The beginner’s guide to F1 car launches
We’re just a few weeks away from the start of the 2024 F1 season, and it’s time for the teams to unveil their new cars. Welcome to launch season… it isn’t always what it seems.
The end of February marks the formal beginning of the 2024 F1 season with a trip to Bahrain – first for a group test in which everyone will shake off three months’ worth of rust, before the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix. Before all that, however, the teams unveil their 2024 challengers to the watching world. Prepare to launch.
What is an F1 car launch?
A car launch, or reveal, is when each of the Formula 1 teams pull the covers off their new cars and set out key targets for the season ahead. Whether it's a glamourous ceremony with celebrity guests or a digital event showing the first official images of the new machine, it's one of the busiest phases of the year for every team.
Every year, in the run up to the first race of the season, all ten teams launch a new car. Usually, there will be changes in the Technical Regulations meaning the cars that finished the previous season would no longer be allowed to race, but even with identical regs (and 2024 is very, very similar to 2023), the teams would launch something new to try and get ahead of their rivals.
It wasn’t always the case. In the dim-and-distant past, teams would use cars for several years. That went out of fashion in the 1980s, but even into the early 2000s, it wasn’t unknown for teams to at least start a season with the previous year’s car.
That doesn’t happen anymore, however. Even in 2021, when the Covid-19 pandemic required teams to carry over the bulk of their 2020 designs, they all still managed to deliver something substantially different at the start of the year. The pace of development in F1 is such that their old car simply wouldn’t be fast enough to compete.
How long does it take to create a brand new F1 car?
It varies, as Formula 1 teams take different approaches depending on the circumstances they find themselves in at the time, but typically it takes around 18 months of work.
Between the final race of one season and the first race of the next, there’s an off-season lasting around 14 weeks. For the sake of simplicity, the narrative tends to portray the teams as spending this downtime designing their new car. While the teams will certainly be manufacturing their new car in this period, the reality is that car design typically started much earlier than that.
The first principles of a 2024 car will have been laid down in the Autumn of 2022, with gradually more and more people and resources thrown at it until, by the summer of 2023, it’s the full focus of a design team.
The cars that will be launched over the next few weeks will have had their design ‘frozen’ back in the Autumn of 2023, allowing manufacturing to begin (while the designers start work on their first upgrade package).
What is an F1 livery reveal?
Not every car launch is the real deal, and sometimes teams opt for a ‘livery reveal’. This concept isn’t new, but it has become more prevalent in the modern era as teams host events to show off what the new car will look like… without actually showing off the new car itself.
There are many reasons why teams want to publicise their new campaign, but just as many for why they might not want to reveal their car – the compromise is the livery reveal. The world is introduced to the colourways and sponsorship scheme of the new car… but it's painted (or vinyl-wrapped) and stickered onto an old chassis.
A common reason for doing the livery launch is that the new car simply isn’t finished. By pushing a design programme ‘aggressively late’ teams can maximise the amount of work that can be done on the new car before a design freeze.
Teams showing off a genuine new car at the end of January may have frozen that design the previous October in order to begin production, whereas teams who don’t finish building their car until the end of February – and it isn’t unknown for parts to be arriving on the first day of the pre-season test – have put an extra month into the design before locking it down.
For fans of the cloak-and-dagger approach, however, sometimes the reason for a livery launch is that the new car has interesting features the team would rather not reveal until absolutely necessary. When teams don’t wish to give their competition a head-start on analysing – and perhaps replicating – their idea, they hide it until testing begins – or sometimes even later than that.
There are, of course, more mundane reasons for doing a livery reveal, one of which is marketing boost accrued from, effectively, launching the car twice. A launch generates a lot of publicity. Showing off the livery on one date and the car on another has value to a marketing department keen to deliver eyeballs to their sponsors and partners.
In truth, even a 'genuine' launch event is likely to feature some old, or faked, components on the car. Unless the team is combining a launch event with a shakedown test, chances are the whole car won’t be on show at the launch as teams tend to be a little paranoid about what they’re prepared to show off.
Whether it’s a live launch event or an online affair, F1 teams are usually careful to present the car at an angle – thus making life difficult for anyone attempting to gather accurate information on geometry – and will usually attempt to hide the rear of the car completely, keeping their diffuser and rear suspension arrangements a secret until their car blazes out of the pit-lane in pre-season.
Why don't all F1 teams have car launch events?
Sometimes teams don’t bother with a launch event at all because it's simply not a priority for them. If none of the above criteria are considered important to the team, then it's likely their launch will consist of simply rolling the new car out into the pit-lane just before the first session of testing.
The drivers and senior staff will pose with the car in front of their garage, allowing F1’s cadre of photographers to take the pictures that’ll be used during the early part of the season – and potentially for centuries to come. After this, the team principal, drivers or technical staff might take a few questions – or not, because there’s a lot to be getting on with across the first day of testing, and some teams prefer to let the car do the talking.