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Formula 1: The evolution of the car launch

Submitted by on February 1, 2012

The Formula 1 season kicks off in earnest this week as the teams unveil their 2012 challengers. However, it’s not all the fun of the fair it has been in the past

In the 1960s there was no glitz to the launch of a Formula 1 car. The team would turn up at a track to test, roll it off the transporter, push it into the pitlane – and fire it up.

By the ’70s, the ‘launch’ had been upgraded to a sheet over a car in a pitlane with a handful of invited media. The level of one-upmanship between teams grew into the 1990s, as the competition – and finance – in Grand Prix racing escalated.

In 1997, Marlboro had moved on, but McLaren still had a new car to launch. In a double nod to the past, a handful of media were invited to see the McLaren-Mercedes MP4/12 – painted in the orange that will always be associated with Bruce McLaren. That was the technical side accounted for, and the specialist media. It was low-key and informal. There was, however, a much bigger fish to fry.

A few may disagree, but if there was a World Championship for ‘Launch of the Decade” it would go to West McLaren Mercedes in 1997 for the team’s “Night of Stars and Cars”.

The sheet over the car prior to the launch was about the only throwback to 1970s car launches. Let’s face it though, McLaren had to do something special. The rocket red Marlboro McLaren livery had been iconic for well over 30 years, and had won multiple World Championships. That’s not an image that could be erased by lifting the sheet from a car to reveal its brand new sponsor’s livery, and McLaren-Mercedes’ new colours.

So, no stone was left unturned. “Extravaganza” is too small a word to describe it.

They hired Alexandra Palace in London, and the world famous Spice Girls to perform, had MTV broadcast it live across Europe’s networks, invited 4500 VIPs, celebrities, guests, sponsors, journalists, and fans for a night that wouldn’t have been out of place in Las Vegas.

There was dry ice, Cirque du Soleil standard choreography, roller-skating dancers, flashing lights… Oh and the brand new colours of the silver West McLaren Mercedes.

It worked. Within moments, McLaren’s long-term involvement with Marlboro was gone. It was history. Out with the old, in with the new. Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard unveiled the new ‘silver arrow’. Sporty, Ginger, Posh, Baby and Scary Spice soon joined in for live TV interviews. “Sexy isn’t it?” said Sporty, while the rest debated over whether it was the car or Coulthard in his overalls that was the most sexy.

Then the Spice Girls sang live to continue a memorable launch. The party went on until the early hours.

In today’s economic climate we will likely never see such extravagance again. But boy it did the job. Within hours, the West McLaren Mercedes dynamic colours seemed as familiar as any other livery in F1 for decades.

Final words to Ron Dennis on that night: “The evening wasn’t about a glitzy show, or just showing off the surface of the car. It was more than that.”

By Andy Hallbery – follow me on Twitter @hallbean

Thanks to McLaren, Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, West and Laurence Baker from www.streamlinermotors.com.

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