Should manufacturers be in F1?

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It was just over one year ago that Automania’s Editor at Large, John Weinthal, died in KL. John had a very keen sense of value, which prompted the following discourse from him. With Renault returning as an F1 team, John’s words are certainly appropriate. I present an edited version here.

“Four of the first eight cars in the final Grand Prix of 2010 were ‘Renault-Powered’; two were called Red Bull and two Renault.

No 2010 F1 cars were called Toyota, Honda or Jaguar although each of these names had some F1 prominence during the past decade, if little success.

Honda quit and its outfit became Brawn which in its first year cleaned up the Manufacturer and Driver Championships. Brawn became Mercedes-Benz for 2010. The new owners shelled out megamoney to come 4th in the Manufacturers’ Championship having spent much of the year explaining the failed efforts of their seven times world champion No. 1 driver who spun himself out of the final race on the first lap and ultimately scored roughly half the points of his junior partner.

Jaguar became Red Bull about 5 years ago and won both titles in 2010.

BMW pulled out of F1 but got a free kick for 2010 when the Ferrari-engined Saubers still had to be referred to as Sauber-BMWs – ain’t F1 a nonsense at times! (A small bottle of correction fluid would have fixed that, but F1 certainly has its head up its A at times – Dr. Iain.)

Toyota quit and refused to share its ball with any of the other kids.

So what?

I’m not sure ‘so what’, but I am coming to believe that F1 is NOT a good medium for car makers, even when they are successful. At best it is probably irrelevant; at worst it can actually damage a reputation. I can find NO evidence that it impacts short-term at least (say five years) on global sales one way or the other.

I think Renault is the best example of this. I find it incredible, in the sense of lacking credibility, that many people, especially the general car buying public, would see any beneficial link – technology or image-wise – between Renault F1 and showroom Renaults.

Renaults are just not perceived as either racy or prestigious, I aver.

I know a tad more about the Malaysian and Australian markets than I know about the rest of the world. Both these countries are fixtures on the F1 calendar. Both have extensive TV and media coverage of the whole F1 season. Both have a solid core of keen followers of F1 who, one might expect, would be seen by many of their family, friends and colleagues as somewhat more knowledgeable about cars than most – the very people to enhance or damage product reputations by word of mouth.

These core folk will have seen Renault rise and fall, but more often than not be successful either directly or as engine-supplier. But Renault has struggled – and that’s being kind – to make any impact, much less money, in either Australia or Malaysia. Renault maintains a marketing presence but the punters seem unimpressed.

I have NEVER seen anyone wearing a Renault cap or anorak!

Renault from my own experience makes some appealing cars, but none that shout “buy me” – a USP is missing almost across the range. The image is akin to Nissan or Seat; above Proton, possibly on a par with Fiat but definitely below VW and most of its brands (Seat and Skoda possibly excepted).

F1 is good for Ferrari without any doubt, but does it help parent company Fiat? Sales figures and ‘image’ would suggest a singular lack of flow on.

In fact, in Australia, apparently the Renault sales and resale values are not high at all. The millions of Euros spent to keep the Renault name ‘up there’ have not been translated into dollars at the Australian cash registers down there.

In fact, it would not surprise me if none of the sponsors could really show a direct flow-on from being involved in motor sport and their core business. Having the letters RBS on a Williams F1 car has not made me feel I should open an account with Scotland’s Royal Bank, nor do I look out for a Petronas fuel station when the needle gets low. My local Caltex is fine, thanks. And Ferrari can keep their ‘Mubadala’, whatever that is.

No, I can see justification for small stakes in motor sport, Asian or anywhere, but it is difficult to see real value in mega dollar sponsorships.

(That was John Weinthal’s impression five years ago now. I am sure he wouldn’t be excited about the name Renault returning to the fold this year. I believe this could be an even more embarrassing 12 months for the French marque than the last one.)