Why the Formula 1 pre-season car launch isn’t quite dead yet

February 18, 2019

The pre-season car launch has become the launching pad for every new F1 season, and from the Spice Girls to Venice to The Gateway of India, teams down the years have provided plenty of memorable events. While no longer as prevalent as it once was, the days of ‘online-only’ launches may not yet be a foregone conclusion, as we discover at the 2019 Racing Point F1 launch in Toronto, Canada, with team principal, Otmar Szafnauer.

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It’s possibly the most famous pre-season car launch in Formula 1 history. At Alexandra Palace, London on 13th February 1997, the silks were pulled from McLaren’s brand new MP4-12, in a moment truly for the ages. Not just because this was Woking’s first non-Marlboro-sponsored title contender in 24 years, but because the silver-and-black donned new boy was unveiled amid much dry ice and to the sounds of ‘Wannabe’ by the Spice Girls being belted out, live, through the venue’s loudspeakers.

It was glitzy. It was ‘outrageous’. It was all kinds of awkward, as the girls – one of whom would later become Mrs Christian Horner – asked, and proceeded to find out for themselves, what a visibly agitated David Coulthard was wearing under his Nomex race suit. Overcome with ‘girl power’, the slightly svelter-chinned 13-time Grand Prix winner, and his future two-time World Championship winning teammate Mika Hakkinen, had already beaten the proverbial retreat when Jamiroquai, another ‘90s pop zeitgeist, arrived to drop the curtain on an event the likes of which we’d never see again.

Well, until Sauber gave it a go with the Sugababes in 2004, anyway…



Of course, McLaren were far from alone when it came to grandiose F1 car launches in the ‘90s. In 1996, and having just lost reigning F1 champion Michael Schumacher to Ferrari, Benetton spent a rumoured $1 million launching their new B196 in the 2000-year-old Teatro Greco in Sicily. As well as proving there was ‘life after Michael’, the event was a nod to both the Enstone team’s Anglo-Italian nationality and the Sicilian heritage of new driver Jean Alesi. It was also a fiscally huge reminder of the team’s stature as defending Constructors’ Champions.

Five years later, the last-ever Benetton – the B201 – was delivered via gondola to its launch at Guidecca Island, Venice. In 2008, the Gateway to India in Mumbai was the backdrop to Force India’s VMJ01 unveil, and in its previous guise as Jordan, the team launched its final car – the EJ15 – in Red Square in Moscow in deference to its new Russian backers. The list goes on.

Over the last decade though, the pageantry – read ‘expense’ – once associated with Formula 1’s pre-season car launches has been largely consigned to the history books. Nowadays, the relentless rise of social media and live streaming, plus the sport’s ever-tightening restrictions on both budget and test days (to say nothing of that pesky worldwide global recession in 2008) have instead paved the way for ‘online-only’ launches, each as sterile as the last.

 

Benetton spent a rumoured $1 million launching their new B196 in the 2000-year-old Teatro Greco in Sicily, proving there was ‘life after Michael’”

 

To call the F1 pre-season launch party ‘dead’ though might be a bit premature. While nowhere near as ambitious as they once were – booking one of the most significant pop bands of all time at the height of their powers takes some beating – a few have nevertheless remained memorable. In 2011 for example, McLaren (yep, them again) unveiled the new MP4-26 in novel fashion by piecing the single seater together, live, in the middle of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Even super-serious BMW went rogue in 2008, the F1.08 turning its first wheels in anger inside the company’s headquarters in Munich.

Now, following its 2019 launch, you could arguably add Racing Point Formula 1 to the list as well.



This past weekend, the Silverstone-based team – formerly Force India, formerly Spyker, formerly Midland, formerly Jordan – pulled the covers from the brand new RP19 in the John W. H. Bassett Theatre of the Toronto Convention Centre, an occasion that, unofficially at least, opened the 2019 Canadian International Auto Show.

It’s the first F1 launch to ever take place in Canada. It’s an event that genuinely celebrates the survival of a team many considered lost to its previous owner’s insolvency. And, get this, as well as booking F1 commentator David Croft for compere duties, the team also invited local fans to watch the unveil, live, in the theatre itself. Though nowhere near the seven figures regularly paid two decades ago, booking a hall at one of Canada’s biggest motoring event of the year is, nevertheless, as close to ‘ornate’ as an F1 car launch gets these days.

 

“Nowadays, the relentless rise of social media and live streaming, plus the sport’s ever-tightening restrictions on both budget and test days have paved the way for ‘online-only’ launches, each as sterile as the last.”

 

“I think the Auto Show is an appropriate place for the team to present its new challenger,” explains Racing Point F1 team principal Otmar Szafnauer. “The new ownership was confirmed on 16th August, so first and foremost, our focus in the short term was to finish last season as best we could and try and climb our way back up the rankings. Which I think we did. Then, thereafter, we could turn our eye to 2019. We thought, okay, usually we launch at Silverstone, which is very close to our base, but our marketing department started brainstorming about what would make more of an impact, to reflect the team’s change.

“It just so happened that the [Canadian International] Auto Show coincided with the launch of our new car, and it just made sense. We have a consortium led by a Canadian long-time race fan and contributor, Lawrence Stroll, and we have the only Canadian driver on the grid with Lance [Stroll]. It also dawned to me, whilst I was on stage, that we have the only all-North American line-up, Sergio [Pérez] being from Mexico.

“We also thought this would be a great way to give something back to our Canadian fans, and it sounds like everyone appreciated the effort to come here.”



No doubt the Canadian crowd sitting above the dress circle would agree with that. As it peaks its nose almost languidly from beneath its cover, the Mercedes-powered RP19 is met with thunderous applause from the balcony, as is Racing Point’s Montreal native Lance Stroll, who steps on stage in his new BWT race suit for the first time. There’s even a few ‘whoops’ when teammate Sergio Pérez takes to, what turns out to be, a broken microphone. Post unveil and Q&A, the pair are whisked away for an hour-long autograph session with a barrage of fans in the Auto Show’s main hall, while Otmar and technical director Andy Green are left to mingle. Even during our chat with the team principal, he’s met with several handshakes and hearty pats on the back, and even one young man who’s looking for advice on restoring a classic Ford GT40! For Otmar, today’s atmosphere is something F1’s online-only launches are sorely missing.

 

“As it peaks its nose almost languidly from beneath its cover, the RP19 is met with thunderous applause from the balcony, as is Racing Point’s Montreal native Lance Stroll.”

 

“When I first started, they were massive, huge events. I think it would have been a lot easier just to do the launch at Silverstone at The Wing. This took a lot more effort, but I think it’s been worth it. Montreal has been [on the calendar] for a long time, and we actually invited all fans to the launch that held a ticket for last year’s Canadian Grand Prix. This just felt like a way of giving little bit back to the fans.

“I didn’t know what to expect, but the Canadian fans have been great. We had a similar reaction when Sergio first came to us and we launched in Mexico City [in 2015]. It’s been tremendous.”



Granted, even if Racing Point’s time in the circle re-ignites F1’s pre-season launch party, some things will never change. As Otmar himself admits, “this was a livery launch with some semblance of what the new car will look like, but it’s predominantly last year’s car”, meaning the car is less the star than the supporting player to a new livery, new sponsors and a new driver line-up onto which the spotlight has been almost glaringly cast today.

There’s also the horribly clichéd question (for which, yes, we’re equally responsible) concerning the team’s goals heading into 2019 as, effectively, F1’s ‘newest’ team.

“People ask us about that all the time, and here’s the difficulty with it. We don’t know what the other [teams] are doing. Nobody ever stands still in this sport. We’ve set our target as 4th in the standings, which is effectively best of the rest. For us to beat Mercedes and Ferrari, who each have over 1000 people, and Red Bull with all the resources they have, will be difficult. So what we’ll try to do is set realistic but stretched targets. Nobody’s expecting us to win, but if we can finish 4th, with some podiums – hopefully in Canada and Mexcio! – and decrease the gap to the 3rd best team, we’ll feel we’ve achieved our goals.

 

“I didn’t know what to expect, but the Canadian fans have been great. We had a similar reaction when Sergio first came to us and we launched in Mexico City. It’s been tremendous.”

 

Renault has a strong line-up with [Daniel] Ricciardo and [Nico] Hulkenberg for sure will have made steps over the winter, and we saw the kind of performance Haas had at the beginning of last year. Without some of the incidents they had, they would have finished even higher. We don’t know what McLaren will be doing either, so it’s not going to be easy.”



Amidst the crowd excitement and event atmosphere though, there is one elephant in the theatre we’ve yet to address. In mid-January, it emerged that plans to get the ‘Brabham’ name back on the F1 grid after 27 years had failed, many placing the previously named Force India at the centre of speculation. It does make us wonder, given the extent to which Racing Point has embraced its new Canadian nationality this weekend, how different the BP19 launch would have been had Jack Brabham’s eponymous outfit returned to the sport…

“Well before ‘Racing Point’, we looked around to see what might be available, including Brabham, and we spoke long and hard about possibly resurrecting a name from Formula 1’s past, and what it would take. So yes, at one point Brabham and even Lola was a consideration.

 

“In mid-January, it emerged that plans to get the ‘Brabham’ name back on the F1 grid after 27 years had failed, many placing the previously named Force India at the centre of speculation.”

 

“But in the end we decided ‘Racing Point’ just sums up what the team is about. We’re a bunch of racers, the ‘point’ works well” – Otmar motions to the small, pink lapel pin on his suit jacket for added emphasis here – “so we though, ‘y’know what, let’s run with it.

“Had the Brabham connection worked out, it would have changed the message, that’s for sure. Would we still be here? Maybe, because the ownership is still Canadian linked and we’d still have a Canadian driver. I’d like to think we’d still be here.”



The mind does race (pun very much intended) with potential launch locations for an Aussie-British-Canadian ‘Brabham Racing Point’, doesn’t it? Time was, in the late 1990s, that, in true McLaren/Wannabe fashion, no expense would have been spared. Even the national press could have been reporting on F1’s first ever launch in front of the Sydney Opera House or 88 storeys above downtown Melbourne in the Eureka Skydeck following a set from the Crash Test Dummies.

The reality of course is that restrictions on both time and budget means the opulent launches of old are unlikely to become the norm again any time soon. Still, as today’s crowd reaction has demonstrated, and as Silverstone-based outfit has repeatedly shown throughout its Force India-Spyker-Midland-Jordan guises over the last 28 years, an F1 car launch can still very much be an occasion that generates excitement. Online-only might not be the case for 2020 after all.

What do you think about that, now you know how I feel?