Why proper national colours on Grand Prix racing cars will be back in a few years
BEFORE RACING cars looked like packets of cigarettes on wheels, they used to wear national colours.

Readers under 35 may find this surprising, but Italian racing red, British racing green and French racing blue were once as synonymous with their nations' sporting fortunes as Three Lions on an England footballer's shirt.

Nowadays, even Ferrari has sold its soul: the red of its cars is more Marlboro red than the rich, pillar-box, Italian racing red of yore. Things, as they say, can only get better. And, for once, they almost certainly will.

Proper national colours, on Grand Prix racing cars, are to return in a few years. Fag-packet styling, along with cigarette-company funding, will end up in the ashtray.

Before I explain why, it is worth dwelling on the past importance of national racing colours. In the Twenties, in a Targa Florio race in Sicily, Mercedes-Benz was warned that if it raced in its traditional German white, the peasants lining the route would stone its cars, allowing the red Alfas and Fiats through to victory.

Mercedes chose to disguise its cars and painted them in Italian racing red. This was a dirty tactic, akin to painting a Messerschmitt in RAF colours in 1940 and hoping the English wouldn't notice. Yet it worked. The peasants, convinced it must be an Italian car, cheered the Mercedes on its way.

National colours sometimes came about in strange ways. Germany's national racing colour is now reckoned to be silver, yet, as we have seen, it was once white. The change happened in 1934, when Mercedes-Benz re-entered Grand Prix racing, partly funded by the Nazis, to prove German racial - and racing - superiority.

For its first race, run to a new formula that limited the weight of competing cars to 750kg, Mercedes' team manager, Alfred Neubauer, was shocked to discover that his cars were 1kg over the limit. His solution was to strip off the white paint, exposing the cars' aluminium skins. Hence the Silver Arrows, which dominated Thirties Grand Prix racing.

But back to the Formula One ashtray. As cigarette funding is wound up, so car companies will fill the void as backers. Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Peugeot, Ferrari (Fiat, in other words) and Ford are already big supporters of the sport. Their involvement will increase, just as BMW, Renault and Toyota either re-enter F1 racing or come in for the first time.

Ferraris will return to proper Italian racing red, McLaren-Mercedes are already silver (never mind that McLaren cars and Mercedes racing engines are built and designed here), and Prost-Peugeots are already blue, even if a shade too dark.

Most exciting of all for British fans, Jaguar is poised to enter Formula One, with Ford funding. Its cars will be British racing green, a colour that dominated GP grids back in the Sixties, but is now never seen.

Ford currently bankrolls the Stewart-Ford team, run by ex-world champion Jackie Stewart. Yet Ford bigwigs think Stewart is getting more publicity than they are. The solution is for Ford to buy its own team and then relaunch it as Jaguar, either in 2001 or 2002.

By then, we should see red Ferraris battle silver Mercedes, green Jaguars, white Hondas and blue Peugeots. Grand Prix racing should once again stir the same national passions as it did in the Sixties, when drivers won races for Britain rather than for Benson & Hedges.