsequent designs. McLaren took three wins in that season, and but for some pretty poor reliability could well have been far more instrumental in the title fight.


2. McLaren MCL33

It took a long time for papaya orange to return to the F1 grid, but when it did, McLaren did it right. The MCL33 was simply perfect. Forget all of the annoyance of sponsorships, logos and fancy graphics. Just paint the car orange.

It’s kind of sad McLaren has begun to rebuild its sponsorship catalogue, because the team’s more recent liveries have been something of a mess. The simplicity of this livery is what makes it one of the best the team has ever produced.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the car it adorned. McLaren had got rid of its Honda engines, but even with Renault power, the car struggled to develop any pace, and 2018 was a season largely to forget for McLaren fans.


1. McLaren MP4/4

You all knew this was coming. It has to be, doesn’t it? Just the other day, I spoke about the Rothmans Williams livery as one of the most iconic F1 designs of all time. This one goes a step further. The Marlboro McLaren livery of the late 1980s and early 1990s has to be the most recognisable colour scheme ever.

And as if the livery wasn’t enough, the cars it was splashed all over were pretty good, too. Particularly this one, the 1988 MP4/4, to this day the car that came closest to winning every single race in a season.

It also works fantastically well with the Marlboro livery, too. The shape of the nose fits perfectly with the logo colours. All in all, this car might be as close to perfection as it comes.

Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.

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