In 1998, when I was 12 years old, one of my classmates did one of the most impressive show and tells the class had ever seen. He had written to his favourite football club, and received loads of free swag in return.
I wondered if I could pull off the same trick as a Formula 1 fan. So I set about tracking down a postal address for ever F1 team, and I wrote to them all. I told them I was doing a school project about the sport, and asked them to send me stuff.
I wasn’t doing a school project. I just wanted free stuff.
In today’s social media era, it is fairly easy to feel a personal connection with F1 teams and drivers. They are pumping out content on a daily basis to keep us engaged and hungry for more.
But this was the days before we even had internet access, never mind constant social media streams. So the chance to feel a connection with F1 teams through the post was quite thrilling to this simple child.
The response I got from the teams was varied and telling. In many ways, the character of each team shone through in how they responded.
One team — Prost Grand Prix — did not respond at all. But every other team did.
As packages arrived one-by-one from the F1 teams, there were occasional moments of delight. But by the end, I think I was mildly disappointed with the overall haul.
The following year I tried the same again. But for reasons I can’t remember, there is much less from 1999. Perhaps I put less effort in second time around, or maybe the teams got wise to my bare-faced attempt to get free stuff.
I kept everything the teams sent me. But for the most part it has been hidden away in drawers for the past 20 years. Today I have unearthed it to revisit what they sent me, and to find out what counted as fan engagement before the advent of the internet.
Arrows Grand Prix
All I have from 1998 is two postcards featuring drivers Pedro Diniz and Mika Salo.
In 1999 they sent photocopies of “technical data”. In reality this was a basic list of parts and suppliers: seatbelts by Sabelt, steering wheel by Arrows, paint system by Glasurit… yawn.
Occasionally there was an interesting number such as ‘Front track: 1465.0mm’, which barely means anything to me now, never mind as a 12 year old.
Most shockingly of all, this technical information was all delivered on the least technical of typefaces: Comic Sans. Oh dear!
Driver profiles inform us that Pedro de la Rosa was single, his favourite music was Spanish pop, and that his favourite sport was fishing. Worst dating profile ever.
Benetton Formula 1
Benetton sent the most colourful and heavily-branded press pack.
It came in a fancy folder, and each page was flanked with the distinctive primary colours Benetton was known for.
Content-wise, the best bit is new team principal David Richards talking about his three year plan to turn the team around. In fact, his time in charge was less than stellar (although they did achieve pole at the Austrian Grand Prix). He never actually saw eye-to-eye with the Benetton family, and only lasted one year at the team.
In 1999 they sent a very similar, updated press pack — with conspicuously no mention of David Richards.
Ferrari sent me a brochure of Ferrari that was mainly about road cars. That probably would have given a lot of people some kicks. But I was never terribly into road cars, so it was a mild disappointment.
Also enclosed were postcards of drivers Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine.
Jordan Grand Prix
Jordan perhaps fulfilled the remit of ‘responding to unctuous school child’ best of all. They were my favourite team, and very colourful at that.
There was no colour in the badly photocopied documents they sent. But that was made up for in some of the content.
Eddie Jordan was coy in his predictions: “I dare not make any comments about victories — let’s just see what happens.”
On the following page, Damon Hill was a bit more prescient:
Hopes for the 1998 season
“To win Jordan’s first Grand Prix and to participate in building the team who will go on to win the World Championship.”
That second goal was never accomplished, but a race victory did come in 1998, along with a highly competitive 1999 in which Heinz-Harald Frentzen was a championship contender.
Next came a page of technical specifications with a photo of the car — although I think this could have benefited from a higher-quality photocopier.
In a separate document came “The Jordan Grand Prix Guide to Becoming a Professional Racing Driver”.
If being a driver doesn’t work out, there is always the “Jordan Grand Prix careers guide”, which listed some of the key jobs in the team. It’s good to know that an in-depth knowledge of motorsport is not essential if you want to become Jordan’s press officer.
Bizarrely, there is a page specifically about tobacco sponsorship. At the time, Jordan’s car was the personification of the “fag packet on wheels”. But in fairness, this page is a fairly balanced view of tobacco sponsorship. Perhaps the thinking was that this would be useful to include in that school project that I wasn’t doing.
McLaren, who would go on to win both championships that year, sent more stuff than any other team. Included were a couple of postcards, two glossy brochures, an invitation to join their fan club, along with the obligatory photocopied press pack.
It’s no photocopied Ferrari manual, but I remember being quite impressed at the level of detail in the technical drawings provided. Presumably you couldn’t actually tell anything significant from them.
One of the glossies was a fashion brochure, Formula Fashion, which showcased the range of McLaren merchandise that was available to purchase. It was definitely the 90s.
Best of all is this description of a grey top:
Colours in perfect harmony, a subtle coalescence of carbon blacks and greys, aluminium, magnesium and titanium, a composite shape of stength and integrity. Stronger than imagination allows, light as air.
What a load of…?! This makes Ron Dennis’s description of McLaren’s 2015 black livery — which he called “graphite grey” — seem restrained.
In contrast to McLaren, Minardi sent very little. But what they did send was a rather adorable letter than made me love Minardi.
We are glad to inform you that you’ll find all the informations you need on the Internet…
Thanks for trust on us.
Please continue to follow us: supporters, even if they are far, are good for our team’s spirit and make our job nicer.
The package also contained postcards of their drivers. I also remember receiving Minardi stickers, which I seem to have misplaced.
The letter they sent the follow year was, sadly, much less charming.
The most passive-aggressive response came from Sauber. They dutifully sent me a press pack, but the cover letter made me feel as if I had irritated them.
…We are sorry not to be able to give you a more specific answer but as you must have realised we can not disclose any further information. Also our time simply doesn’t allow us to answer all those different questions which so many people write and ask us about…
PS. If you write to us again please put an international reply coupon, which is at any post office available, with your letter!
Nice to meet you too!
I beg your pardon? Oh, sump.
Also contained in the press pack was exciting news about Sauber’s new “WebSite”, which “on the Internet is shown in a new look.”
Although the 1997 WebSite has been awarded several prizes by the press the homepage for the 1998 season now features new technology with revised content and graphics. In cyber-space too, Red Bull Sauber Petronas is state-of-the-art. The new site is now mainly accessible with browsers of the new 4.0 generation (Navigator/Explorer).
Stewart Grand Prix
As a Scot, I was excited to be able to write to a Scottish team. They were just two years old when I wrote, so they perhaps didn’t have the capacity to respond as well as they might have.
We get many requests similar to yours asking for information on the team and drivers. In response to this we will be launching a supporters club within the next few months to ensure that you receive plenty of information on the team, with regular updates.
A few weeks later, my brother sent a similar letter — and got loads more stuff back. He got a press pack that came in a lavish plastic folder.
Also enclosed were several glossy photos — of Jackie and Paul Stewart, the drivers (including Jos “the boss” Verstappen), the cars, the engine and, er, Martin Whittaker from Ford.
In 1999 I wrote back, but they still hadn’t set up their supporters’ club — although they did send a couple of postcards of their drivers.
1998 was Tyrrell’s final year in Formula 1, and clearly found the team in reflective mood. Their press pack was easily the largest of any of the teams, in terms of number of pages.
It contained all sorts of puffery about their merger with British American Racing, a biography of BAR boss Craig Pollock, and an analysis of the technical regulations by engineering director Harvey Postlethwaite (who was possibly the only person in history to be in favour of grooved tyres).
A history of Tyrrell went into almost excruciating detail. The section on the 1990s is unsubtle in pointing the finger at engine suppliers for their woes. Strangely, no mention is made of their 1984 season in which they disqualified for illegally injecting lead shot into the car during pitstops to get around weight restrictions.
Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, the press pack contained no information about their second driver Ricardo Rossett, although a postcard of his face was contained in the package.
In 1999, BAR sent postcards of their drivers, Jacques Villeneuve and Ricardo Zonta.
Williams Grand Prix Engineering
Williams were the only team to demonstrate that they owned a laser jet printer. As you might expect from Williams, the content was dutiful, not too flashy.
A profile of world champion Jacques Villeneuve informed me that his favourite drink was “root beer and milk”, which sounds like an absolutely rank combination.
Meanwhile, Heinz-Harald Frentzen’s favourite drink was mineral water. Don’t overdo it now!
Reflecting Williams’s reputation as an engineering-focused organisation, their package was rounded off with a “book list for racing car design and technology.
Among the recommended books were: Build To Win, Competition Car Suspension, Tune To Win, The Anatomy & Development of the F1 Racing Car from 1975, Prepare To Win, Automotive Aerodynamics Handbook, and Engineer To Win. Do you think Williams liked winning?
Another sheet contained a similar list of publications, but with nothing more recent than 1991. Obviously not wanting to give the game away too much.
The following year, Williams F1 — as they were now called — sent a similar pack with some slightly better branding and a couple of postcards of their drivers.
Alex Zanardi’s profile contained a quote that would later go on to define his inspirational attitude:
I have a great will to win, however, I will always attempt to maintain a balance in my life. I have always attempted to create opportunities, to turn a crisis into an opportunity, and defeats into success.
Two years later he lost his legs in a ChampCar accident. He was back racing in 2003, and is now has four Paralympic gold medals in handcycling.
Talk about turning defeat into success.