Nowadays, F1 car unveilings can be rather procedural events which simply act as a bridge for fans in the winter period before the season gets into full swing again.
Back in the 1990s and early years of the 2000s however, things were done slightly differently. No expense was spared to put on a show for the press and the public. And they usually went off well. Except for that one time on Thursday January 29th in Palermo, Sicily, when Renault tried to up the ante even further.
The Mild Seven Renault F1 team had chosen to present its new car at the majestic Teatro Massimo, a centuries old opera house on the Italian island on the suggestions of the flamboyant Flavio Briatore as it prepared to celebrate its third season back at the top of motorsport.
With the same line-up as the previous year, with drivers Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli, the team had prepared an extravagant presentation and invited no fewer than 650 journalists from all over the world as well as VIPs linked to the company and the sport.
The setting was stunning, and the brand new R24 in its now classic blue and yellow livery is shining under the spotlights. Briatore is looking around with a hint of satisfaction in his eyes. The Italian was the driving force behind the choice of Palermo as a venue, and was on good terms with the city’s mayor, so the link-up seems like a perfect combination to unveil the team’s new car.
Renault were setting the bar high for the 2004 season, following Alonso’s dominant victory at a sweltering Hungarian Grand Prix the previous season.
“We can no longer speak of the big three,” Renault F1 CEO at the time Patrick Faure said, “we are now talking about the big four.” Back in 2004, that group included Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and, now, Renault. The times, they were a’changing.
But a static presentation was not going to cut it. Briatore conceived an idea to treat the inhabitants of the Sicilian capital to a real life F1 demonstration, which was organised with the mayor beforehand. What a great piece of promotion for Palermo!
After the launch and lunch for the guests, a short course was set up around the city with some crash barriers and water barricades, and Alonso and Trulli would take turns running the R23B from the previous season around, with just a modest tent serving as the pit box. It promises to be a fantastic show, with the weather a balmy 18 degrees and the sun glinting off the clear blue sky.
What was more remarkable was the modest police presence on the day, with the course in no time bordered by hundreds of Sicilian F1 fans. Stray dogs cross the course a few times as Trulli thunders past- not too hard of course, but enough to get the crowd excited.
Then comes Alonso’s turn. The crowd has now swollen to the thousands, with cheers and clapping- until, suddenly, everything starts to go wrong. And not in a small way.
Alonso’s engine stops as the Spanish driver is entertaining the crowds with some donuts and in an instant, the crowd begins to storm the course. The fences fall and Alonso, thinking quickly, tears himself free from his seat belts and makes for safety.
The Sicilians promptly swarmed the demo Renault car, stripping it to the bone within no time. Briatore, Alonso and Trulli are also forced to run as the crowd makes its way towards the pit tent.
What started as a demo for the public and an advertisement for Palermo has turned into a complete disaster. Even more remarkably, Renaul then distributes photos of the events, however the assault and looting of the R23B is carefully removed from the picture.
The next year, Mild Renault F1 presented the brand new R25 car again in a Mediterranean climate, except this time in the rather more mundane setting of Monaco. There is no public demo this time.