Mercedes enjoy constructive winter but Williams sleep through alarm
A few days ago a man called James Allison made feel like something other than a lost cause. In a short promotional film the technical director of the Mercedes team – the winner of the last five world championships – explained what it takes to create and build a new grand prix car. His enthusiasm dispelled a lot of the scepticism surrounding the sport’s future.
Allison made a compelling argument that F1’s core activity has not really changed over the decades. What his colleagues were doing over the winter as they assembled the new W10, which made its debut in the first day of testing in Barcelona this week in the hands of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, was essentially the same as their earliest predecessors were doing more than 100 years ago.
Perhaps it was not enough to banish entirely the negative thoughts surrounding F1 in the 21st century. Allison is not in a position to get rid of the anonymous circuits, the useless tyres or the stupidly expensive emphasis on aerodynamic development. Nor can he put the races back on free-to-air TV in Britain but he did manage to put the sport’s better aspects back in the spotlight.
Before he joined Mercedes two years ago Allison was Ferrari’s technical director. When his former team sent its latest car out on the Circuit de Catalunya this week, its new matt-red livery, featuring a reconfiguration of its principal sponsor’s message, pointed to a less attractive side of the sport. Racing cars have always been commercial billboards. In the beginning the badge on the radiator was a simple attempt to persuade potential buyers that this was a better horseless carriage than its rivals. Then it got a bit silly. The best laugh came in 1978 with the arrival of Durex, who covered the country with posters of the Surtees TS19 carrying its logo and captioned “The Small Family Car”.
Forty years later the laughs are not so easy to come by. Unfamiliar names on the bodywork of some cars raise questions about how the sport is exploited by outside interests and whether a tighter control should be exerted on the sources of its funding.
Ferrari’s launch, streamed to the world, was notable for the way the company’s executives thanked their sponsors several times in their speeches without mentioning their names. They did not need to. The principal sponsor’s name is hidden in the team’s new official title: Scuderia Mission Winnow.
Mission Winnow is something devised by Philip Morris International, the Swiss-based company which makes Marlboro cigarettes and became involved with Ferrari in the 1980s. Eventually it became the title sponsor, with the name Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro appearing on the entry lists. The particular shade of red traditionally favoured by the team changed to match that of the cigarette packet. After tobacco advertising was banned, the name was removed from the cars, sometimes replaced by a barcode that simulated the shape of the original word. Eventually the white chevron on a red background was left blank, an unmistakable reminder of the packet’s design. Now the name Mission Winnow is seen on the front and rear wings, and the engine cover carries a capital M above a capital W. This may or may not remind you of something you have seen before.
The rebranding of Ferrari is the latest iteration of a partnership into which the Philip Morris pumps many tens of millions of pounds each year. But what the hell is Mission Winnow? During the course of all the speeches in last week’s hour-launch of the SF90, this question was never addressed. There is a website on which a page outlining their purpose contains lots of words like “transformation”, “passion”, “sustainability”, “positive impact” and “transparency” without actually saying what product all this is in aid of. Perhaps it is a product of their core business or perhaps it is a project to end famine in Africa. One thing is certain: the people at Philip Morris have been refining this kind of marketing for several decades.
Being the most historic team in the sport, or at least the only one with a continuous history going back to the first series in 1950, the Scuderia Ferrari comes in for the closest scrutiny. At the launch the first question to Mattia Binotto, the recently appointed team principal, was about the car’s new paint job. The way Binotto, promoted from the technical side, immediately diverted the conversation to more serious matters showed that marketing is not his priority.
Like Allison, Binotto is a real racing man, the kind who would have been found working at the Scuderia in the days when Enzo Ferrari was alive. Mercedes and Ferrari both arrived in Barcelona on time this week, their new cars ready to run at the start of the test. So did seven of the remaining eight teams: Red Bull and their sister team, Toro Rosso; Renault and Haas, both in black livery, like two Hollywood stars turning up to the Oscars in the same frock; Alfa Romeo, who used to be Sauber; Racing Point, who used to be Force India; and McLaren, who are now in a partnership with British American Tobacco on “reduced risk products”.
The absentee was the F1 team, smarting from the ignominy of finishing plumb last in the 2018 constructors’ standings, the low point of a 20-year decline that cost them their title sponsor at the end of last season. Once invincible, now they are unable to get their new car to Spain on time. That is the other side of the story told by James Allison, who used a few minutes in front of the camera to make the new season seem an enticing prospect.