What is Infiniti doing in F1?
PH went to the Belgian GP to ask important people hard questions about the Infiniti-Red Bull tie-up
- Red Bull + Renault V8 engine + Vettel = two world championships
- Renault + Nissan = commercial partnership
- Nissan to the power of 3 = Infiniti
- Infiniti struggles for recognition in many markets
- Overnight, Red Bull Renault becomes Red Bull Infiniti, and everyone wants to buy the new posh Nissan.
Some of this is actually true. The deal wasn’t sealed until the night before 2011's Geneva show, in a downtown Swiss hotel. Seb and Christian Horner appeared the next morning on the Infiniti show stand, trying to look terribly excited about things like “synergy”. Or possibly money.
Simon Sproule is the man who pulled the deal together. He’s a Corporate Vice President at Nissan, passionate that the company has chosen the right avenue rather than Premier League football, sailing or any of the other high-rolling sports.
Infiniti is a brand that still is hardly known outside Japan and the US. Launching in Europe with 3.7 V6 and 5.0 V8 petrol engines wasn’t the best idea for mass acceptance here, so the management needs to work out a way to get Infiniti onto a broader radar.
One way is to build smaller cars, and it’s no secret that within a couple of years there will be a Mercedes A/B-Class rival with Merc engines. Short term, though, there’s a need to boost awareness and to explain what the hell Infiniti stands for. F1 was deemed to be the solution.
Certainly, Red Bull is a funky partner. The crew is the youngest on the pit lane, the garage echoes with music, the dynamic is at the opposite end of the spectrum to corporate McLaren. Yet, as we stand in the back of the garage when Webber makes his tyre stop at Spa, the professionalism is never in doubt.
So, how does it all come together for Infiniti and, indeed, Red Bull?
For the carmaker it’s all about exposure. TV airtime measurements show that of the top 100 brands involved in F1, Infiniti is already fourth, behind Red Bull, Vodaphone and Total.That’s impressive, and it shows the value of picking the right F1 team, whatever the cost.
But it still begs an important question. How do you convert an awareness of “Infiniti” into knowledge that it makes luxury cars you should be buying?
The Infiniti FX Vettel Edition is one way. It's a lighter, faster bespoke version of the large SUV which (all cynicism aside) genuinely had input from the German. 50 will be built and 15 are already sold, for €120,000 a pop.
And Red Bull? Is there seriously anything in this arrangement for the team? Nissan/Infiniti is a world leader in electric cars and, crucially, the company is looking far further ahead than Red Bull ever can. The potential for high-end developments years into the future is something an F1 team simply doesn’t have the capacity to handle. Even if, like Red Bull, it employs over 500 people to run just two cars for 20 races a year.
There is something slightly Alice in Wonderland about this last scenario. We made a lightning tour of the Red Bull HQ before buzzing out to Spa in an FX50. All these people, all that money, all that effort, going into building a couple of racing cars which will need updating by the time each race ends.
And yet the rapid development of new technology is amazing, and the employment prospects for engineers, the majority British, is second to none. Infiniti insists it can add knowledge and expertise, as well as money, to all this.