Inside Line: McLaren and that Spice Girls car launch
It is that time of the year again when Formula 1 teams show off their new creations to an F1 world which has been deprived of news. Now the news is all full of expectations, hope and views as to how this is going to be their year… until qualifying at the first round at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne that is!
Then it often returns to the status quo of the previous year, however we all remain ever hopeful that new challengers will emerge to threaten Mercedes dominance!
However what is noticeable is how low key the new car launches have become. I suppose it is not surprising, with the rise of new media, plus the sheer cost of putting on a “live” show full of theatrical effects.
Which takes me back to what was one of the most “showy” launches, the unveiling of the West McLaren Mercedes team in 1997, complete with the Spice Girls and Jamiroquai at London’s Alexandra Palace to an assembled audience of five thousand, comprising media, sponsors, VIP guests, and for a change, fans.
Alexandra Palace was a unique location with a variety of halls that could be adapted for the various requirements of stage, media area, cocktails and dinner.
In fact the real reason the venue was considered was that McLaren had used the area previously for a Christmas Party, complete with indoor fun fair, for the whole McLaren Group, which even in those days was approaching one thousand employees, with the F1 team, road car, electronics, marketing and catering companies.
The reason for having such a big launch event was simple. For some twenty two years McLaren’s F1 cars had been red and white carrying the classic Marlboro livery, which had been adapted over the years to the distinctive ‘rocket red’ colour, which was a florescent red with a high profile ‘burning’ intensity image when shown on TV.
However the partnership with Philip Morris and Marlboro had come to an end and in 1997 there was a new partnership with Reemstma and their West cigarette brand.
West was a young dynamic, almost alternative brand they wanted to introduce the new relationship with impact.
But what to do? As part of the McLaren marketing team, together with Reemstma and various creative agencies, we brainstormed all sorts of weird and wonderful ideas – even to the extent of having the rock band ZZ Top playing on an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean!
And then, almost as a throw away line, someone suggested the Spice Girls! After the initial burst of laughter, someone in senior management said “that’s a good idea!”. This was quickly followed up by one of the agencies who worked with one of the soft drinks companies that was associated with the band. Ron Dennis was in his element negotiating with Simon Fuller, the girls manager.
And so it came to pass that the Spice Girls were booked to play three songs at the launch of the West McLaren Mercedes MP4-12. I am not sure whether that was almost the extent of their “live” repertoire, for when I say “live”, that really means dancing whilst lip-syncing to the songs.
However on stage they looked the part. It also helped that on the very week of the event, they went to number one in the American music charts, so to all intents and purposes, choosing them to launch the car appeared truly inspired!
The true art of presentation, as so often seen in F1, is really all about smoke and mirrors. Whilst on the surface things may appear like a Swan gliding effortless on top of the water, hopefully the world never gets to see the little ducks legs paddling furiously underwater to stay afloat!
The event was ambitious to say the least, with multiple happenings, be that VIPs, media, public, staging, presentation, plus the stars themselves, which apart from the Spice Girls and Jamiroquai, included McLaren’s two star drivers Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard.
From what I can recall now many years later, the actual race car being delivered for the unveil was delayed due to traffic, which caused a few anxious moments.
The Spice Girls had restriction on photographs in their contract, which as you can imagine was a challenge for a media event!
Photographs could only be taken at certain parts of the act with the reveal and then the media had to leave. This wasn’t helped in the afternoon by an errant photographer who somehow gained access to the Spice Girls rehearsal.
This very nearly ended in a walk out, which was narrowly avoided thanks to Mr Dennis’ considerably negotiating skills. However I am sure you can appreciate my cold sense of terror when learning of the situation and having to inform Ron that “I think we have a bit of a problem!”
The event was filmed by the music channel MTV and presented by Davina McCall, who more recently has become known for a variety of British TV programmes, including Big Brother. She has come a long way in her broadcasting skills, because for the event she made it clear that she couldn’t ad-lib for some 45 seconds!
The event consisted of a magician style reveal of the F1 car on a revolving platform, preceded by action from Starlight Express style dancers on roller skates wearing silver florescent jackets.
Once the car was unveiled, the Spice Girls did their hit song before bringing on the drivers to much female banter. In fact so interested were the girls in Mika that the current respective Mrs David Beckham and Mrs Christian Horner tried to see what he was wearing under his racing overalls!
After this the drivers and the car, plus the assembled media were relocated to the second largest hall for interviews, whilst the Spice Girls did another two songs.
At the time we were so wrapped up in the logistics that it was only on re watching the video footage did I fully appreciate the sheer side of the audience, and you can see the Spice Girls with the drivers on the MTV footage via seen above.
For the music aficionados Jamiroquai went on to play a great set, but sadly to a more depleted crowd, but the good thing was that it was a truly memorable intimate performance.
The West McLaren Mercedes launch certainly hit the target and everyone now knew that McLaren’s colours were now transformed to grey, silver and rocket red! The MP4-12 went on to take McLaren’s first win in four years and the livery remained pretty much untouched until the introduction of a chrome finish in 2006.
This Inside Line was written by Peter Burns, who has over 30 years experience in the global motorsport industry, including 17 years in Formula One with McLaren as Senior Marketing Manager working with drivers including Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Gerhard Berger, Martin Brundle, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard.
Peter was involved in the pioneering days of F1 sports marketing with the market leaders. This included developing the relationships with the sponsors, creating McLaren’s Grand Prix corporate hospitality to entertain the sponsors and provide insight into the sport and the race weekend experience.
Peter has also worked with the Motorsport Industry Association and at the Dubai Autodrome as sales and marketing executive manager in the days of Speedcar and GP2 Asia. Peter is currently based in Asia working on driver safety training with FleetSafe Asia and motorsport marketing with Asia Motorsport Development.