Did you know Infiniti was in Formula One? I’ve been watching F1 consistently for about the last three seasons, and at some point the Infiniti logo on the side of the Renault chassis simply vanished from my conscious perception.
Nevertheless, today Nissan’s luxury brand announced it will “conclude its involvement in F1 at the end of 2020,” which is, at the time this article is being written, nine days away. Per the press release:
This move will allow the brand to focus its efforts and resources on becoming a top challenger brand in the premium segment, concentrating on its most active markets (China and North America) and on its goal to create unique solutions for electrified performance powertrains.
Over the past decade, many armchair auto executives have theorized as to when and where Infiniti went astray, why it’s faded into sheer irrelevancy among the luxury rivals it considers itself competing against and how it can claw back the smallest sliver of that pie. An aging, uninspired stable of vehicles with indistinguishable alphanumeric names and absent marketing are usually pegged as the culprits, but it turns out we’ve had this one totally wrong. As we’re learning now, it was actually Infiniti’s F1 commitments that were holding the brand back all along!
Update Tuesday December 22, 2020 9:15 p.m.: The language in this story has been updated to better reflect events.
I have to include a few more excerpts from Infiniti’s release, because it reads like a somewhat favorable recounting of events:
The brand entered Formula 1™ in 2011 as commercial sponsor of Red Bull Racing to then become title sponsor of the team in 2012, establishing one of the most successful sponsorships in the history of the sport in terms of brand exposure, awareness and visibility.
Sure, hitching your wagon onto the Red Bull horse via Renault’s engine-building program was an opportunistic move. Still, I’d love to know what good it did for Infiniti’s bottom line. In 2013, former Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn flatly told then-Infiniti vice president Andy Palmer that Palmer could “cancel” the brand entirely if he wanted.
I’ll concede I don’t have a list of the most successful sponsorships in F1 history in front of me, but I’d argue that the true success of any marketing ploy is best observed in sales. A willingness to outright hack off a corporate limb doesn’t scream “thriving brand awareness” to me, but what do I know?
The rose-tinted timeline continues:
Following the introduction of hybrid power trains in Formula 1™ in 2014 and given the brand’s extensive experience in hybrid performance, INFINITI became an active player of the sport in 2016 as technical partner of Renault DP World F1® Team for the co-development of the Energy Recovery System (ERS), one of the most innovative and sophisticated technologies in motorsport.
In fairness, Infiniti did deepen its F1 operations beyond slapping decals on mid-pack F1 cars about four years ago. It was around that time that the company began nominating and sending engineering students to contribute to Renault’s efforts. In some cases, these engineers would exert a direct impact on racing operations. Motor1 went behind the scenes of Renault and Infiniti’s technical partnership in 2018, illuminating the latter’s contribution:
“[Engineering students] are thrown straight into projects working with engineers,” Renault Sport Chassis Technical Director Nick Chester said. “It’s nice that we can put them on to projects right away. The experienced engineers really enjoy passing along their experience.”
Some students are so involved in the engineering side of things, in fact, that they become integral to the development of the F1 car itself. One female winner from a past season designed the rear wing of the RS17 in Barcelona. Like nearly all of the students that take part in the six-month program, she’s on the short list of future hires.
That’s cool, and also a bit more believable than any tangential link suggested between Renault’s race cars and Infiniti’s production cars. I say this because while cooperating with the Renault F1 Team, Infiniti exhibited a penchant for trotting out high-performance concept after concept to demonstrate how its F1 learnings could be applied to a more road-friendly package.
The apex of this series was the Infiniti Project Black S, a one-off Q60 with a wild aero kit and hybrid energy recovery system. The Project Black S ultimately remained a prototype though—a suggestion of performance ideals that were more aspirational than internalized. I suppose that makes it a good allegory for Infiniti’s tenure in F1, then.