Corporations in Formula 1…

I was truck by the saturation of BMW commercials where they say “Racing is in our blood” juxtaposed to their decision to withdraw from F1. And here is another of the ironies of marketing. I won’t begrudge BMW their due as one of the more accomplished racing marques, particularly in road racing (utilizing the actual production car), that exist. But that has me thinking about the place of corporations in Formula 1 vs. the role of real racers and privateers, dedicated to being in the sport despite the cost and the downturn.

Last fall, Honda’s sudden withdrawal sent shockwaves to the sport, relegating the once-proud Honda Team, to a heap of parts and pieces that were bandied about in search of a buyer quite pitifully. Fortunately, Ross Brawn was able to put together an ownership group from within that took the team still intact in this season where they’ve competed quite successfully and have a bid for the constructor’s championship.

But I’m left to question Honda as a “race-car” company instead of a company that has raced successfully. While they still supply IRL engines (yawn), the fact of the matter is that their footprint amongst racing is a bit mixed (corporate goals are clearly committed), so one could perhaps expect a withdrawal from them. Their branding is divided between the notion of a reasonable car company bent on supplying the world with “reasonable” cars at a “reasonable” price. I don’t know if that’s the pedigree of Formula 1.

Formula 1, frankly is all about the unreasonable. The cost, the spectale—I mean everything about it is unreasonable. (I complain that the Baltimore stadia were built with taxpayer money and nearly “given” to the teams to rake in profits, but that’s nothng compare to the cost in F1). What keeps Sir Frank Williams fielding a mid-pack team (for the last ten years) on the grid in an unreasonable cost climate for a privateer race outfit? Or kept Paul Stoddart in the field for over fifteen years with Minardi with a team who scored as many points in its existence as the Ferraris score in one season? the notion that being a true race fan is all about what’s beyond reasonable.

Now that’s not to say that corporations cannot be in Formula 1, but the series can’t be simply for the manufacturer’s benefit. It can’t be a big commercial of lethargic technology, uninteresting rules and venues for companies to debut their product (think NASCAR). I, as a consumer, understand that corporations make corporate decisions for the benefit of the corporation and shareholder, not for the unreasonable opiate of pursuing racing dominance. But as race fans I understand that the commitment is far beyond what a car manufacturer can defend in a corporate setting.

So many corporations over the last 30 years have had a racing division within them where that division was given some autonomy and, in some cases, lots of money to get some result. And sooner or later that fantastic budget was reigned in for some new corporate strategy. And so it was with the shock of Jaguar’s withdrawal ten years or so ago, although not a terrific surprise given the contraction of Ford (even then in 2004). Or the recent and sudden withdrawal of Honda—whose withdrawal doomed two teams. All reasonable corporate decisions that lacked the soul of the true fan. And of course, now with BMW.

(Note that in that same time many privateer teams have failed pursuing the mammoth costs and grid results brought to bear by these huge corporations. So this thought could work out to be an endorsement of the top-end cost modification discussion occurring now in search of a more stable corporate commitment and a more stable privateer playing field because the mix of them is a good way to go.)

Being in Formula 1 takes a commitment as vaulted as the mission statement and when a company places that mantle into its marketing, it makes sense for them to exhibit staying power, or else it puts the marketing into question. BMW fans I think were under the impression well “we’ve been in road racing for a long time and now that we’re into Formula 1 (full-time in 2005) we’d be in to stay”.

Ferrari is a perfect example of the staying power of a corporation in Formula 1. No one questions Ferrari’s commitment, even when they were the worst team back in the early 1990s.

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