Virtual insanity and other songs

The 1997 Formula 1 car launch season was nearly over. Sauber had come up with the daft idea of trying to launch its new car on the Internet. To the F1 press corps - which is just about mastering the concept that computers are like typewriters with storage space and that E-Mail is like a very fast invisible postman - this was a bit like saying that the team was going to unveil the C16 inside a high security prison in Afghanistan. It guaranteed that no-one would do anything. And we all duly waited for the magazines with photographs to come out to reveal the car - by which time it was to late to write much about it. F1 may be a technological world but the media is not ready for virtual car launches just yet...

All that was left, therefore, was the launch of the new Mastercard Lola team and McLaren's color scheme launch, billed as "A Night of Stars and Cars".

And so it was that I found myself wandering around some of London's less-than-glamorous northern suburbs looking for the launch of a color scheme. It was cold and I must say I did think it was a rather absurd thing to be doing. A car launch makes sense. I write about cars. But now it seems we have to write about color schemes as well. Next, I guess there will be F1 fashion correspondents...

And then I thought, "Why not? It's all money in the bank," and I pottered on towards Alexandra Palace - or "The Ally Pally" as they call it in London.

This curious Victorian building is sited on a hilltop overlooking the whole of London, named after a Danish princess who had the misfortune to marry a philandering Prince of Wales (a recurring character in British history). By the early 1930s it had become an important BBC building and a vast aerial sprouted through its roof. In 1936 was the site of the first public television broadcast in Britain. Eventually there was a fire and the building was badly damaged. It was not until 1988 that it was rebuilt and since then its cavernous halls have been used for exhibitions and big events.

McLaren wanted a big event. In recent years the team has adopted a positively Texan attitude towards "big". McLaren likes to do things bigger than other F1 teams. There was the Land Speed Record car (which never happened); the world's most expensive road car; a new motorhome which cost more than money that most of earn in our lifetimes and plans for a new factory which looks like costing as much as Hearst Castle.

McLaren believes in big, brash and shiny things. This I guess explains why the team joined forces with Mercedes-Benz, the company which more than any other - except perhaps Rolls Royce - is used by successful people to show the world that they have made a pile of money.

But how big and how brash was this launch going to be? Would it be a match for the mad days on the late 1970s when showy millionaire David Thieme - with a black hat and a goatlike beard - plastered his Essex logos all over Team Lotus. At the time Thieme's parties were stunning, simply because no-one had ever done such things before. For 2 years running he had a gala dinner in London's Albert Hall, with excellent food and gorgeous wines. The diners were then serenaded by singers Shirley Bassey in the first year and Ray Charles in the second.

The launch of Essex Team Lotus in December 1979 was at the Paradis du Latin cabaret in Paris, THE fashionable club of the era. The press were put up in a fancy hotel and ferried about in stretched limousines and then, after dinner and an exhibition of feathered ladies dancing around, a Lotus painted in Essex colors suddenly began to descend from the roof, with a terrified Mario Andretti, clad in a dinner jacket, clinging to the car as it floated gradually to earth. Those were the days before every F1 launch had dry ice and laser beams and people were rather stunned.

Somewhere in my files I have a photograph of the unveiling of the actual 1980 car. There is the car with Thieme, Elio de Angelis, Colin Chapman, Andretti and Francois Mazet (a former racing driver who worked for Thieme) standing behind it. When you look closely, however, it is clear that all five have been superimposed rather clumsily into the picture - one can only assume because no-one could be bothered to travel all the way to the Lotus factory in dull old Norfolk.

In motor racing they always say that the bigger the launch, the bigger the waste of time the car will be but I hope that this will not be the case for McLaren this year because another failure might drive Mercedes out of the sport. Certainly the German manufacturer has adopted a higher profile this year and the thought of a "Silver Arrow" McLaren was one of the reasons I trekked all the way to the Ally Pally. Reports that the launch was aiming to give Mercedes a new "funky" image were rather worrying. Mercedes-Benz is - and always will be - solid and staid and about as "funky" as the Queen of England.

I am not sure that "funky" is actually the right word for what we saw that evening. There were 5000 people - about 3000 of them paying pop fans - in the main hall to watch the show. Everything was silvery grey. A lady TV presenter appeared on stage and announced that "we've got stars and we've got cars". She pointed out that this was the biggest event of its kind ever and was thus "a monumental occasion". She told us that the evening was to be broadcast across Britain by the Virgin Radio network, which was rather funny because launching a new car on the radio seems a pretty pointless exercise to me.

And then she announced a rock band. I cannot spell the name but I know that the lead signer was wearing a very silly hat. They were, it seems, great car fans which probably explains why their latest record appeared with what looked like a Ferrari logo on the sleeve.

They launched into a song called "Virtual Insanity" - which seemed to sum up the situation very nicely...

They were followed by five enterprising young ladies called "The Spice Girls", a manufactured pop group which was put together so that it had a bit of everything: there is Victoria, dark and (slightly) upmarket; Mel B, honey-colored, rauchy and decidedly downmarket, with tattoos in places where even her mother wouldn't find them. She looked spicey enough to burn your tongue. Then there was Mel C who seemed able to twist herself into all kinds of bodily knots, which no doubt makes her popular with someone somewhere. There was Emma, a blonde (well, I'm not sure it was entirely natural) and bubbly. She seemed rather sweet and innocent in the company around her. The final Spice Girl was called Geri, she had hair dyed the colors of autumn leaves and seemed to be wearing her underwear over her clothes...

The crowd loved them.

After a few minutes of this, the girls stopped pretending to sing and the stage was invaded by dancers on roller-skates, wearing grey (sorry silver) jumpsuits. They whizzed around a walkway built above the auditorium and then, amid much flashing of lights, loud music and dry ice, the car suddenly appeared. The color scheme looked gorgeous - even the radio listeners must have appreciated it...

And then the noise died down and the TV lady came back and conducted a stupid interview with Mika Hakkinen, in silver-grey racing overalls. She asked him if he had been involved in the design of the car. Mika seemed rather bemused by the question.

"That's a bit technical," he said, leaving us to deduce whether he was referring to the question or the task of designing an F1 car.

It was clearly time to leave. I guess I had too much silver. On the way out I was handed a press kit. It was shiny and silver, so shiny in fact that one could see one's face in it and whatever you did you left you fingerprints on it. I am sure that as the evening went on drunken perverts who stayed on to dance had great fun chucking them onto the floor to see what ladies were wearing under their frocks.

Outside it was dark and blustery. One could hear the thumping music of The Spice Girls from inside then great hall, but that soon faded and I was left to look out across the city. As I meandered home I looked at the silver press pack, wondering as I did so if the people planning this curious event had known why Mercedes-Benz had adopted silver as its racing color back in 1934.

If you look in the history books you will see that the color was not silver at all. It was plain metal. The new 750kg Grand Prix formula that year meant that reducing weight was essential to be competitive and so the Germans - who had always raced in white cars - did the logical thing and stripped off all the paint, thus saving a few precious kilograms. They would do anything to gain a performance advantage. Later I heard that the entire evening was rumored to have cost a million pounds to put on. I was not surprised but it made me wonder what Williams would have done if the same money had been available. And I concluded that it would have been invested in new computer software or more advanced laser beams for the windtunnel measuring equipment...

It may be dull but motor racing is all about winning by building the best car and hiring the best drivers.

I found myself wondering whether hiring The Spice Girls would gain McLaren many extra tenths of a second when the cars come to race the new Williams in Melbourne...

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