Technology, marketing and… politics?

More than ever, car manufacturers are involved in motorsport. A look at what they came for in the past and what’s drawing the big brands to the racetracks today.

From Paris to Rouen. In the great book of motorsport history, this drive is considered the first organized car race ever. Back then it wasn’t about being the fastest, it was about going the furthest. The races were more of a kind of exercise to test the reliability of the engines. The year is 1894, shortly after the invention of the internal combustion engine. A year later we did the same across the Atlantic, from Chicago to Evanston and back. Both events were sponsored by a newspaper. Such was the case in the early 1900s, when the New York Herald held an annual race in which each participating country’s automobile club was allowed to enter three cars: the Bennett Trophy. But very quickly, in 1906, France no longer wanted to participate. Reason for this boycott: French car brands rejected the restriction to three cars per country.

This is no trivial anecdote. It makes it clear that motorsport has always been the domain of the manufacturers. Because they wanted to test their products. Because they wanted to beat the competition and show that they are the best. Marketing before the letter. But even then, and certainly in the 1960s and 1970s, motorsport was also a laboratory for the ordinary car. The extreme conditions of racing were an ideal source of inspiration for the new materials and technologies that would later find their way into the production of series cars.

Renault’s first F1 in 1977. The name “Renault Turbo” quickly became known to the general public. © National

do not look back

The rear-view mirror is an example of a moving simplicity that she illustrates very well. Back to the time before the First World War and to Indianapolis, the temple of American motorsport, where the legendary 500 miles are still driven today. At that time, motorsport was practiced with two people in the car: the driver and his mechanic next to him. Intervening when things go wrong, but also… looking behind you and signaling if a competitor is attacking or not. After the war, the authorities decided to no longer allow the presence of a second man on board. Or how the pilot suddenly not only had to steer, but also had to look behind him from time to time. Until someone came up with the idea of ​​mounting a mirror on the car. An idea that was immediately transferred to cars for public roads.

Many more examples will follow. Like the radial tire or disc brakes that motorsport began to experiment with over the years 24 Hours of Le Mans, the largest endurance race in the world. Today all road cars are equipped with disc brakes. The same goes for the anti-lock braking system (ABS): it was there when it was first fitted to a racing car, but it was perfected on the track. Electronic helpers such as ESP or traction control could also be developed just as quickly and ingeniously thanks to the knowledge gained from Formula 1. When it came to the aerodynamic design, too, the designers drew on a great deal of knowledge from motorsport cars. . Without forgetting the turbocharged engine introduced by Renault in 1977 in Formula 1 and popularized at the same time. Today, look for an internal combustion engine that does not have a turbo.

Formula 1 has never been as popular worldwide as it is today.
Formula 1 has never been as popular worldwide as it is today. © Mercedes-Benz AG

marketing boy

Renault, the name is gone. The French manufacturer entered Formula 1 to demonstrate its technological prowess. It is the first manufacturer in a small world that in the 1970s consisted mostly of British private teams, with the exception of Ferrari, building their own chassis and fitting a Ford engine – the V8 Cosworth. But here it is: Renault suddenly won with this turbocharged engine, and “Renault Turbo” very quickly became a familiar phrase for the general public. Of course, the competition took notice, especially in the Marketing Boy department. BMW got into F1, Alfa Romeo would follow. It was crescendo. Until then, motorsport was a platform on which certain car brands and above all manufacturers of parts or other products (brakes, petrol, etc.) advertised, but motorsport has become more of a marketing activity than ever before. This is the biggest lever today to lure car brands to the racetracks. After all, motorsport is a showcase for the whole world. Subaru still suffers from the reputation it has earned in the World Rally Championship.

But the ultimate example of motorsport as a marketing tool is the electric Formula E. This championship was created to promote the electric car as a multi-brand product. Unfortunately, that raison d’être also means that the health of such a championship depends largely on what is decided in the boardrooms of these big brands when strategy and budget have to be discussed. Jaguar, the Stellantis group (DS, Peugeot, Opel, Fiat, Citroën…), the Renault group through Nissan and Porsche are still there. But BMW, Audi and Mercedes gave up after just a few seasons.

Ola Källenius, the big boss of Mercedes, here with his top driver Lewis Hamilton:
Ola Källenius, the big boss of Mercedes, here with his top driver Lewis Hamilton: “F1 is the Champions League…” © Mercedes-Benz AG

F1 has never been more popular than it is today

Formula 1 has long known that a leading role in a motorsport discipline means uncertainty for automobile brands. The global financial crisis of 2008 led to the exit of BMW, Honda and Toyota from the premier class. It was an earthquake. Renault, who has been living their life in F1 as Alpine since the 2021 season, has come and gone on more than one occasion. A manufacturer who abandons the discipline: This always comes at the expense of stability. Not only that a large financial investment suddenly disappears, many teams also have to look for a new engine supplier, since the manufacturers active in Formula 1 have to supply at least one other private team with an engine in addition to their own. Fear of a major car brand leaving F1 kept F1 in the shadows for years. But now, today, the situation is completely different. This sport is growing and thriving like never before. Without including Ferrari for now: The Italians have been there from the start and will probably always be present in Formula 1 because they are synonymous with this sport. But Alpine (i.e. Renault) and Mercedes have also been involved for many years, even well beyond 2026. Honda officially dropped out last year, but the Japanese engine is still used and developed by Red Bull. After all, Formula 1 is booming. Never before has this sport been as popular around the world as it is today. So there is no better showcase for the automotive world. “Formula 1 is the champions league of motorsport,” says Mercedes boss Ola Källenius, explaining his decision to give up electric Formula E and swear allegiance to Formula 1. And he’s apparently not the only one who thinks so: Today, new builders are knocking on the door to join them. Because Formula 1 is undoubtedly very popular. But maybe also for another reason: politics.

synthetic fuel

Look at it this way: Brands like Jaguar or DS are sticking with Formula E because they are transitioning as a brand to an all-electric landscape – they have already announced that they will only build electric cars in the future. But remarkably, BMW, Mercedes and Audi are absent from this Formula E. Why? Mercedes big boss Ola Källenius may have lifted a corner of the veil when he said: “We are leading Formula 1 into a carbon-free future for the car.”

This statement can only be an allusion to the year 2026. Finally, new regulations will then come into force in F1, since hybrid engines can only be operated with synthetic fuel. A decision that not only allowed Renault and Mercedes to remain on board, but also aroused the interest of the Volkswagen Group. Audi has already taken a majority stake in the Sauber team before racing under its own colors from 2026. Meanwhile, Porsche is looking for a way to enter F1 in 2026 after negotiations with Red Bull collapsed. And a few weeks ago, Honda announced that it would return as a full-fledged engine supplier in 2026. All of this amid rumors of interest from BMW and even the Stellantis Group, which both brands are currently continuing to deny.

This may seem odd in an automotive landscape in full transition to the all-electric car. Unless there is something behind it. In fact, in the most recent communication from the European authorities on the obligation to only sell new electric cars on the old continent from 2035, there is a striking line, short but meaningful: that the electric obligation can still be adjusted in the coming years as needed … new technologies. Or how the door for the internal combustion engine will remain open after 2035.

Motorsport and in this case Formula 1 as a political platform for manufacturers to break the hinges? The future promises to be exciting.

On two fronts, for two brands

Stoffel Vandoorne entered his fifth season in electric Formula E. After four years with Mercedes, he now wears the colors of French manufacturer DS. With great expectations, because DS is one of the most experienced teams. Our compatriot therefore has the ambition to extend his title, as he is the last world champion so far to start the season.

Of course, Formula E is not as prestigious as Formula 1. The attention that the general public is giving to these disciplines is beyond measure. That doesn’t change the fact that the electric Formula E is also run very professionally. “Engineers need not be ashamed of what I have seen in my two years in Formula 1,” said Vandoorne. “These machines are rolling laboratories that are constantly evolving and require large analysis capacity. Both by engineers and pilots.”

Although he had to give up his seat at McLaren at the end of 2018 after two Formula 1 seasons, Vandoorne has always remained active in F1 alongside electric Formula E. Four years as a reserve and test driver at Mercedes, a role he will return to aston Martin next season. Thus, West Flandria will be active on two platforms and for two brands. His role on this platform: preparing for Grand Prix weekends in the team’s simulator and being present at race weekends as often as possible to immediately replace the usual drivers – Fernando Alonso and Lance Stroll – if for some reason they are unable to fly .

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