There was a time when the launches of Formula 1 cars were huge events that cost the teams (or, more accurately, their sponsors) what was at the time correctly termed ‘mega-bucks’.
If it wasn’t the Spice Girls spicing up London’s Alexandra Palace to take the wraps off the gleaming-silver McLaren-Mercedes MP4-12 in the company of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard ahead of the 1997 season... then it was shivering in freshly blown snow a couple of hundred metres away from what was left of the Berlin Wall, also with McLaren, in January 2011.
The bill for the former shindig was footed by West; the latter, Vodafone.
Benetton (now Lotus) and Jordan (now Force India) also put on very ritzy shows for us scribblers back in the day – courtesy of respectively Flavio Briatore, who in 1996 launched his Benetton team’s new Formula 1 car in the ancient Sicilian town of Taormina, and Eddie Jordan, who in 1998 launched his Jordan team’s new Formula 1 car at London’s Albert Hall (I’ll tell you a bit more about that august venue’s Formula 1 launching past in a couple of paragraphs’ time).
But the biggest and best launch of them all was surely McLaren’s 2007 extravaganza, in which 200,000 (yes, you read that right: 200,000) cheering invitees lined the streets of the Spanish city of Valencia to watch Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton driving their brand-new silver-and-red McLaren MP4-22s along public roads that had been closed specifically and solely for the purpose of allowing them to do so. Who paid? Vodafone, again.
So much for the ’90s and noughties. In the ’50s and ’60s, by contrast, Formula 1 teams looked upon car launches, if they took place at all, as little more than tedious chores to be endured for the shortest time possible. Strutting their stuff before a bunch of scrofulous journalists wasn’t high on their priority lists. If you were lucky, and you were the boss’s mate, you just might get a quick word with the driver or the mechanic, but you’d be unlikely to get a pie, let alone a pint.
However, as a new-fangled thing called ‘sponsorship’ took a hold of Formula 1 in the 1970s, and, especially when large multinational non-automotive investors and sponsors joined in the fun, the teams were suddenly forced to take their promotional responsibilities rather more seriously than they had done hitherto.
In 1972, for example, when the Marlboro cigarette brand began its Formula 1 sponsorship programme with the BRM team, lead driver Jean-Pierre Beltoise announced the deal by emerging from a giant flip-top packet of Marlboro ‘reds’, positioned on the starting grid at the Circuit Paul Ricard. Imagine.
Over the next few years, Marlboro would effectively write the definitive sponsorship reference book in its subsequent lengthy partnership with McLaren, which began in 1974 and endured for more than two decades thereafter. Thousands if not millions of free fags were given out during that time – but, although the freebies were snaffled gratefully by all and sundry, the Marlboro marketers were becoming more sophisticated: the term ‘activation’ was coined during that period, a grandiose word to describe what had previously been known as ‘publicity stunts’.
Prior to the arrival of ‘activation’, it had been blithely (and, by and large, rightly) assumed by the teams that, assuming they stuck their sponsors’ stickers in the allotted places on their cars’ bodywork, all would be well and the aforementioned sponsors’ cash taps would continue to pour forth unabated. By the late ’70s and even more so into the ’80s, however, instructed by their sponsors to optimise all available ‘activation’ opportunities, the teams had learned to be ‘on message’.
One of the most unusual car launches occurred back in the mid-’70s, when a group of hacks found themselves flying backwards over the English Channel in a British Air Ferries turbo-prop while the latest Hawke Formula 3 car was unveiled in front of us.
BAF had been founded by buccaneering Mike Keegan and later bankrolled his son Rupert’s skirmish with Formula 1, you see. Rupert, who won the 1976 British Formula 3 championship, later moved into Formula 1 with Hesketh, Surtees and RAM-Williams. ‘Roops’ was a bit of a bon viveur, and the fact that his Hesketh was sponsored by Penthouse magazine and Rizla cigarette papers was remarked upon by chortling journalists at length and often. A different age.
A few years later, in 1980 I think, the press corps was at a fever pitch as it crammed into London’s Albert Hall, which had been hired at who-knows-what prodigious cost by David Thieme, the oil magnate whose Essex Petroleum organisation was also picking up the tab for sponsoring the Lotus Formula 1 and Penske Indycar teams.
Holding our breath as Mario Andretti, perched precariously in the cockpit of his brand-new racing car, was lowered into view, we all agreed that the legendary American ace looked considerably less comfortable than when bagging flat-out pole positions at Monza or carving Indy 500 quali laps at north of 220mph (354km/h). We all enjoyed the frequent moments of obvious anxiety with a chuckling Mario all the way down to his gentle, if unorthodox, landing. All of us agreed that it was possibly the quirkiest Formula 1 car launch we’d witnessed theretofore.
But possibly the very strangest Formula 1 car launch of them all occurred in 1974, when the bizarrely named Maki team took the wraps off its Cosworth-engined contender in a manner than can only be described as bizarre. We journalists were invited to a London hotel (I can’t recall which one, sorry) where the bare bones of the project were described by a chap who wouldn’t have won a public speaking competition (I can’t recall who he was, sorry).
We were then sent on our way, without so much as a pickled egg let alone a glass of Blue Nun, clutching our meagre press packs, which consisted of nothing more than a few photocopied images of the Maki F101 parked in a dodgy-looking lock-up garage that had been wallpapered on the inside, windows included. Very ‘Arfur Daley’.
(As it happened, things progressed no more promisingly as the Maki story unfolded. The team struggled on for three seasons – 1974, ’75 and ’76 – missing loads of grands prix along the way – but it never once succeeded in qualifying one of its cars for even a single one.)
Anyway, enough already. So, having (hopefully) enjoyed reading my little stroll down memory lane, these are your tasks for tomorrow:
- Draw the necessary cash out of your local Santander branch’s ATM
- Pop down to your nearest Hilton and make your way to the bar
- Order a nice glass of Johnnie Walker
- Check your TAG Heuer
- And make sure you’re online and ready to enjoy the digital launch of the McLaren MP4-29 at 12.00pm midday!
Is that on-message enough for you, Ron, old chum?!