Ron Dennis, executive chairman of McLaren Group, tells Michael Pickard about the Formula 1 racing team’s new animation division.
The scene is a familiar one, fraught with tension as McLaren Formula 1 racing drivers Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button both accelerate towards the chequered flag.
Yet their race is not being played out on the usual twisting circuit flanked by grandstands. It’s on an underground test track – and it’s a cartoon.
This race is the climax of the first episode of Tooned, the first series produced by the F1 team’s new television unit, McLaren Animation, a joint venture with UK-based visual effects studio Framestore.
The three-minute film debuted on UK satcaster BSkyB’s dedicated F1 channel Sky Sports F1 prior to the start of the British Grand Prix in July. New episodes aired before and after each subsequent race in the 2012 calendar and continued until the season reached its climax at the Brazilian Grand Prix in November. A full run of 20 episodes will also be produced for next season.
Hamilton and Button lend their own voices to the cartoons and are joined by actor and comedian Alexander Armstrong (Peppa Pig) as Professor Q, who runs a top-secret lab within the McLaren Technology Centre.
Tooned certainly raises a smile, with the two drivers exploiting their competitive nature for laughs and with in-jokes aimed at the keener F1 fans. The iconic moustache of former world champion Nigel Mansell makes an appearance in the opening episode.
But rather than a long-held ambition to move into television, it was market research that gave McLaren the idea that a TV show could enhance its brand reputation.
“We felt this cartoon would be a way to not only generate brand loyalty but also to humourise McLaren and put a smile on people’s faces, which in the current climate is a rare occurrence,” explains Ron Dennis, executive chairman of McLaren Group. “It was very appealing to me when John [Allert, group brand director for McLaren Marketing] came up with the idea of using CGI technology, it grew very quickly from that seed. We’ve got great partners – people who really aspire to do things well, which is also the ethos of McLaren.”
By linking up with Framestore, whose SFX credits include Avatar and the Harry Potter films, Dennis says McLaren made a conscious decision to keep production in the UK, rather than the “less expensive options of Singapore or China.”
And though the cartoon is designed to appeal to motor racing fans of all ages, he is clear that it is aimed at building brand loyalty from a young age. It is, arguably, one of the few ways motor racing’s public image can be softened to appeal to children without resorting to traditional children’s licensing and merchandising options, such as toys or action figures.
“McLaren is extremely diverse now,” Dennis claims. “We are world leaders in advanced electronic control systems, we have a very big marketing operation, a large development division called McLaren Applied Technologies with a whole range of industrial partners, and, of course, the Grand Prix team and McLaren Automotive, which is producing one of the best, if not the best, two-seater sports car in the world.
“This is part of our growth. This is identifying part of the market, the future consumer, and building brand loyalty from an early age.”
F1 followers can now expect McLaren to seek other ways to bring the company to consumers’ attention and help shed its “cold and grey” reputation. McLaren Animation will continue to be a part of that expansion, with Dennis saying he’s also keen to produce a feature film.
“This is just one of the many marketing tools we’ve developed in our organisation,” says Dennis, who is credited with spotting Hamilton’s racing potential when the driver was just 13. “Our next target is a feature film. It’s early days and we’ve just got to see how well our efforts are appreciated by the viewers.”
On the subject of bringing international partners into the unit and building distribution channels for Tooned, he says: “Quite a high percentage of the world either has English as its mother tongue or speaks English and we will target those audiences.”
With its new animation unit making it the first F1 racing team to move into TV, McLaren is on the right track to build a new army of fans.