Friday, January 19, 2007

Back From Valencia - Here's Alonso

Back From Valencia - Here's Alonso
Originally uploaded by Danny Walker 1.

When you find out you're being taken to Spain, Valencia in fact, to witness one of the most highly anticipated debuts in FIA Formula One World Championship history, you realise; this journalism lark ain’t 'alf bad... words taken from

The speedy world of Formula One is fuel injected with glitz and glamour. It's a combustion chamber full of emotion, dreams and – as I've now found out and experienced firsthand – a lot of hard work. It's taken over a year to organise the official launch of Vodafone McLaren Mercedes new car, so you can imagine how long and how many people it takes for one race, let alone a 17 circuit season (which spans over four continents in just eight months).

Last year Team McLaren Mercedes finished third in the Constructors’ World Championship with Kimi Raikkonen and Juan Pablo Montoya in the drivers’ seats. Now in 2007 there’s been somewhat of an oil change. Double World Champion Fernando Alonso and About to Blow’s F1 newbie, Lewis Hamilton, are the new pilots. Not only do the team have two new, young and competitive drivers but McLaren Mercedes has a new partner – that’s right not sponsor, but partner in Vodafone.

One of the most recognised brands in the world is in the passenger seat and yesterday whilst speaking to David Wheldon, Vodafone Global Director of Brand & Customer Experience, I’m informed it’s a good look. “Today is all about chasing dreams and Fernando and Lewis are a perfect example of this,” he enlightens. “Fernando Alonso’s hero when he was a child was Ayrton Senna and to drive for McLaren. Lewis always wanted to be a Formula One driver.” Wondering what was in it for the mobile giant; Mr Wheldon sets us straight, and divulges “this partnership is gonna help build our brand equity. Having said that, would we like to see the drivers up on the podium...? Yes.” So they’re in it to win it, much like the Woking-based McLaren Group.

Over lunch [a Valencian Paella with Chicken, if you must know] we got to speak to the new drivers and The McLaren Group’s Chairman and CEO Ron Dennis. Dennis who said those inspiring words about Lewis Hamilton when they announced his appointment [“Since 1998 Lewis has formed an important part of our long-term strategy and we are pleased that we are able to help him take another step and achieve his dream of becoming a Formula 1 racing driver,”] this time around he was as positive as ever. Sat boldly in his chair he tells RWD, about proceedings, hours from the momentous unveiling, “It’s going to be live across Spain and across the world. This is not some glitzy launch that just relates to McLaren but a major effort (coming out of our own research) and what our brand stands for is to do something innovative.” Forever pushing forward, The McLaren Group want to change F1 for the better, “Lewis is chasing his dream and Fernando has achieved his dream. Not only that but in other sports, different disciplines, we will be the facilitators of them living their dreams and realising their dreams. We're trying to do more, not just in Formula One, cos Formula One should think outside the box a little bit and be a bit more dynamic.”

There’s nothing more outside the box than giving 22 year-old Lewis Hamilton his big chance. The relaxed, Hampshire-born, GP2 Champion is more than tranquil. Does he know what he’s about to face? Has this dream sunk in? “I thought by Christmas time it would have,” he lets off with a smile, “but then I come here and see everything that is going on and it's all new to me. It's a completely different world and (obviously I've been a racing driver for a number of years, in GP2 its quite high profile but nowhere near the nature of Formula One. It’s taken a while to get used to but I'm really getting used to it.) I'm really happy to be here to be standing next to Fernando and to be a part of this team.”

The rest of the line-up feel the same as Lewis but double World Champion Fernando Alonso has his own challenges. In a strong Spanish accent, he informs “I have my own pressures. I moved from Renault cos I think McLaren is growing up and will be the best team to beat. If we [the drivers] do it as well, we’ll be tough to beat. I’m 25, I’m the experienced guy in the team [for the first time in his career] and it’s a difficult position to manage.” When asked if his racing partner Lewis would cut it in Formula One, Fernando was bold and quick with his answer, “I think it’s too early to say. He’s been setting good times, he’s got talent and you don’t win the GP2 Series if you’re not able to win Formula One.” He continued his colleague support and finished, “It’s good for Lewis to be here at McLaren, it’s a big team and I hope the best for him.”

With the light dimming, it was straight out of the hotel, via the aide of a police escort through the fan packed streets – who’d not only come to see the new car but countryman and hero Fernando Alonso – and onto the venue. The exquisite Cuidad De Las Artes Y Las Ciendas awaited eager members of the press, RWD included, and only 50 minutes stood between us and that new car. After the drivers parade, in which not only Alonso and Hamilton where ‘familiarised’ with the crowd but test drivers, Spanish Pedro Le La Rosa and British Gary Paffett too. Following an immense/ intense firework abetted Cirque De Soleil performance the car was unleashed. As the dry ice cleared it was finally there for the world to see, the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes MP4-22 F1 Challenger.

Nothing short of amazing could describe the vehicle. It looked more aerodynamic than a sheet of white paper, smoother than a Blackpool beach pebble and faster than rocket. Later on that evening, still with a ‘What the f…’ look still etched on my face I – whilst expecting Batman to jump out of it’s high tech underbelly – got to take a closer look. Again, amazing. It’s not long ‘til March 18 in Albert Park, Australia, when all the testing will (hopefully, for the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team) come true.

The prefect launch was rounded off by an energetic performance by Vanessa Mae.

Vodafone McLaren Mercedes have launched three special edition mobile phones. From Sharp the Vodafone McLaren Mercedes 770SH, (3G and 2G versions) and the 3G Sharp Vodafone McLaren Mercedes SGH-Z720M. Stay tuned to and the next issue of RWD for more from Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Ron Dennis