When the driver of a Formula One car pulls out onto the track, he’s at the sharp end of a rolling annual $300 million investment. The teams are literally made of money and the sharing of technological know-how, and title-name prominence, is the obvious ROI for Vodafone-McLaren-Mercedes. But what persuades someone like Infiniti, a luxury car manufacturer with no technological investment in the Red Bull Racing car that carries its logo, to hand over the profit from their next 3,000 sales to Red Bull Racing? It can’t just be to see the logo going past at 200 mph, can it?
To find out, LUSSO flew to the Barcelona Grand Prix in May. We were looking for Andreas Sigl, the head of Infiniti’s Formula One partnership and the man who first suggested the deal to the board of Infiniti’s parent, Nissan.
To gain the inside track at a Formula One race, your chest needs to be festooned with a collection of shiny plastic passes. Each pass is as long as a baby’s arm and as broad as a paddle, carries a hidden computer chip and is secured to its reinforced lanyard with a metal clasp that was probably arc-welded shut. Each pass promises to take you one step away from the thousand-dollar grandstand seats and one step nearer to the heart of the action: access into the Paddock Club area, access into a team sponsor’s lounge, access into a team garage itself.
On the back of the first pass it says, WARNING! PEOPLE WITH A PACEMAKER SHOULD CONSULT SECURITY OFFICIALS BEFORE APPROACHING THE ELECTRONIC FORMULA ONE PADDOCK CLUB™ GATES. But anyone getting within a mile of the electronic Formula One Paddock Club™ gates is in mortal danger. If the unrelenting screams of 24 multi-millionaires sitting at their desks don’t make your heart blow a gasket, then the sight of your reflected face stretched across the red plasticked thighs of the hospitality girls could cause you to spontaneously combust.
The Paddock Club is a series of glimmering alleyways made up of the teams’ immaculately kept multi-decker pantechnicons. They’re parked in strict parallel and strict World Championship order: up here is Red Bull, McLaren-Mercedes and Ferrari, down there somewhere is HRT and Marussia. Saturday is Practise followed by Qualifying and between the two sessions everyone is hard at work making final adjustments to the cars. The tail-lifts of each lorry ferry the techie guys in shorts up and down, between the different layers.
The cliché is that F1’s a circus. It’s more like the Friday night Vegas crowd crashed a NASA meet-up and everyone got on so well they decided to make a weekend of it. You stare at a model staring at a world famous rapper, but he’s staring at an engineer from Milton Keynes on his knees chamfering a piece of fibreglass in the hope of finessing a thousandth of a second.
Watching all this hard work can be tiring for the VIPs, so Red Bull also parks The Red Bull Energy Station in the middle of the Paddock Club. This is a 3-floor, double-glazed des res with restaurant, chill-out zone and swimming pool. By Sunday evening, it’ll be flat packed and road-hauled off to the next race – unless the next race is a ‘fly-away’, in which case a couple of alternative Red Bull Energy Stations are already leap-frogging their way around the world’s oceans.
There’s always an exception and in Formula One the exception is always Monaco: there’s no room for the Energy Station. If Monaco had enough spare dry land for a millionaires’ trailer park, they’d have built a 40-storey billionaires’ retirement home on it. So for Monaco, Red Bull builds another Energy Station, on barges in Italy, and floats it round the coast to dock in the harbour.
And whether in Spain or Australia, Bahrain or the U.S., all 600 tonnes of it travels the world without ever having to clear Customs, by prior arrangement of Bernie and other (elected) world-leaders.
You know that lunch is over and Qualifying has started because someone is speaking to you and instead of their words reaching you, the air that’s carrying them is ripped apart by what sounds like a military jet doing a low-level flypast above your head. One of the teams, somewhere, has started an engine.
Even idling on blocks in the garage, the cars rev at 6,000 rpm. The urgent blasts of the engine bangs rush out of the doors, to bounce off the concrete grandstand on the other side of the track. Then, they double back. Helicopters float silently overhead. Drivers have to be given the thumbs up to tell them their engine is running because once one starts, you’ve no idea anymore.
When you’ve put earplugs in and are psychologically adjusted to resuming conversation, an intensely petulant spurt of noise shatters any chance of coherent thought – somewhere, a driver has dabbed the gas to take him into the pit lane. Like an acid-trip, there’s a part of your brain that will never be the same once it’s swum in that sound.
It’s not just the volume, either. When a car’s coming down the start/finish straight in Qualifying, the engine’s note is pure rising pique. There’s a moment’s trumpet blast as the bow-wave of sound finally cascades over you, then a perfectly described Doppler shift is followed by the sound of petulance rushing off to bother someone else long into the distance. In all senses of the word, F1 is a scream.*
And Qualifying isn’t even about going flat out. You want to do enough in Q1 to make the cut for Q2 – but not so much you start eating up your limited set of tyres or give away your true speed. Waving the crucial pass, we walked into the Red Bull Racing garage and stood behind a small horseshoe-shaped Perspex screen nestled between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber’s stations. We pulled on what must be the world’s most efficient head-phones to hear comms between ‘Rocky’, Sebastian Vettel’s Race Engineer, and Seb out on the track.
Seb didn’t say anything. Rocky tried to say less.
“Forty per cent KERS this lap, Seb.”
For the last couple of years, teams have had the option of adding a depletable/renewable Kinetic Energy Recovery system, to give the car a little extra surge of power at crucial moments. And that was it for three or four minutes. Then Rocky was happy with Seb’s time and called him back into the garage to spend the rest of Q1 sitting in the cockpit with an ice-bag in his lap.
When Seb rolled out for Q2, the excitement finally got to Rocky, “Sixty per cent KERS this lap, Seb, sixty percent KERS.”
Thus inspired, Seb finished a good flying lap and returned to the garages to wait hopefully for Q3, while dry ice is pumped round the cars’ system.
I think they hook it up to the drivers internal combustion system too, because the only show of disappointment we saw from Mark Webber when he missed out on Q3 by less than a hundredth of a second was the almost petulant way he removed his gloves before climbing out of the cockpit.
Once again, Rocky had the words that caught the mood of the moment, “Just so you know Seb, Mark didn’t make it.”
There’s more than meets the ear in those five words. There’s intense rivalry between the teams on the track but it’s nothing compared to what goes on inside the garage. Same car, same resources, same hopes: the only difference is the driver.
In Q3, Seb, current world champion, Pole sitter and winner here last year, could only manage sixth. Was he saving tyres for the race itself? Hoping to use 100% KERS on Barcelona’s open circuit? We went up to Infiniti’s hospitality lounge to hear from Seb himself.
The new generation of media-savvy drivers may be more interested in Q&A than T&A, but after Seb had quick changed into a pair of roguishly torn Pepe Jeans and jogged upstairs to the Sponsors Lounge, he smiled and gave nothing away – except another hundred autographs. Then he smiled some more and jogged off again.
Unlike most glossy global get-togethers, the action at Formula One happens at the pre-party. If you want to know what happened on the Sunday, you need to know what happened on the Saturday. And even if you’re there on a Saturday, you might not be any clearer.
That evening, we joined Infiniti’s Andreas Sigl for a quiet dinner in a gently lit corner of Cinq Sentits. At least I think it was a quiet dinner. We were so sound-blasted by the day’s events, there’s a chance we spent the whole evening shouting at each other across the table. (Come to think of it, there wasn’t anyone else in the restaurant when we left.)
So what persuaded Andreas to put his own career and reputedly more than $10 million a year of Infiniti’s money on the line for a deal with Red Bull? It certainly wasn’t just to see a ten inch high Infiniti logo painted on the back of a car travelling past at more than 200 mph, was it?
Like most things in Formula One, the answer was shocking. It was essentially ‘Yes’. It’s all about the publicity, all about brand awareness.
But as this is Formula One, there are numbers and metrics of course and Andreas has the figures to prove that putting Infiniti’s logo on Seb’s car and stitching it onto the neckline of his race suit has burnt the brand’s name onto the back of more retinas than any other car marque in F1.
It’s also been a useful locus for internal motivation (it may be the only time a brand owner has been given a standing ovation by the car’s dealers) but there’s more. Soon, Infiniti should announce a technological contribution to Red Bull Racing’s set up.
That’s not inside track knowledge (ok, maybe it is a little bit). It’s just unimaginable that when you’ve put this much money in, you’ll wouldn’t want to prove you’re just as smart as you are wealthy. Alongside DRS and Pirelli’s new tyre formulation, KERS is changing the dynamics of Formula One (this is the most exciting season for more years than many can remember, with four winners in the first four races) and Infiniti has great electrical-storage prowess to draw on from Nissan’s Leaf. They’ve also just announced a new all-electrical supercar, the ‘Emerge’.
And there’s still a long way to go with the brand. If many of us in Europe know Infiniti at all, it might be for their commercials, each of which starts with the unusual Americanism, “Since now,” But in America, Infiniti shipped 850,000 units last year and now it’s going gang-busters in China.
Our dinner wrapped at 1am. Because this is Formula One, there’s a party just starting for us at the W. But there’s also a comfy bed at the hotel. In a few hours time, six lights will turn to red, then go out and the world will see Infiniti’s shifting some more cars.
Chris West is a Contributing Editor at Lusso magazine and owner of a leading UK branding and verbal identity agency.