The arrival of Infiniti at Red Bull made interesting reading this week, with the luxury Nissan brand clearly stating the primary objective for its F1 foray is as a means to expand its brand awareness across the globe, not to immediately claim technical prowess for Red Bull success.
This is a markedly different approach to what has been seen before, but one that is following a recent trend.
Automotive manufacturers have been on the grid since day one, when Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Talbot and Simca-Gordini (the latter albeit only lightly involved in automotive at the time) all made and entered racing cars to support their road car activities. Only three competing teams - Alta, ERA and Cooper - did not make cars as their primary business.
After a period of time when grids were filled by private teams, a boom in manufacturer brands in the last decade saw many teams run directly by automotive brands once again. For Ferrari, F1 is part of its DNA, but the 2000s saw Jaguar, BMW, Honda, Toyota, Renault and even, briefly, niche sportscar manufacturer Spyker, all join in and put their road car brand names on the line by formally naming themselves as the outright manufacturers of F1 cars.
Aside from Ferrari, of those names above, none now remain as team owners.
Renault was the last in line, but after selling up their shares in full to Genii Capital over the winter they are now only a sponsor and technical partner of that team, albeit still named as 'manufacturer' due to complexities of the name change.
Instead, they are now directing their efforts towards engine supply, which has worked so successfully for them in the past. By spreading funds across a number of teams, they can hedge their bets and have more chance of winning. This year, for instance, they can claim to be reigning world champions thanks to their supply deal with Red Bull despite their named team coming nowhere near the title in 2010.
In complete contrast, last year Mercedes moved its focus from being an engine supplier to a number of teams, including world champions Brawn, to purchasing the Brawn team (the full share take-over for which was finally completed this week) and creating the Silver Arrows. For them, their latest F1 journey is about digging up the heritage the have from the past and proving that they, like Ferrari, have racing in their DNA. The danger of that, of course, is failing to live up to past glories — especially as they remain an engine supplier and risk being beaten by a rival team that is using their engines (such as McLaren).
However, the new influx of car manufacturers, of which Infiniti is the latest, sees F1 being approached in a third way — as purely a marketing platform.
Last year, Russian manufacturer Lada appeared on the side of Renault's car and Indian car giant Tata put their name on the Ferrari. Neither of them had any influence over the manufacture of the car itself, no technical partnerships, no naming rights, and no claims to podiums, wins or potential championship glory. What they did have is their logo on the side of a car racing in front of the eyes of millions of fans of motorsport — and therefore many potential purchasers of their products.
This year, while Russian sportscar firm Marussia Motors has bought into Virgin racing, Lotus Cars has joined the Genii Capital owned Renault team purely as a sponsor, with no technical connections. And now Infiniti has joined Red Bull in a similar situation, choosing not to re-brand the engine and to simply use the Red Bull machine as a billboard for their brand.
Their situation, however, is slightly complex, as they are part owned, through Nissan, by Renault, and the deal is therefore likely to involve waiving Red Bull's engine payment to Renault in return for space on the car for Infiniti. They are also talking of potential technical tie-ups, but doing so this way gives them the chance to choose whether or not to publicise this, depending on the success of their involvement.
The advantage of sponsorship is clear. Financially, it is transparent and can be given a fixed value, unlike the ownership of a team or even the supply of engines, which demands money be ploughed into development if things are not going to plan. And as a brand builder it works for a car manufacturer in the same way as it does for any other sponsor.
On the flip side, while Infiniti's arrival talked about 'authenticity', which was the reason given for them not re-badging the Renault engine, right now they will not be able to claim any credit for Red Bull's success yet as a car brand on the side of a car that is not related to another manufacturer (aside from its engine supplier), the technical connection could easily be assumed.
If, however, Infiniti is committed to technical involvement in future, perhaps this sponsorship approach will indeed expand into a technical partnership. And the same goes for Lotus at Renault.
Then, who knows? Just remember what happened to Brawn...
- Red Bull