Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images (January 20, 2009)
With the Formula 1 season having kicked off in the last fortnight, whispers continue to filter out of F1 gossip columns about the possibility of Volkswagen Group entering the sport through one of its various brands.
With F1 abandoned by volume manufacturers Honda, BMW and Toyota in recent years, and Renault involvement pared down to supplying customer engines, it would be easy to argue that major players in the automotive world simply don’t see the return-on-investment of this pinnacle of motorsport. In 2012, those F1 teams that are owned by car makers, Mercedes aside, are low-volume producers looking to boost their sporting credentials and ingratiate their road-legal offerings with buyers – McLaren, Caterham, Marussia and, of course, those old-hands at Ferrari. To anyone who chimes up about Lotus at this point: I really don’t have time to explain.
The stage is set, then, for VW Group to join this cast-list, for it has no shortage of smaller brands that fit this description as a small-time player. Porsche is too mainstream, and Bugatti – whose Veyron road car could outrun anything in F1 in a straight line – too bonkers, which leaves Bentley (roughly on par with Ferrari in terms of production numbers) and Lamborghini as potential options. Volkswagen could, however, reap the biggest rewards simply by putting its own badge on the nose of its car.
The German maker is no stranger to motorsport – its Skoda brand has been a mainstay of the World Rally Championship for some years – but this (rather excellent) blog from F1 journalist Joe Saward points out how little sense it makes to invest smaller amounts into lots of such lower-profile motorsport disciplines considering their smaller reach. And, while privateer teams in F1 exist simply for the thrill of racing, manufacturers at least have the trade-off of developing useful new technologies for their mass-market products. I doubt rallying achieves the same (unless, of course, we’re about to see a new generation of cars featuring roll-cages and half a dozen foglamps).
The business case for Volkswagen in Formula 1 is simple: new rules as of 2014 will limit the capacity of the cars’ engines to fuel-efficient and turbocharged 1.6s – not enormously dissimilar to the power-plant under the bonnet of the average family car, the likes of which Volkswagen has been perfecting in its Golf and Polo models under the TSI badge. Applied to small-capacity engines, ‘TSI’ indicates to buyers their new cars are both turbocharged and supercharged, fusing high performance with low emissions. Words like these keep governments happy – and using F1 to develop such new technologies might just keep it relevant in times of soaring fuel costs. Suddenly you have to wonder why VW is spending its money on rallying instead.
If you’ve been reading between the lines, you might have been able to pick up on what I’m getting at: while the best approach to PR is often one which provides wave upon wave of coverage from across a number of platforms, it’s equally true that, every now and again, one focused project making a really big splash can work just as well.