By Rob Widdows
To borrow a phrase from NASA, we are in the midst of the ‘launch-and-test’ phase. This is the time when the curtains are drawn back on a new racing season and a series of underwhelming ‘reveals’ take place around the world. We are invited to take our seats while champagne is served, speeches are made and a new Grand Prix car appears in a blaze of flashing lights, a puff of smoke or a cloud of dry ice.
The drivers, in freshly laundered overalls, sit on the wheels and tell us how their new car will be a world-beater. The sponsors sip their drinks and hope the drivers are right. A few weeks later the cars will appear in Melbourne looking totally different because testing exposed the chinks in their carbon armour.
Neither launches nor testing tell us much because we are not privy to fuel loads or tyre compounds on any particular day. Fastest in the final test can be fourth on the grid in Australia. Sensible teams do not make wild claims amid the smoke and lights of a launch. They just show us a car and get on with building the one they will actually use. Time was when a ‘launch’ involved trekking up to Silverstone on a freezing day in January to witness well, not very much. I well remember the first appearance of the Lotus 79 in 1978. Yes, I know, it was confusing. Anyway, as the black and gold machine came down the ramps of the transporter it began to snow. Most people shuffled off to the greasy spoon at the back of the paddock for a mug of tea. But I hung around, stamping my feet, waiting for a chance to speak to Colin Chapman. But he, too, had taken shelter, in the back of a black and gold lorry. I watched as the mechanics wheeled the car to the pits, its skirts scraping along the frozen ground. Mario Andreffi appeared, looked up at the grey sky and said something that made the mechanics laugh. I approached with my tape recorder. “Where are you from?” asked Mario. I told him I was from Radio Victory. “Victory, huh? I live right on Victory Lane back home,” he drawled, smiling, and told me all about his new Fl car. Not a uniformed young lady in sight, nobody recording me recording him. Things were simpler back then.
Later on Mario did a few laps, the sound of a lone Cosworh echoing around the vast emptiness of the old Northamptonshire airfield. Eventually he spun and called it a day. I waited three hours to speak to Chapman, frozen to the spot outside his motorhome. Taking pity, he beckoned me inside.
“How long have you been out there?” he asked. I told him. “Sit down lad, what do you want to know, you have as long as you like,” he said and carefully explained the ground effects of his new car, asking me questions at the end to make sure I’d understood. It was dark by the time I made my way home.
A Williams launch was always equally low-key, a new car shown to us over a cup of tea at Didcot, or at a windswept Silverstone. Stuffy hotels, nightclubs and flashy shows were still many years away. When the FW07 was rolled out in the spring of 1979, the season was already under way, too late for much fanfare. But Patrick Head’s car just looked right, neat and compact, and so it proved, giving Williams its first World Championship in 1980. The best cars, it seemed, had no need for smoke and mirrors. Alan Jones certainly didn’t care for endless photoshoots with happy, smiling team-mates in newly laundered overalls.
Excellent food, and wine, were features of a Renault launch. No flabby canapes from a distant hotel kitchen, these were handcrafted for our delectation by a French chef. The yellow cars looked a bit chunky, there was nothing the finest Chablis could do about that, but by 1983 designer Michel Tetu had got it right and Alain Prost missed the title by just two points.
By the time you read this teams will be testing and launches long forgotten, but the big test comes when the lights go out in Melbourne on March 17.