MERC BEHIND THE SCENES
An F1 launch is when teams finally go public with the fruits of their previous months’ labours. But rarely do they allow sight of their inner workings in the final pre-launch hours. F1 Racing got a glimpse with Mercedes
We’re backstage with Lewis on the eve of the launch of the new W09
LEWIS HAMILTON inserts an index finger into either side of his mouth, stretches his face, pokes out his tongue and goes: “BLEEEEEEEEERRRRRRGGGHHH!”
“Love it, Lewis,” purrs photographer Paul Ripke. “Now, finger up your nose please.”
“WHAT?! No way man. No way! I’m not putting my finger up my nose.”
He relents and places the tip of his right index digit on the very edge of a nostril.
“That’s it Lewis,” Ripke encourages, popping frames with his Leica. “These will be great.”
The levity is welcome as the end of a long ‘media assets’ haul approaches for Lewis, Valtteri Bottas and a host of troops from the Mercedes F1 comms and marketing machine.
This is the day on which much of the bounty with which the team will feed partners, journalists and their own content-hungry channels is harvested. Studied portraits, candid asides, ‘hero poses’, video Q&AS for partners. All must be ticked off a very long list on this one locked-in day. And it’s no small undertaking.
“THE DAYS OF NEW-CAR ROLLOUTS BEHIND FACTORY DOORS SEEM LAUGHABLY DISTANT AND AMATEURISH NOW”
We assemble, cold and early, at a purposebuilt photographic studio just off the M40 motorway in Oxfordshire, about 20 miles from Mercedes’ team HQ in Brackley. ‘We’ on this day comprises Mercedes’ two race drivers, a stylist for each of them (yep, hair ’n’ make-up), a 15-strong TV crew, two stills photographers plus their assistants, sundry entourage members, caterers, three Mercedes F1 cars (2014, ’15 and ’17 championship winners)… and F1 Racing.
It’s a grand gathering and serves to remind how important is ‘the message’ conveyed by manufacturer-backed F1 teams. Yes, the sport is still about racing – men and cars fighting it out on track. More than ever, though, that activity must serve wider empires. It must add lustre to brands. It must help sell.
The days of new-car roll-outs behind factory doors seem laughably distant and amateurish now. An F1 team’s launch and the activity that precedes it is a mighty sophisticated undertaking – media engineering, if you will.
That needn’t – mustn’t – equate to chaos, however. Indeed, what’s most striking about
these 24 pre-launch-into-real-launch hours is how tightly scripted they are. That’s not in itself a surprise – F1 is a rarefied realm, where thousandths of a second really do matter; but what is eye-catching is the extent of filigree-fine planning that has gone before.
Mercedes’ ever-attentive comms chief (an exF1 Racing staffer, no less) allows a glimpse of the 58-column spreadsheet, according to which the pre-launch-into-launch-into-barcelona-first-test plan is choreographed.
“Every five minutes for the car [the new W09] is scheduled,” he informs. “Tonight [the Wednesday before the first run, at Silverstone] is the final build and then it fires up on Thursday. Everything is right up against the clock.”
Immutable those deadlines may be, but there’s a mood of quiet industry among Merc marcomms. So long as the spreadsheet-hymn sheet is adhered to, nothing too untoward will happen, it seems. Some ‘events’, however, can never be accounted for…
“There’s make-up on his Nomex!” cries one stylist, suddenly, mid-morning, as she frets over
“AN F1 TEAM’S LAUNCH IS A MIGHTY SOPHISTICATED UNDERTAKING – MEDIA ENGINEERING IF YOU WILL”
a smudge of foundation powder on an item of driver kit. “Don’t worry,” chimes a colleague. “I have another.” And lo, a replacement flameretardant undergarment is proffered, still wrapped in its packaging, while the original is taken away for a scrub. The thought occurs that if the media and marketing divisions of Mercedes F1 can operate with such seamless ‘you-throw-itand-i’ll-catch-it’ efficiency, how joined up must the rest of the team be?
Let the scorecard be our guide: Mercedes’ onslaught on Formula 1 since their return as a manufacturer team in 2010 has been nothing short of daunting for their rivals. From that tentative first season with Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, through to their (and Nico’s) first win at the 2012 Chinese GP, via Hamilton’s arrival for ’13 and on into hybrid-era domination, they have become the definitive modern F1 team.
After four straight team-driver title doubles, this year they’ll gun for a fifth pair. Only Ferrari and Michael Schumacher from 2000-2004 have ever achieved that degree of domination. Not that you’d sense this is a team on the cusp of record-equalling
greatness. Co-ordinated confidence, yes; giddy anticipation, no. Hamilton, of course, has seen it all before, over the decade since his first title with Mclaren in 2008: wonder-boy then, mature global sporting icon now, and while he is a Zen-like presence amid his acolytes, his sheer starriness adds a frisson to the activity of those about. This is, after all, Lewis Hamilton, fourtime world champion and while Mercedes’ F1 effort is the summation of 1,000-plus employees’ energies, late nights and talents, the aces at the wheel are the poster boys.
And none more so than Hamilton, whose polished ease in front of the lens – so evident today – is the product of many years’ training allied to the will and ambition to become something very special: perhaps the most famous racing driver of all time.
Yet for all his eminence, there’s no evidence of outrageously diva-ish demands. He’s particular about his choice of tunes while posing for the cameras (Kendrick Lamar is a must) and his coiffure needs constant buffing. Beyond that, not much. A request for a breakfast omelette causes
“FOR ALL OF HIS EMINENCE, THERE’S NO EVIDENCE OF OUTRAGEOUSLY DIVA-ISH DEMANDS FROM LEWIS”
a momentary kitchen kerfuffle (“We haven’t got any eggs!”) and, later, he rolls his eyes at one too-familiar question for a partner Q&A (“Jeez, how many times have I answered this?”). But thereafter he’s good as gold. Indeed, his diligent responses to script prompts for partner ‘collateral’ offer some little-heard insights. Lewis makes an extremely rare reference to the racial challenges he faced as he rose through the ranks – “Generous people were prepared to believe that a driver from a different ethnicity could make it” – then he offers an intriguing glimpse into his future: “I don’t think I have anything to prove as a racing driver, but in the fashion world and music, there’s a lot. And in the humanitarian field, too – giving something back.”
When Bottas’s screen slot arrives (timed to the minute, of course), his answers to the same set of questions reflect his lower altitude in the motorsport stratosphere: “I still have so much to prove,” he says. “I still haven’t achieved many of the goals in my career.” Quite a statement from a man who’s driving for the best team in F1, for which he won three times last year. And if it speaks of commendable ambition it also exposes the almost insurmountable challenge ahead – one which any team-mate of Lewis Hamilton must face: beating him. Hostilities thereto haven’t quite yet commenced – though they very soon will. It’s launch day tomorrow and Bottas will be first to drive the W09. After that it’s testing, racing, fighting.
Some time after 6pm, both drivers melt into the night in chauffeured limos, as the still-hardat-it worker bees remain glued to laptops and tablets. This exit-stage-right of the lead players is planned, naturally: drivers need R&R; their supporting cast must continue to ensure that the show goes on.
So when the first W09 fires up shortly after 9am on 22 February, 2018, and Bottas heads out for the install laps of a barely-above-freezing Silverstone, it’s no surprise that Mercedes’ social accounts are primed and ready – as are the nearly 200 media assembled above the garages in the Silverstone Wing.
As with so much of the latter-day Mercedes F1 engagement, effective delivery of a brief has been made to look easy. And therein, perhaps, lies the secret of their success.
Past title-winning machines All smiles between the drivers
“So whaddya think, Lewis?” Bottas awaits first fire-up
Media briefly aligned pre-launch
It’s ‘hero’ time for Lewis
New kit partner = new pics
New helmets are on display too