What’s the big deal with Red Bull and Infiniti?

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 10:  Mark Webber of Australia and Red Bull Racing looks on from his cockpit during day three of the final winter testing at the Circuit de Catalunya on March 10, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)

Mark Webber in the cockpit of the Red Bull RB7 with Infiniti branding during Barcelona testing

Mar.13 (Mark Martin) It was recently announced that the Infiniti car company would be sponsoring the Red Bull Formula One team in 2011. This has been heralded as a sign that the involvement of car manufacturers in the sport is fundamentally changing, as they now prefer to simply place logos on the side of cars rather than become technical collaborators supplying their own F1 engines to teams.

Infiniti and Red Bull Racing drives during day three of the final winter testing at the Circuit de Catalunya on March 10, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain.

Infiniti and Red Bull Racing deal is more than sponsorship

While there is credit to this assumption, there are also signs that the Infiniti agreement is about much more than sponsorship, and this is certain to delight a certain Jean Todt.

Many anticipated that Renault would simply re-name the engines it current supplies to Red Bull as Infiniti, due to the fact that the Japanese manufacturer is part of the Renault family of companies.

However, Infiniti’s senior Vice President Andy Palmer claimed that they had no ambition to enter the sport using this method: “There was no plan to re-badge the engines. Infiniti is all about being genuine – so rebranding an engine would not have been genuine. Renault will continue to be the supplier of engines to Red Bull, and our involvement is very much about working together on the car itself.”

The latter part of this statement points to the fact that despite Infiniti having no involvement with the engine, they will still be involved with the development of the World Champions cars.

Red Bull boss Christian Horner corroborated this, claiming that the collaboration with Infiniti would give his team access to their parent company Nissan’s world leading hybrid technologies, which will help Red Bull with its KERS development:  “It opens up Research and development resources on battery development which would never have previously been available to Red Bull Racing as chassis maker” he commented.

Sebastian Vettel drives during day two of the final winter testing at the Circuit de Catalunya on March 9, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain.

Sebastian Vettel in action during Barcelona testing

This year KERS is back in Formula One after a twelve month absence. However, its usage during the 2009 season was sparse, with only the heavily financed Ferrari and McLaren teams committing to use the system throughout the 2009 season. Red Bull knowledge of such systems is therefore limited compared to its closest rivals, and Infiniti could therefore help them to bridge this gap.

However, 2011 is not the year in which Infiniti will prove the most valuable to Red Bull, with Todt and the FIA introducing a new set of environmental regulations for the 2013 season. This will see engine sizes reduced from the current 2.4 litre V8’s to smaller capacity 1.6 litre turbo charged motors, which will come equipped with KERS systems which are double the size in terms of their energy capacity when compared against the current systems.

Infiniti during the Formula One testing at Circuit de Catalunya on March 8, 2011 in Barcelona, Spain.

Infiniti deal with Red Bull marks a return of Japanese interests to Formula 1

This means that KERS will have a much greater bearing on lap times in the new era, and undoubtedly an association with Infiniti will prove very helpful for Red Bull when it comes to designing these new 2013 units.

This explains what Red Bull are getting from the partnership, but what is in it for Infiniti?
It is well known that the Japanese manufacturer is keen to increase brand awareness outside of America, where it is already very well established. Formula One’s 500 million global viewing audiences will prove invaluable in helping Infiniti achieve these aims.

However, Infinit’s entry also lends support to the Todt’s new 2013 regulations as it is unlikely that the company would not have chosen Formula One as its sponsorship vehicle unless the new environmental regulations had been adopted.

Sebastian Vettel

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have been the pace setters in preseason testing

Car manufacturers are more determined than ever before to align themselves to such endeavours and taking part in a competition which will spur on the development of their energy recovery technologies will likely provide Infiniti with a competitive advantage over their competitors in the ever expanding hybrid car market.

Don’t forget that another Japanese manufacturer, Honda, took part in Formula One during the 1980s to help train engineers who would later ‘progress’ onto the road car side of the business. Formula One has a long history of helping companies gain an advantage over competitors in such a way, with the Honda NSX being a perfect example of this.

On the back of rev limits and the freeze on engine development, engine units are becoming increasingly similar. Just ten years ago, the different between the power output of a Ferrari engine and a Honda one would have made the difference between a car being a championship challenger or a mere point’s scorer.

Race winner and 2010 World Champion Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull Racing celebrates in parc ferme. Formula One World Championship, Rd 19, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Race, Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE, Sunday 14 November 2010.

Sebastian Vettel celebrates winning the 2010 F1 world championship in Abu Dhabi

However, Red Bull has had by far the quickest car for the past two seasons while carrying the burden of a Renault engine generally considered as being one of the weakest in the sport.

This highlights that the engine freeze imposed by the FIA renders the difference between engines minimal while simultaneously saving car manufacturers millions of dollars of investment. The new found equality and reduced spending opened the door to a new era of privateer competitiveness led by Red Bull and Brawn in 2009.

It is in the interests of the sport to encourage the development of environmental technologies if it is to remain relevant to the road car market, which is why it makes sense for the FIA to encourage competition in KERS development in such a manner.

Red Bull Racing

Red Bull Racing team celebrate winning the 2010 constructor's world championship in Brazil

The introduction of an increased capacity KERS system for 2013 will likely lead to the beginning of a new era of car manufacturer competition in the sport. This would undoubtedly place the finances of the teams in jeopardy once again, making Red Bull’s alignment to Infiniti appear to be a shrewd move if it is to successfully adapt to a new car manufacturer era.

Infiniti’s entry therefore lends support to the FIA’s environmental push, but where will it leave privateer teams such as Williams who are without manufacturer support? Formula One truly is a cyclical sport and a survival of the fittest.

This article is contributed by Mark Martin, a marketing specialist from Moneysupermarket.com who has done extensive research into Formula One.