The motor industry in recent years has been all about platform-sharing and then brand differentiation. Brother and sister car companies share parts but produce different products that are then sold under different names. The public does not care. If the car has the right price and the brand a decent reputation, it really does not matter what’s going on under the bodywork. Ford’s Duratec for example appeared in a wide range of differently-branded cars, not all of them Ford-owned, Fiat’s 1.3-litre Multijet diesel has been used by a dozen different brands, including Chevrolet, Citroën, Ford, Opel and Suzuki, in addition to FCA products. There’s the PRV V6 developed by Peugeot, Renault and Volvo, not to mention the Toyota Camry’s 3.5 V6 version which powers the Lotus Evora and the Exige. And there are many more examples.
It’s logical, cosy-efficient and very successful, reducing R&D costs and lead times and making the industry more responsive to the markets.
Formula 1 has never really embraced the idea, although the manufacturers have argued in favour of customer teams, with the goal of providing them not just with engines but chassis as well. This is not really healthy for the sport because as and when a manufacturer decides to leave the sport, they can take their facilities with them, as happened with Toyota some years ago. Others did it differently with the Honda F1 team being passed on to Ross Brawn and company before it was sold to Mercedes. In the case of Sauber, the team was bought by BMW and then given back to Peter Sauber, so there have been different business models.
I think chassis should be built by individual teams but I don’t see any logic in engines not being badged differently. Weirdly, Renault will end up doing that next year with Red Bull, of all people, using TAG-Heuer, a watch company. The French car manufacturer made a real cock-up of its branding strategy in F1 prior to that, refusing to rebrand its engines but then not using the success. Worse than that, it actually allowed Red Bull and Renault sister brand Infiniti to do a sponsorship deal, so that Infiniti got the marketing value and Renault was largely ignored but paid for the programme. Genius!
Now FCA and Ferrari boss Sergio Marchionne is finally saying that the company would like to bring Alfa Romeo back to Formula 1. This makes sense. Ferrari and Alfa Romeo are not competing brands, but both have racing heritage and it makes a whole lot of sense to use Ferrari technology and stick an Alfa Romeo logo on the top. And if FCA wants to do things quickly it would be the work of a moment to buy Scuderia Toro Rosso in Faenza, as Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz is always going on about how he’s fed up with F1. Splendid, the perfect fit…
Well, apart from the fact that this would strengthen the hold of the manufacturers on F1, which would not go down with the Commercial Rights Holder. That’s tough. If you want to swim with the big fishes, you need to be big enough not to get eaten.
I accept that some marketing men would argue that it is not good for a prestige brand to be beaten on the race track by a premium brand, but does it really make a difference? Are a few Ferraris sales that could be lost worth more than the Alfa Romeo sales that will be gained. Right now, Porsche and Audi are competing with one another at Le Mans and neither seems to be losing. So why are not other companies leveraging their motorsport investments in different ways? Why, for example, does Mercedes not have some F1 engines branded as Aston Martins? Why are they not doing a deal to have a cheeky Manor-Smart combination in 2016? Why does Ferrari not tell Haas to run with Dodge V6s and pay for some of the programme from Dodge funding? And what’s wrong with Maseratis in F1? It’s not like we have never seen that before…
Similarly, would it not be good for other manufacturers to split costs of an F1 programme between their brands? Why not Audi and Lamborghini? Why not Toyota and Lexus? Why not Honda and Acura? Why not Emgrand and Volvo? And, hell, why not Chevrolet and Opel or Ford and Mazda?
People say it cannot work but do you know how many standardised VW parts there are in a Bentley these days? As far as I am concerned it makes sense as long as the brands are competing in different market segments.
Of course, if politically it makes sense for manufacturers to buy up the little F1 teams, in order to hang the Formula One group out to dry, I guess such things might finally happen…