Few can have missed the debacle of the ‘Nelsinho’ crash scandal that has engulfed the Formula One world in recent weeks. It is not surprising then that some of this bad news is going to stick with Renault, owner of the team involved. Add this story to the already-announced departures of Honda and BMW, and it becomes clear that there is a difficult match between the major vehicle manufacturers and the pinnacle of motor sport.
The initial rationale is simple enough: Formula One is high-profile, particularly in the emergent markets of Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere which are increasingly hosts to the races. In the struggle for brand recognition, Formula One has proven attractive. Millions of potential consumers watch, and as has been shown in other cases such as Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Subaru and Peugeot, a heritage in motor sport can go a very long way in marketing terms. Sometimes claims are made for the technology advantage derived for the road car business from involvement on the track – though such claims often seem weak. The key to involvement is therefore in the rewards of marketing.
the decision of key individuals such as Gordon Murray to apply their talents to the demands of the eco-car business rather than the arcane detail of Formula One is suggestive of a deeper change
But motor sport, especially Formula One, is also high risk relative to reward, and history shows that precious few vehicle manufacturers can combine these two disparate worlds. In fact, it is almost a club of one: Ferrari. If vehicle manufacturers like the glory, they are traumatised by the slightest whiff of ill repute, scandal, cheating, or any other matter that could tarnish their carefully burnished brand values. In such a highly competitive environment where the stakes are so high, the temptation to ‘bend’ the rules is immense and indeed almost compulsory. Finding ‘gaps’ in the regulations and exploiting them is part and parcel of the Formula One world - though clearly the Nelson Piquet case went a step further.
Equally, countries apparently have much to lose; and none more so than the UK. The UK has long been host to many of the leading Formula One teams, supporting highly skilled workforces and the very best of engineering.
It speaks to the zeitgeist of the times, and suggests that the increasingly dubious, distant and irrelevant Formula One circus has precious little connection with the future of the automotive industry
Underlying the BMW decision to quit was the view that the company needed to take the brand into a new and different territory, and to explore the potential for ‘efficiency’ as a core value rather than sportiness. It speaks to the zeitgeist of the times, and suggests that the increasingly dubious, distant and irrelevant Formula One circus has precious little connection with the future of the automotive industry.
Renault has not been barred, though the company may decide to quit on its own terms in the future. Similarly, the decision of key individuals such as Gordon Murray to apply their talents to the demands of the eco-car business rather than the arcane detail of Formula One is suggestive of a deeper change. The real challenges for car enthusiasts, including those in the leading vehicle manufacturers, are no longer in motor sport. The real challenges are the profitable production of the low-carbon vehicles of the future.
Dr Peter Wells is a Reader at Cardiff Business School, where he is a Co-Director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research and leads the automotive industry research programme within BRASS, also in Cardiff University. Dr Wells is also a director of AutomotiveWorld.com’s sister website AWPresenter.com. He can be contacted on email@example.com.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Automotive World Ltd.