Geoff Collins presents an insight into what goes into the launch of a Formula 1 car, with exclusive coverage of how the 2011 Marussia Virgin car launch came together

The photo studio awaits the MVR-02 in 2011

We’re well into launch season now, and perhaps one thing that gets overlooked at this time of year is what goes into the launch of an F1 car.

First of all, we must remember that time is short in F1. And things like launches get in the way of the serious stuff like designing, building and running racing cars. Launches are important of course; they give the team an opportunity of showing off new liveries and sponsors, but at the same time it’s best not to give away any secrets. Nick Wirth, previously technical director at (Marussia) Virgin Racing, was insistent that nobody should be allowed to photograph the rear of the car – where the all-important diffuser is to be found.

Different ways to launch

Teams take different approaches when it comes to launches. In the 1990s things started to get out of hand, with Bentton famously driving an F1 car to a Sicilian amphitheatre at one stage. With the entrance of the Resource Restriction Agreement (RRA) things looked to be coming back under control, with the concept of all teams launch their 2010 challengers at a single venue. But of course that didn’t happen…

So far this year, we’ve had a launch via a magazine; with Caterham launching in the latest edition of F1 Racing. Predictably, the photos were leaked before publication, but if you’re a team looking for publicity, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Oscar Wilde so wisely pointed out, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

Incidentally, that launch is potentially one of the cleverest I’ve seen. Do we know for sure that it was a real car? Show cars look pretty good these days, and can be painted while the real things are being put together. And of course, there’s nobody around to take sneaky photos of the diffuser or exhausts…

McLaren’s launch today was more traditional, with the benefit of live coverage on the web if you could get it. I couldn’t, but then as we discovered during the 2010 Virgin VR-01 launch internet-based launch, these things don’t always go to plan – especially if there is a lot of interest from the public. There usually is.

But back to what goes into a launch. Along with generating column inches (and preferably minutes on screen) one of the basic goals is to get a set of photos for use throughout the year, both of the car and important team members in their new season kit. Add a series of standard quotes and you’re well on your way to a standard press kit, which can be used both for guests and as the background for sales presentations.

Preparing to launch

You might think that taking a few photos of a car and key team members is a fairly quick process, but it’s not. Last year, Marussia Virgin Racing launched their 2011 car at the BBC studios in London around 11 am if memory serves. Six hours earlier and the car, at that point the only MVR-02 that had been built, was still in a photo studio in Leighton Buzzard – where it had been since about 11pm the night before.

Six hours of photographs had been planned, and then it’d be time for the car to be rushed to London, ready to be installed under wraps in the studio before the guests start to arrive. A quick rehearsal, and then show time.

Even getting to the studio is not a straightforward job. F1 teams are always trying to do as much as possible to the cars in the time available. If you plan slack time into your schedule, you’re simply not trying hard enough. That’s why launch dates aren’t published months in advance – unless the team has a very good backup plan.

The MVR-02 was due to leave for testing in Spain straight after the launch. Less than 48 hours after the launch, the car would be on track at Jerez. And we all know how much work goes into getting an F1 car ready before it goes out onto the circuit. Cutting it fine is what it’s all about in F1.

A lot of the work had been done at the factory of course. But putting a car together for the first time means that some things don’t fit quite perfectly and have to be adapted – so the car was only able to leave for the photo session late on Sunday night. Meanwhile, the team had been made-up, interviewed and shot (with a camera) from all sides, after the right sized shirts had been found and handed out.

Timo has make-up applied in the dressing room

Once the car finally arrived, towed behind a Range Rover on a trailer that you are more likely to see at a 750MC club event than an F1 meeting, the team managers sprang into action. It’s cold in February at night in a photo studio, and the warming affect of the pizza delivery has long since worn off. A bit of physical work is a good thing.

Enter the MVR-02. Assisted by Management

Glad to have something to do, the car was pushed into place in the large studio: the one with the high ceiling and the seamless floor to ceiling wall. Adjusting lighting is the most time-consuming aspect; the photographer wants to eliminate every spot of glare from the glossy bodywork. The management and drivers are photographed with the car first, so that they can leave and arrive fresh at the BBC the following morning.

Management and Drivers on Photo Shoot Duty

After the management have left, the car is shot from both sides, front, front three-quarter and rear. The car is very carefully lit for that last one, which will probably never get out to the public anyway. And then it’s photographed from above. Once the photographer is happy, it’s time to head to London for the launch. The PR team will have about an hour at the hotel if they’re lucky, but adrenalin is powerful stuff when there’s a job to be done.

Launching at the BBC

Once at the BBC there’s a lot going on. Journalists are setting up in the temporary media centre, and guests are receiving breakfast. We’ve tried to get as many fans as possible in to the launch as well, and they meet up in a separate canteen. With twenty minutes to go it’s time to get everyone into place. At times it feels like herding kittens. Then suddenly, everyone is in place and Crofty, MC for the day, comes on and does his stuff, and all too soon it’s over.

John Booth answers questions from the fans

Management and drivers take time to talk to the fans, who finally get to see the car. Journalists post their pieces and guests sip champagne in the lounge. Meanwhile, video is being edited, ready to be seen later on Youtube.

Packing Up

After launch, the mechanics begin to strip the MVR-02 down so that it can be transported to Jerez. The floor of a BBC studio really isn’t that different to the floor of a Silverstone garage, so the guys make light work of it.

The car is prepared for travel

Once the website has been updated, Press releases published, and the video has been edited, it’s back to the office as the WiFi isn’t up to the job of uploading the video. Finally, about 36 hours after starting, the launch can be considered over. It’s time for a drink. And sleep.