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The day an F1 car launch got completely out of hand

Presentations of new F1 cars are often straightforward affairs. Once to show off the car to the public and then again for real during winter testing. But, in 2004, Renault tried to take things up a gear, with some disastrous results.

Nowadays, F1 car unveilings can be rather procedural events that simply act as a bridge for fans in the winter period before the new season gets going. 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 events usually went down well. Except for one occasion on Thursday, 29 January 2004, in Palermo, Sicily, when Renault tried to up the ante even further. Preparing to celebrate their third season back at the top level, the Mild Seven Renault F1 team chose to present their new car at the majestic Teatro Massimo, a centuries-old opera house on the Italian island, at the suggestion of flamboyant boss Flavio Briatore. With a continuing driver line-up of Fernando Alonso and Jarno Trulli, the squad 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 shone under the spotlights. With Briatore and the Palermo mayor on good terms, it appeared to be the perfect place to unveil the team's new car. Renault were setting the bar high for the 2004 season, and eyeing the big prize of the World Championship, following Alonso's dominant victory at a sweltering Hungarian Grand Prix the previous season. "We can no longer speak of the big three; we are now talking about the big four," then Renault F1 CEO Patrick Faure said at the time. Back in 2004, that group included Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and, now, Renault.

Alonso's F1 demo run doesn't go to plan...

A static launch 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 – a great piece of promotion for Palermo! After the launch and lunch for the guests, a short course was set up through the city with some crash barriers and water barricades in place. Alonso and Trulli would take turns driving the R23B from the previous season, with just a modest tent serving as the pit box. It promised to be a fantastic show, with the weather a balmy 18 degrees and the sun lighting up the clear blue skies. 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 crossed a few times as Trulli thundered past – not too hard, but enough to get the crowd excited. Then came Alonso's turn. The crowd had now swollen to the thousands, with cheers and clapping spreading across the city until, suddenly, everything started to go wrong, and not in a small way... Alonso's engine stopped as the Spanish driver entertained the crowds with some donuts and, in an instant, spectators began to storm the course. The fences fell one by one and Alonso, thinking quickly, tore himself free from his seat belts to make a run for safety. The Sicilians promptly surrounded the demo Renault car, stripping it to the bone within no time. Alonso, Trulli and Briatore were all forced to flee as the crowd made its way towards the pit tent. What started as a demo for the public and an advertisement for Palermo turned into a complete disaster. Even more remarkably, Renault then distributed photos of the events, though the assault and looting of the R23B were carefully removed from the picture. The following year, Mild Seven Renault F1 presented the brand-new R25 car in a similar Mediterranean climate, except this time the rather more mundane setting of Monaco. There was no public demo on 1 February, 2005...

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