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The rise and fall of pre-season car launches - McLaren are the latest to offer a muted unveiling in 2014

Published by Christine

Do you remember the launch of the 2007 McLaren F1 car? The MP4-22 was revealed in an incredibly flashy event held on the slightly more attractive side of Valencia. The car was paraded through the city, a demonstration was given for attending fans, with both drivers present and plenty of meeting, greeting and waving taking place.

At the time, I wrote, "They certainly know how to do things in style. Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton took to the streets of Valencia, watched by over 100,000 locals. The streets were lit up, the event was televised, there were circus acts and musicians and fireworks. Oh yea, and there was a new car as well."

It wasn't just about the machinery, it was about the spectacle, about bringing the fans on board and getting them up and excited about a new year with their favourite team. Fast forward seven years and McLaren have gone off the idea of hosting the biggest launch of them all. For 2014, they say the reveal will be "during an online-only digital launch" with pictures of the car "plus supporting videos and editorial material" made available.

Closet launcher

F1-W04 launch covers
Mercedes put the minimum of effort in last seasonCredit: Mercedes AMG Petronas

It feels as though the Formula One car launch is a thing of the past. Already in 2014, we know that Lotus are delaying the reveal of their car until midway through testing, whilst Mercedes have confirmed they will unveil their new challenger at the Jerez circuit. Pulling the covers off a car minutes before a testing session began used to be the less exciting end of a launch schedule, now that’s the closest we’re likely to get to a big event.

Gradually, over the years, there’s been a push for opening up launches to digital avenues – online videos, live streams, and lots of pictures released over the web. We’ve covered plenty of these, and almost always come to the conclusion that it makes more sense to watch these things unfold at home, rather than go to the event and have to wait for access. Pictures are available instantly for ogling, and although there is nothing quite like the real thing, you’re going to see a lot more from the other side of a screen.

Red Bull’s 2013 launch was a prime example of how a live launch can go wrong, with a reluctant reveal showing off the RB9 to those who were willing to do battle with the waiting security guards. Meanwhile, released pictures and videos allow the teams an element of control that they otherwise do not necessarily have with invited media.

Of course, the more pertinent part of the digital launch is the cost. With Formula One budgets getting tighter and tighter, the brief idea of a joint event was considered – and if done properly, it could have been a big success. Getting the teams to agree is inevitably tough and the idea was quashed before it got off the ground. That leaves each team paying their own way, and that makes the idea of renting a space, sorting logistics, providing the hospitality, and everything else that goes with a live launch less appealing.

Partnership down

F1 funding levels have been a serious talking point for many years, but the crunch is really hitting now. Pay drivers are holding up the grid, talks of a budget cap have returned, and teams are struggling more than ever to find sponsorship. McLaren haven't confirmed their title sponsor for the coming year, after their deal with Vodafone ended at the end of 2013. Could it be that they don't want to pull the covers off the car and reveal... a big gaping hole?

Covers come off the MP4-28
The big reveal at MTC in 2013Credit: McLaren

Flashy launches are unlikely to be top of the agenda when balancing the books is a key priority. McLaren bucked the trend a little in 2013 with an anniversary-themed event, but they have the gorgeous Technology Centre backdrop to pull that off without exorbitant hosting fees. They could do the same again this year, but that would make their 50th celebrations just that little bit less special. It may also be hard to sustain a full length MTC event without the historic drive throughs, and instead focusing only on the new machinery.

Most others have to satisfy themselves with a low-key event. In 2013, we saw many live streams of small rooms with a handful of invited partners and media present, a couple of drivers pulling the covers off the car and then a testing schedule to complete soon after.

Launches are for the die-hard followers, particularly if there is little in the way of livery changes, or driver line-ups to look out for. This year there could be more interest, given the vast range of changes both on the car and within teams, but it’s getting to be only those interested in the nitty-gritty of a new chassis that pay attention. The die has been cast, and the enthusiastic launches of late have been lost. It’s brief appearances in the pit lane and leaked images online for Formula One teams at the moment.

If and when the money comes creeping back in, we might see more spectacular events again. The early days of a brand new year are quiet on the news front, and Formula One could do with boosting the image, the confidence and the excitement of a new season by giving fans something to look at and discuss. The off-season is a crucial time to wind down and relax, but equally there has to be something to energise fans back into action, focusing on the sport and eagerly anticipating the year to come.

Launches and testing are the January and February staples, the things that get the Formula One cycle spinning back into action. Merging the two in a lacklustre show isn't the kick-start we need. It's street parties, drivers doing donuts, and car demonstrations through incredible backdrops. Bring back the fireworks in Valencia!