Explained: Why F1’s era of colour is over…but could come back

Sam Cooper
The 2021 and 2023 McLaren car.

McLaren's 2021 car compared to the 2023 edition shows how much paint has been stripped away.

Carbon fibre is the new black if you are an F1 designer but the colourful cars of yesteryear may not be confined to the history books forever.

McLaren became the first team to unveil their livery ahead of the 2024 season and it follows a growing trend of F1 styles, minimal colour and lots of exposed carbon fibre.

There is an obvious reason why teams do this – weight – but it has made for a decidedly less colourful grid than previous eras.

Why are modern F1 cars so colourless?

The change from colour to carbon fibre occurred in 2022 and it is not an unusual move in the history of Formula 1.

The reason for the change was teams were desperate to save weight and with the 2022 regulation cars being heavier than ever, it was a real challenge for constructors to bring their car down to the minimum weight limit of 798kg.

Take away the 80kg allocated for the driver and that gives you a limit of 718kg or, to put it in other terms, not a lot of wiggle room.

Whenever a new era of regulations is introduced, the cars of the first season are likely to be the worst of the entire generation.

The reasoning behind this is clear: although teams have some of the smartest minds in the world, even they cannot predict with 100 per cent accuracy what may play out in real life.

So when a car first rolls off the truck in pre-season testing, it is likely to be the slowest and, crucially, the heaviest it will be going forward. But why does that affect the colour, we hear you ask?

Less paint = less weight = more speed

One of the main complaints about the new era of cars is the sheer size of them. In 2010, when refuelling was banned, the cars weighed 620kg and even the jump from 2021 to 2022 was by more than 40kg.

This poses a difficult problem for the designers as they want their car to be as light as possible, but hitting that minimum limit has been a real struggle.

“The cars are getting less and less paint on them every year,” Alpine technical director Matt Harman said last year.

“But I think it’s important that you’re into all those things, because you don’t really [want to be] wasting any mass.

“Every single gram on the car needs to be put back into performance. It’s 35 milliseconds per kilo, so you need to be spending that wisely.”

So when the designers are looking down at their clipboard for what to remove, paint is an obvious starting point.

How are F1 cars painted?

Up until now we have been saying paint when it comes to car design, but the reality is that is not so accurate.

A small evolution over the years in F1 has been the move away from paint to vinyl wrapping which is lighter and therefore faster.

McLaren say that the majority of their car is wrapped with only the headrests and mirror stems still painted and that is a common blueprint followed by the teams.

This also raises another question: how do teams change livery so quickly for one-off races? The answer to that is they simply pull off one wrapping and apply another, rather than painting on top of paint.

Why have car designs not always been carbon fibre?

If less paint equals less weight and less weight equals more speed, it is a fair enough question to ask why colour was ever in Formula 1 to begin with and the answer is because teams had more wiggle room.

In previous eras of F1 cars, it was not such a struggle to reach the minimum weight limit and, indeed, it used to be the other way round.

After they had finished designing their car, if a team found it weighed too little, they would add ballast typically to the front wing and the plank underneath.

But if they could make up some of the weight with paint, they would go through that option first.

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Why does the cost cap affect colour?

The reason why this carbon fibre trend has lasted three years is because of the cost cap.

In previous years, teams could spend an endless amount of money perfecting their design and ultimately making it lighter. So say three seasons into a regulation change, the cars would be much more optimised than they were in the first season.

In the modern era, it is a little different.

Teams may still have a bottomless pit of money but they are limited to how much they can use, with the 2023 regulations stating a team must spend no more than $135 million per season.

The knock-on effect is the cars we will see roll out in a few weeks’ time at Bahrain will not be as optimised as hypothetical cars that have not been under the cost cap restrictions.

So in terms of the paint job, teams are still needing to save the precious few grams in order to get closer to the limit – but that does not mean this trend will go on forever.

Is the era of paint in F1 over?

Progress is made at an extremely quick level in F1, regardless of a cost cap, so there will come a point in this current cycle where teams will have the freedom to be a little more creative with their paintwork as their parts get lighter.

The only question is: will that happen before the next regulation change?

In 2026, power unit regulation changes will again shake up the game but it is not just with the engine where there will be changes.

Reports suggest FIA single seat director Nikolas Tombazis is planning a major weight reduction that could see the cars shed up to 50kg and while this is good news for fans who have been dying to see lighter cars, it may be another nail in the coffin for the brightly-coloured cars of yesteryear.

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