Launching cars... and other things

I have to admit that I have mixed feelings about going to new Formula 1 car launches. Over the years I have seen many a weird and wonderful attempt to grab my attention and make an IMPACT which will enthuse me to write marvellous things about the new car which appears before me.

I have seen cars unveiled on barges in the middle of rivers; in museums, amid countless laser and dry ice shows and I am fed up with cars driving unexpectedly through paper walls. I have seen a car helicoptered into place and even a bunch of out-of-work actors rushing about throwing paint-filled eggs at a white wall to illustrate - yes, you guessed it - the United Colors of Benetton.

One might have expected that this year's Benetton would be launched with Michael Schumacher, Johnny Herbert and Jos Verstappen walking from a blazing inferno (which members of the Benetton pit crew would quickly extinguish to reveal the new B195. That would have been in the spirit of the company's advertising director Oliveiro Toscani.

The only thing I really want to see now is a car rise like Neptune from the waves, tied to the bow of a nuclear submarine (on which sandwiches will later be served).

These are the dreams, the reality is usually very different. As a rule F1 car launches tend to be dull events. Journalists trek off to some freezing factory in the middle of nowhere - often the weather is terrible in England in February - to be given a cup of coffee, a custard cream biscuit and a badge telling everyone who you are. And then you chat with your fellow journalists. There are usually inspiring speeches to listen to, full of cotton wool dreams and then after no-one has asked any questions you get to mingle and meet new sponsors, who are beaming with pride and have not yet experienced teams making excuses when they fail to provide the results they have promised.

You see the drivers, scrubbed behind the ears, and talking endlessly about how they are "ready for the new season"; how they are "more competitive than ever". And how they will always be as helpful as possible to everyone who comes to ask them questions.

At some point the new car appears and you look at the color scheme to see if you like it. These machines may be works of genius in detailed design, but unless it has a wing on the engine cover few F1 journalists are sufficiently trained as engineers to notice anything interesting.

Anything different is immediately described as "revolutionary" and no-one wants to talk about it but you don't expect he designer to whip out the plans and explain about the airflow over a bumpy track.

These are, therefore, warm and optimistic events with a contagious enthusiasm that everything will be all right and that "this will be the year of the big breakthrough".

Sometimes I find myself caught up in this enthusiasm but other times there is a dreadful feeling of forced jollity. I feel like I am at a wedding when I know the bride and bridegroom are not suited to one another and you are standing in the church, whispering to your friends about how long the marriage will last.

I don't want to be a party-pooper but I had this unsettling feeling when I heard that Ron Dennis and Nigel Mansell had agreed to work together. It is, despite all the sweet-talking that has taken place, a marriage of convenience and I have a bad feeling about it.

I suppose I should learn from my mistakes in the past and never make predictions, because now I expect Nigel will win all 16 races and sign a new five-year contract with McLaren, just to prove me wrong. I have been wrong many times in the past and I try to remind myself of this all the time by keeping a pair of tap-dancing shoes on the shelf in my office at home. They are painted in Benetton colors and were given to me by members of the Benetton team because I was once foolish enough to say: "If Benetton finish 1-2 at the Japanese Grand Prix I will learn to tap-dance". You may remember a famous day at Suzuka in 1990 when Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost collided at the first corner; Gerhard Berger went off a lap later and Mansell broke his Ferrari in the pitlane. Through all this chaos came the unlikely Benetton duo: Nelson Piquet and Roberto Moreno to finish 1-2.

But - I'm doing it again - I cannot escape the fact that I think Mansell and McLaren will not work. I don't mean to be nasty to Ron and Nigel but I just cannot see the relationship working - even if the car is fantastic.

The funny thing is that I have not heard anyone ask why Frank Williams let Mansell go. That was the move which enabled Marlboro, which wanted to have a World Champion among its drivers, to pressure McLaren into accepting Mansell. Nigel was the only World Champion available.

We know that Frank Williams is no fool and can be as pragmatic as Ron Dennis if necessary. So what caused him to put Mansell out onto the open market? The only logical conclusion is that Frank and Patrick Head honestly believed that David Coulthard was a better bet as a driver - and a lot cheaper. It is sacrilege to suggest that Mansell is not quick enough but I have to admit that I heard whispers last year from the Williams team that while Nigel can still do the odd blistering qualifying lap - as in Adelaide - he was panting down the radio a lot more than he used to. And in the races he did he was never close to Damon Hill.

Opinion in F1 is divided about Mansell at McLaren. One man I spoke to - who has worked with both Mansell and Dennis but now works for a rival team - was gleeful when he heard the news.

"It's going to fantastic," he giggled. "The pair of them will rip the team apart and that will take McLaren out of the picture. I can't wait!"

I am not convinced, but I do have this strange feeling that Mansell and McLaren won't work out, although I know that the move is good for Formula 1. Mansell is a great driver, a spectacular driver who is always in the news, and that means that I will have plenty to write about - and you will get plenty to read.

Mansell's signing with McLaren is interesting as it also forces one to ask searching questions about McLaren. There was a time when Ron Dennis would never have let himself be forced to take a driver he did not want; there was a time when he would not have taken on a William's reject purely as a matter of principle. So why is he doing it now?

Ron always used to say that he had everything planned out five years in advance and that this was the secret of his success. That was perhaps true as long as Honda was behind him but since Honda left McLaren at the end of 1992 five year plans have not been the order of the day. The decision to run with Ford engines in 1993 was a last-minute affair. Dennis then courted Chrysler to such an extent that the company paid for McLaren to build a car - the mysterious white McLaren which Senna tested secretly at Silverstone in September 1993. Chrysler bosses were convinced that a deal was done and had to be tied down when they heard that Dennis had rushed off to Paris and signed a deal with Peugeot. And we know how that worked out.

The Chrysler business still annoys me because at the time the corporation was a motor company which really wanted Formula 1 - everything fitted. The top management was stuffed full of motor racing freaks: chairman Bob Eaton, president Bob Lutz and vice-president (vehicle engineering) Francois Castaing all start to drool when they talk about racing cars. The company was launching its Neon range into Europe and wanted publicity. At the same time Castaing was keen to train Chrysler engineers in the competition environment. He knew just how effective F1 can be having led the original Renault F1 team back in 1977.

The other day I saw Chrysler had announced mind-blowing profits for 1994 and I wondered if the commercial directors of the F1 teams, starved as they are for money, have considered what might have been if Chrysler and McLaren had done that deal.

Chrysler is currently a company with a bit of the kind of panache that F1 needs. A few months ago the Corporation launched its new NS minivan by taking the whole car launch business literally. Chairman Bob Eaton and President Bob Lutz arrived on stage wearing matching cardigans (um, lovely) and, with the automotive press somewhat perplexed, began to read a book called Chrysler Fairy Tales.

Then, as Mr. Eaton declared that Chrysler was going to "leap-frog the opposition", one of the minivans flew over his head, having been launched from a backstage trebuchet.

A what? A trebuchet is a medieval siege weapon which was used to catapult all kinds of unpleasant things into besieged towns in an effort to convince the people within the walls to surrender. Human excrement, corpses and boiling oil were all regularly lobbed through the air and it was a common practice to do the same with dead horses which would result in the starving citizens eating the pegged-out Pegasus and promptly dying of a horrible disease.

The trebuchet is now making a comeback and I am reliably informed that there is a man somewhere near Detroit who is building the largest trebuchet in the world in an effort to hurl a Cadillac to a new car-throwing world record. I expect he is being helped by the engineers at Chrysler R& D, who are looking into projectiles capable of launching Ron Dennis as far as possible. With some careful number-crunching Ron could probably be made to fly for a few miles before splashing down in cold Canadian waters. On the way, he would probably get an air-speed record to add to McLaren's many other achievements.

Imagine the world's press corps, sitting in floating gin palaces in the middle of Lake St. Clair, Detroit, watching the skies for the arrival of Ron Dennis. Now that is what I call an IMPACT.

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