Ready, Steady, Launch and other silly shows

Last July - late on the night of the German Grand Prix - a colleague and I found ourselves sitting at midnight, munching on lukewarm hamburgers in a McDonalds in the suburbs of the industrial city of Ludwigshafen.

"Well," said my mate, "don't ever let anyone tell you that this Formula 1 is a glamorous life!"

Ludwigshafen is NOT Monte Carlo. It is a railway junction with little to commend it except a series of nasty chemical works. The Allied bombers did their best to improve the place by completely flattening it in WWII but the rebuilding was done "in modern style", which meant that there was a lot of concrete and not much architectural talent.

I was reminded of my visit to Ludwigshafen after Stewart Grand Prix's launch at the Ford research and development establishment at Dunton. I am sure this is a very worthy and impressive establishment - we were not allowed to look at the interesting bits - but it has the great disadvantage of being located in one of the less scenic parts of the British Isles - Essex. And to get there one has to traverse some very unglamorous country. Somewhere along the route we stumbled upon a sign saying: "Welcome to Uglyham - Twinned with Ludwigshafen".

Stewart's intention in dragging the F1 press corps out to Dunton was to ram home the connection between Ford's high technology capabilities and its involvement in Grand Prix racing. It seems to me that showing people mind-blowing technology is a pointless exercise unless you are winning races. If you are not winning people merely ask: "If they have all this hardware how come they are not winning?"

Not a word about Stewart appeared in the major British newspapers the following day. People (unless they wear dirty anoraks and twitch occasionally) are not interested in technology unless it can make tea for them, do the washing up or make them feel somehow superior to the rest of the world.

This is a lesson that most of the other Formula 1 teams learned many years ago. The press will not write about some amazing and revolutionary titanium gadget because the public would rather hear about David Coulthard's latest girlfriend or where Jacques Villeneuve gets his blue rinses done. The power of the personality is much greater than the lure of the machine.

It is perhaps a sign of the times in Grand Prix racing that Coulthard has taken to appearing on talk shows and recently broke new ground in F1 by taking part in a television show called "Ready Steady Cook". This is a cookery show in which two half-famous chefs race one another to create a mouth-watering meal from a ridiculous selection of ingredients chosen for them.

The show is exciting because the whole thing has to be finished within 20 minutes. Their only assistance comes from a helper - hence Coulthard's role - who gets all the lousy jobs like peeling parsnips and then has to pretend to like the resulting meal.

David looked suitably silly in a red pinny, which featured a large tomato on his chest. He spent most of the show looking puzzled as he peeled and mashed frantically, but he won a resounding victory over the opposition with a dish which the semi-famous chef decided should be named "Formula 1 Mince & Tatties and Pit Stop Souffle".

It struck me during some launch or other that the BBC should start a new series called "Ready Steady Launch" in which half-famous F1 marketing types have to come up with car launch ideas using a list of unlikely ingredients.

Stewart Grand Prix would have done well on this occasion as its launch featured several ridiculous ingredients including a Japanese engineer wearing a kilt, a Scottish Samba band, several dustbins and an aristocratic photographer.

McLaren is a team which always likes to do things bigger and better than everyone else. I heard the other day that McLaren's plans to launch the MP4/13 were still being finalized because the idea of renting an aircraft carrier had failed to get off the ground. Having used The Spice Girls to launch the 1997 car, McLaren and its fun-loving partners Mercedes-Benz and West were struggling to come up with anything bigger, until some maniac in a marketing department somewhere suggested renting an aircraft carrier - Russian ones are a very good deal at the moment. The new car was to have been launched on one of the large elevators used to bring the jet fighters up to the flight deck. This was apparently rejected as being too impractical - not to mention cold, wet and unpleasant at this time of year.

Such a launch might impress the cynical old Formula 1 press corps but I doubt it. The members of this club are somewhat immune to dancing girls, laser beams, dry ice and all the usual pyrotechnics. The current trend appears to be to find a startling venue and to have an impressive show. The idea was kicked off by McLaren's use of The Alexandra Palace and The Spice Girls, but has been followed up this year with Sauber's launch at the Habsburg summer palace - Schloss Schonbrunn - in Vienna and Jordan's use of the Royal Albert Hall in London.

The Jordan launch, involving the magnificent Cirque du Soleil was the high point this year - the best F1 launch I have ever seen. It was interesting, spectacular and involving people with remarkable talents - which was quite unlike McLaren's Spice Girls "do" last year.

The curious thing about the current trend is that it is hard to imagine where it will all end. I fully expect to receive an invitation next year to see the launch of a new F1 car on the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower in Paris - the intention being to get everyone guessing as to how the car was actually put there.

It struck me at the Stewart launch - when I spotted a clergyman looking somewhat out of place - that no-one has yet done anything very religious. I remember Ferrari had The Pope visit Maranello to bless the cars one year, but that did not seem to do much good. Enzo Ferrari died a few weeks later.

If you were going for a big church launch the place to do it, of course, is St. Paul's Cathedral. You put the press corps in the congregation and then, with a thunderous roar of the organ, the new car could come screaming through the west door and arrived at high speed, skidding to a stop under the dome, on top of the memorial to Sir Winston Churchill.

I am sure that the cathedral would appreciate the fee and before you start writing in to complain I should say that I expect McLaren will get the gig because of the team's new deal with drinks company Schweppes. This is part of the Cadburys chocolate empire and they are very well connected at St. Paul's having beamed a laser image of its Wispa chocolate bar branding onto the dome of St. Paul's as part of a recent advertising campaign...

I would think that it would only be a matter of time before someone tried to rent Parliament, but upon reflection one has to conclude that this might lead to unpleasant comments about Bernie Ecclestone having already done that as part of his campaign to stop tobacco advertising being banned.

I can imagine Jackie Stewart doing do a deal with the Queen to launch his next car at Buckingham Palace, with JYS standing on the balcony with Her Royal Highness, waving to the assembled press corps below.

But what is the point of all these spectacular launches? Everyone spends loads of money except Williams. Frank and Co. give the media tea and biscuits and then go on to win the World Championship.

The others have to fight for every inch of coverage. They need it because the sponsors have been promised vast exposure by the silver-tongued lounge lizards of the F1 marketing departments.

Some teams are lucky. If you are Ferrari you do not need to do anything. You are a news story simply because you are Ferrari. Williams does not have the same brand image as the folks at Maranello and so does not bother with big launches. This year saw a deft piece of footwork with the team unveiling its new Winfield color scheme on the same day as the Ferrari unveiling in Italy. This gave newspaper editors two pictures on the same day and so both teams ended up with more coverage.

If I was launching a car I know what I would do. I would rent an old warehouse and put one of my 1997 cars on a small stage under a dust sheet in front of the assembled media. I would then unveil the car in the usual manner with members of the drawing office in kilts, nuns on rollerblades or something similarly silly. I would wait until the whispers had gone twice around the room: "It looks exactly the same as the old car" and then I would drop a 100-ton block of concrete - with the new car attached to the top of it - onto the old car. Even the FIA's latest crash test loadings would not help. The old car would be demolished, in a very graphic indication that things were moving on...

I would then serve the media with pizza and flat champagne and tell them all that there had been an unfortunate accident in rehearsal. They would be sent home with red mouse pads with the word SQUISH! written on them and flat caps to wear at the races. If nothing else the launch would serve to improve the general level of dress in the paddock, something which would keep Bernie Ecclestone happy as he feels that the F1 press people dress like scarecrows.

I was sitting through another launch the other day when it struck me that there must be a market for a launch company and began to consider whether or not it would be financially viable to establish up a company to specialize only in F1 car launches. You would offer the complete package, from the idea to the catering and organize everything, saving the team teams a lot of time and energy. My first move would be to hire the BBC's Steve Rider - because he does all the launches anyway...

Such a company would be very business for two months of the year but for the rest of the time one could do absolutely nothing and, thanks to good connections in the sport, could visit the occasional Grand Prix and not have to work.

Such is the money spent on the launches these days that one would quickly become a millionaire.

I think I will call the company "Ready Steady Launch Ltd."...

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