12 January 2019

Fascinating F1 Facts: 45

The Alexandra Palace – or “The Ally Pally” as they call it in London - sits on top of a hilltop to the north of the city, overlooking the suburb of Hornsey. If you look down from the Palace you can see most of London. Down below in Hornsey, over by the railway line, is the old Railway Hotel, which was run by Colin Chapman's father and was where the first Lotus cars were built in the workshops behind the pub, which has today become a restaurant and club called Funky Brownz.

The Palace was built in 1873 and was designed to be the North London equivalent of Crystal Palace in the south, as a place for recreational activities and exhibitions. In the 1930s, because of its hilltop position, part of the Palace was used by the BBC as a broadcast centre, where it became the home of the BBC's first television service and a radio and TV mast still towers over the building.

It was here too that Formula 1 hosted what was probably the most bizarre car launch ever. Today car launches are rather dull affairs, often taking place in pitlanes in Spain, but there was a time when the sky was literally NOT the limit. Sauber proved this with the gloriously eccentric unveiling of its 1996 car, which took place at a place called The Space Theatre in Baden, near Zurich, where Swiss German-speaking Martians with pointy heads and green faces announced that the team was entering a new dimension and proceeded to put on a show which was described at the time as being "like Mad Max meets Jesus Christ Superstar" which involved lots of lasers and dancers rushing around in the darkness in black suits with luminous blotches. When the lights came up there was the car and a bunch of Martians smiling like synchronised swimmers.

Benetton tried hard to compete with one launch I recall in which male dancers pranced about manfully throwing paint-filled eggs of many colours at white walls to announce one of its F1 cars.

But the winner for bizarre launches is unquestionably the 1997 McLaren presentation in February that year - at The Ally Pally. It is hard to imagine a more incongruous show than the "Night of Stars and Cars", attended by 5,000 people, 3,000 of them paying music fans. It began with a TV presenter noting that this was the biggest F1 launch ever and would be covered live across the UK on Virgin Radio.

It seemed rather strange to launch a new F1 livery on the radio, but why not?

Things got even odder when the pre-war German motor racing ace Manfred von Brauchitsch, then aged 91, appeared on the set along with The Spice Girls, the biggest pop act of the day, who had launched their "Wannabe" album a few months earlier and were in the process of selling 31 million copies. The German aristocrat, nephew of a celebrated World War II General, had defected to East Germany in the 1950s, and seemed just a tad out of place amid the energetic girl band. There was also Jamiroquai singing "Virtual Insanity". The show was designed to launch not only the new car but also a new siler and grey livery featuring new sponsorship from West cigarettes, a big break from the long tradition of celebrated red and white Marlboro McLarens.

The McLaren drivers - David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen - were both rather nonplussed by the whole affair, particularly Mika when Ginger Spice (Geri Halliwell) and Posh Spice (Victoria Adams) decided that they needed to know what racing drivers wear under their race suits and began to undress him on stage to find out...

Two years later, of course, Posh Spice would marry footballer David Beckham, while Ginger Spice would end up marrying Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner in the spring of 2015.

Funny old world, isn't it?

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