Formula One’s first challenge of the season in Jerez turned out to be less entertaining on track but offered plenty of sparks off track with countless of headlines with dramatic potential spreading over the pages of sports sections, both online and on paper. Bahrain seems to follow the pattern – with the number of red flags rivalling a handball score sheet – but the gaps in running gave me the time to put on (virtual) paper one of the highlights of my trip to Jerez: the quick (but surprisingly long) interview with Andreas Sigl, the Global Director of Infiniti Formula One and a genuinely lovely man.
Admittedly I knew nothing about Infiniti before they joined the paddock, but that probably makes me an ideal case study on the advertising value carried by F1 in general and the purple-blue car in particular. For the past 3 years I learned more about Infiniti than I know about some of the more historical automakers in the sport, even though I’m definitely not their target audience. For a 24-year-old without a driving licence I sure know a lot about the brand, the development of their recent cars, the people behind it and their collaboration with Red Bull Racing. It made me curious about the brand ever since I saw the first FX in my city – it’s not like they’re invading Romania but it’s not a brand you’d expect to see on the streets of a small neighbourhood in the third largest city of an overlooked Eastern European country, so it does stand out in traffic.
But back to the point, it was an interview I truly enjoyed (so much so that I forgot it’s not a casual conversation and I should pay attention to my question list and the time we had available). Only when I started typing it I realized how long it was so it’s going to be posted in two parts. Here’s the first one and I hope you enjoy our talk about testing, their IRBR love story and the gorgeous Q50 Eau Rouge:
First of all, how was the first day back to work, what have you been up to?
The first couple of weeks are like the time after the school holidays when everyone comes together like a big family, within Infiniti Red Bull Racing but also the larger paddock and everyone in Formula 1. So you see a lot of familiar faces and you say Happy New Year but it’s almost February.
Then I was looking at the new car, of course, and I do like it, it’s not that different. Most people will have to look twice to notice the main changes; the experts will know, but of course that’s just the skin, what we don’t see yet is what it’s hiding, for example the sound of the cars will be interesting. We have a new driver on board, and by putting Daniel together with Sebastian there’s a lot of youth which is all good and very quickly we’ll be in the normal rhythm.
So you’re confident it’s going to be a good season?
It’s going to be an interesting season; we want good but we also want exciting. On one side, we want it to be very predictable because we’ve been very successful so far and that’s great, but we also want a show because a lot of what is here is show business.
As a partner to a highly successful team do you want show?
We want both; as a partner we want to perform and we want to have a lot of the technical contributions working but we also want to give everyone a show, which I’m sure we will.
You have been a partner of Red Bull Racing for a while now, why was 2013 the best year to become title partner?
Looking at it from our standpoint, from the start we wanted to be here in the long term and also we’ve seen that after being major part in the beginning there’s still room for us to grow. We had a lot of our markets demanding more than we had available and I think that also, together with Red Bull Racing, we learned that after two years of dating you can get married and you can still go one more lap. And I think all of this coming together has been good for us and we managed to make it four times double world championships.
A lot has been said about the benefits of this partnership, but after this first year, what is your feedback?
I think the most obvious one goes back to our first objective which is building the Infiniti brand. We’ve done this because we want to be known around the world, we want to be known as a premium performance brand and the exposure we have received over one year, this last season alone, was worth $1.2 billion. It is a very big number compared to the previous years, when we had $250 million in the first year, $339 million in the second and now it’s up to 1.2.
The second one is having Sebastian involved in developing our products as our Director of Performance, which is only the starting point; there will be more coming up and it’s exciting. Then on the technical side we plan to get deeper into road technology, which is happening but for this we need more time because you cannot do it in a year, you need to plan it over a couple of years. And the first thing we are doing is developing more performance cars, prototypes and so forth; it’s now starting to show the outcome. Before it was more investment and now you can see some of the returns. I think that if we look at all of this together it’s pretty good.
Going back to Sebastian’s role as Director of Performance, how much input does he have in building an Infiniti road car? Is it purely on handling or does he have a say in other aspects like ergonomics or engine specifications?
When we got him in this role we thought about three elements: the first one is as an ambassador of the brand – to promote Infiniti and to reward the company’s best performing dealers and departments – which he has done already before but that’s an obvious goal. The second one is to fine-tune performance in all of our road cars, whether it’s the Q50 or the next car that is coming, which is called Q40; we want to make sure that in terms of driving dynamics, handling, breaking and whatever we do, his personal touch is in that car because he’s very good in reading the car and giving feedback.
The third one is that we want to get into more performant cars, and of this we are most excited about. We’ve just launched a concept in Detroit called Eau Rouge and before, when I showed that to Sebastian, I told him that we’re listening to him, we’re not just doing it for show but we are listening. And of course he said ‘I’m director of performance, I want more performance’. He was very excited then to see the car for real and drive it. Now the next step is to develop it and we want to push for a much higher level, for a category of 500 horsepower, which we never had before.
So how much of the car is actually inspired from F1 or using F1 technology?
We have a couple of elements, one of which of course is the design; our designers are very inspired by the design of an F1 car. They are very different to road cars, but there are still elements of aerodynamics: you will see the rain light on an F1 car become the fog light, the front wing becomes the front bumper and so on.
Besides design, you have materials – especially carbon fiber – that we haven’t really used much on road cars but we are borrowing and getting inspired from. And then of course the performance, because the F1 level of performance is what we want to do, we want to reflect that in the road car performance, and then last but not least develop the comfort of the driver. So I think that on a lot of those levels, that are new for us, there’s potential. And we want to accomplish this by working together with Red Bull Racing, which is something that Christian Horner and the team are also interested in.
So it’s a whole new field for us, I think we’ve done this on Q50, we’ve only started on Q30, it’s on the Vettel FX – the limited edition, but only in Europe and we haven’t really added much performance yet to the Vettel FX. Now we’re thinking of taking all of this as learning and putting it to use.
Is the Q50 Eau Rouge actually going into production or staying a concept?
That’s the plan. First we want to contact the market, next thing we want to do at the Geneva motorshow is show what kind of engine it could use, because we have different categories of engines that we think could work, and then the next question is if everyone is getting excited like ‘we’re going to get one’ and if we should build it?
First we need to get feedback and the feedback has been fantastic. The look is good, we need to settle on the performance goals, the technical side, and then of course there’s the business take: how many do you do, at what cost and what price. But I think we’re decided to do it and it seems to be the right thing; now it’s just a question of how we do it.
You seem to be more and more performance-oriented, with sportier and technologically advanced cars; have you considered entering some form of GT racing?
We always talk about it and we talked about it before we went into Formula 1, but our focus was different. We use Formula 1 first because it’s very premium – the pinnacle of motorsport – but it’s also a global platform. If you look at any other series or championships, they’re usually very local. Whether it’s DTM or even Le Mans, they don’t play with the same audience around the world.
We’ve chosen Formula 1 but I’m sure you could have a customer team or a privateer race car. We’re not going to do that right now, it could be a possibility but in this moment if we had an extra dollar or pound there’s still so much we can do within Formula 1 before we get diverted into other things. I think we would rather do this and do it right.
Since it’s a long-term plan in Formula 1, what is the next step in your involvement?
It’s a good question because some goals we have achieved, the exposure is good, but as a next step people still need to understand that we actually make cars. It’s pretty obvious but when you see the car going around it’s just a name, we also need to make sure that people see what we do. So getting the knowledge of how to best show our products is important – that’s why Eau Rouge for instance is now the connection, where we show what we learned, what we do and bring it together. That’s one key area.
The second one is getting even closer into our markets and our points of sale because if you come to an Infiniti Centre that’s where you experience the brand. Not everyone can come to a race and experience this; it’s a lot of energy here but how do you bring this to our company? That is something we try to focus on. There are a lot of people who aren’t hard-core F1 fans, staying at home on a Sunday afternoon on the TV, but who are still interested, so we believe it’s a small effort to try and reach out to them.