At some point in your life, you've probably come across one of these flamboyant Japanese TV commercials. If so, chances are that they sort of struck a nerve with you. By European and North American standards, Asian design principles often appear 'intense'. They use poppy colors, cringey storytelling and over-the-top effects. Looking at motor racing, kind of the same pattern can also be seen when comparing European and Asian liveries.
The Japanese team Goodsmile Racing – managed by none other than F1 veteran Ukyo Katayama—is a very good example. They sport a different manga-style livery each year. The main character of the liveries is Racing Miku, an anime character based on Hatsune Miku—another anime character created by the Good Smile Company.
Despite the fact that all this sounds a bit out of this world, the team has actually been quite successful in Japan. In 2017, they won the GT300 category in the Super GT series and in the same year they also made their international debut at the Spa 24 Hours.
One designer who can help us explain and understand the differences between the cultures is berzerkdesign—a German working regularly on liveries for the Asian market. His first job came with Absolute Racing in 2014. Since then he's worked for many more teams, including the Asian branch of Phoenix Racing. In his view, making an impression on track has a much higher value than in Europe.
"Sponsors and teams want to stand out at all costs. If necessary they even sacrifice their corporate identity and give designers a free hand."
For Hongkongese livery designer Jay Wong however, there's another, bigger philosophy behind the visual differences. As he describes, Western liveries are usually designed to accommodate sponsors or manufacturers. American and European teams often seek close connections to their backers as they're ones who allow them to go racing in the first place. Hence they back down on their own identity to give room to their supporters.
If you take a look at the annual Nürburgring 24 Hours for example, it becomes apparent that almost all major GT liveries are either dictated by the sponsor or the manufacturer. Think about how all basically all GT3 AMG's run the same basic pattern or how strong the influence of Montaplast and BWT are on the Audi's they're backing. The most noticeable exception is probably Manthey Racing who keep sporting their 'Grello' livery, regardless of sponsorship.
In some extreme cases like Gulf and Martini (and probably Marlboro would count too if tobacco sponsorship was still allowed), the sponsor's heritage can be so big that they actually get licensing money instead of paying for the advertising space—just so a racing team can be part of their legacy.
In Asia on the other hand, the teams are often led by private investors. The influence of manufacturers isn't as big as in the Western world and hence the dependency on manufacturers and sponsors is significantly lower. This makes a team's identity all the more important and often actually turns it into an extension of the owner's personality. As Jay puts it:
"The race track is the night club and the cars are the luxury clothes: flashy, loud, exotic, but also with a special local twist."
Another rather unique trait is that the organization of livery guidelines and constraints in Asia is less rigid, thereby making them a lot less predictable for designers. Jay has been designing liveries since 2011. At about this time, the Blancpain GT Asia Cup became Asia's premier GT series and the Macau Grand Prix got its FIA GT World Cup status. This elevated Asian racing events to new promotional levels, but the organizational part didn't really follow suit.
It always results in clutter, and a resounding 'I can't bother anymore' in your head
To understand Jay's point, it's important to explain how he approaches livery design. Before thinking about any details, he likes to start with the constraints: the position and size of the number plates, the white space around the driver names and the background color of the tyre manufacturer. "All of that is often impossible to account for. Even with the best intention it always results in clutter, and a resounding 'I can't bother anymore' in your head as official stickers are randomly thrown onto the cars just before they go out." Berzerkdesign adds that also the infrastructure and quality of the sticker producing companies is sub-par. "They seem to completely lack the technical quality, skills and above all the feeling for proportions".
Despite all these downsides, it's important for Jay to point out that things are improving continuously. He generally perceives the Asian market as being more open than the Western one, not least enabling new talents like himself to make their way into motorsport design. Over the years, this also results in an increasing level of professionalism and maturity, also because European designers like berzerkdesign have entered the Asian market.
At the same time, Asian design directions start making their way into the European market. One example for this is the TP 12 Kessel Racing Ferrari in this year's Blancpain GT Series with its chrome blue and yellow livery.
Livery design in Asia is 'different'. It's much more glossy, much more shiny, much more colourful than design in the Western hemisphere. But love it or hate it—it does have a lot of appeal and increasing influence and is more often than not a welcome change to the corporate and unified standards of Europe and North America.