Previously I had worked closely with Nick, when I was PR Vice President of Public Relations at Jaguar Cars North America, and I received the usual warm welcome from the cheery and friendly former Jaguar Chairman.
Ford Motor Company was celebrating its June 1999 announcement that it had acquired the Stewart F1 team from its founder, Jackie Stewart, and would be renaming it the Jaguar F1 team.
We snuck off to the suite reserved for the senior executive’s use, for a welcome cup of tea and a chat about our time together with Jaguar. This naturally headed in the direction of Ford’s decision to rename the F1 team under the Jaguar banner.
Nick was very aware that having worked with the Jaguar brand since 1977, I was not only a dedicated guardian of the Jaguar brand image, but also a historian, when it came to Jaguar’s great history and tradition, and yes, the myths and legends.
The ‘myths and legends’ were a powerful tool when talking about the marque’s proud background as a British brand started by the visionary Sir William Lyons, which had not only captured the attention of British enthusiasts, but also most important, the vast American market.
After pleasantries, I said to Nick: “What were you guys thinking? Jaguar has NEVER had any association with Formula One – its motor sport history is all about sports car racing.”
|Jac Nasser (L), with Wolfgang Reitzle|
I replied: “Well there’s two guys, truly at the top of the executive tree, who know nothing about Jaguar’s history, nor the foolishness of linking Jaguar with Formula One, this will end in tears.” And, indeed it did.
First, the wily Scot, Jackie Stewart, extracted the absolute maximum price from Ford when it acquired the whole team, plus facilities.
Then second, Ford stumbled (from the start) through its entire ownership of the ‘Jaguar’ F1 team with a revolving door of team management – hardly any of whom knew anything about competing in Formula One, and none of them knew how to manage an ‘octopus’ – which is what F1 begins to look like to newbies.
It's first Team Chief was much-respected engineer, Neil Ressler, who knew zero about managing a racing team, nor the labyrinthe layers of F1 politics.
At one point Wolfgang Reitzle hired Niki Lauda as Team Director, but it didn’t take the acerbic Austrian long to realise that the Ford-installed team management had just one law –‘You do it our way, or not at all.’
I think that’s brave talk, when you’re dealing with a former world champion who had decades of real experience.
|Monaco 1976 - Lauda shows a clean pair of slicks to the rest of the field|
Formula One is not kind to those who lack knowledge of the sport; knowledge of how it operates; knowledge of managing the disparate divisions of an F1 team, and also just the basic lack of appreciation that they are wilfully spending zillions of dollars chasing a somewhat imaginary goal.
The team owner and its sponsors must exhibit unwavering faith that the project will succeed. However, faith doesn’t pay the bills.
Yes - obviously to win in F1 you need big, big budgets and when Jaguar team management reports back to the Ford Board in Dearborn, that this year’s budget will have to be increased by XX millions, the conservative and somewhat penny-wise management qualities of ‘Good Old Boys’ in the centre of the USA simply cannot rationalize the dollars spent, with a lack of results which will truly benefit the company’s bottom line.
I can tell you, there would have been many times when Nasser went to the Board to try and explain that F1 is a money-hungry animal that just keeps needing to be fed.
The Board members would have been quite justified in saying: “Why? What are we really getting out of this project?”
By any measure the Jaguar F1 team was a failure, typical of projects that have not been seriously thought through, difficulties honestly assessed, an understanding of the challenges ahead for a ‘newbie’ team of managers, complicated by formidable Formula One politics, general skulduggery, and many examples of skirting the rules to gain advantage. This last condition is one which would never have occurred to the somewhat pious members of the Board of the Ford Motor Company.
However, after a ‘dud’ showing the Jaguar team was sold to Red Bull on November 15, 2004 – that’s it, it’s all over now!
So, what’s different this time? If you read the press releases from Ford and the quotes from its CEO Jim Farley, not a lot. Ford wants what it wanted with the Jaguar F1 team – image, credibility, status, market presence, and this time, a focus on its technologies, oh, and of course to sell more cars.
I’m afraid Formula One’s ‘business model’ just doesn’t align with those objectives. The teams have only one destination – dominate races and the podium – and make sure there’s enough cash to pay the big salaries and huge operating costs. That’s it. Only the very smartest owners/sponsors can successfully use Formula One as a genuine marketing tool.
I don’t rank the giant Ford Motor Company among that tiny circle. Ironically, the company Ford sold its Jaguar F1 team to, Red Bull, has proved very adept at using its F1 team along with a number of ‘extreme sports’ to market its energy drink.
Think back to the glory days of the dominant, race-winning Cosworth DFV engine – the 60s and beyond. Every team which was chasing success simply had to use the DFV – but out in the public arena who knew that the Cosworth DFV was a (very successful) joint program between Cosworth and Ford?
Even then, motor racing success with its dominant engine never morphed into a successful marketing tool for Ford, despite the millions involved.
The project was inspired and managed by a small group of diehard engineers who really knew their stuff, but you could have called that whole Ford racing division a ‘skunk works’.
Imagine a Pommy Ford salesman saying to a Cortina or Escort buyer, “You know this car comes from the same company as the one that makes the most successful F1 engine.” What?
Now, when it comes to ‘American’ motor sport like Nascar, that’s a whole other ball game.
But, Formula One? Never mind the success of Netflix’s “Drive to Survive” series and how it’s awakened American audiences to the thrills of Formula One. Translating that into public imagery which boosts the status and integrity of the Ford Motor Company, and sells more cars is a long shot.
Funnily enough, General Motors’ program to gain entry to Formula One via the Andretti family and its Cadillac division makes slightly more sense.
Cadillac has been dominating American sports car racing for a long while, and it will be the Andretti name dragging Cadillac into the spotlight, rather than the other way around.
I don’t mean to belittle the auspicious and impressive talents of Ford’s engineers, and their ability to forge a path into a challenging new field of technology, using F1 as its ‘vehicle’, but my guess is that even if it is Ford’s engine (and associated technology) that ensures Red Bull keeps dominating Formula One, you can bet that the name on everyone’s lips is more likely to be Red Bull than Ford.
Cast your mind back to when Henry Ford II became so angry about Ferrari’s success in producing, selling and winning in the sports car sector, that he agreed to spend ‘whatever’ to beat Ferrari in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
For Henry Ford it was ‘personal’. He hated il Commendatore, because Enzo knocked back an offer by Ford to buy the famous Italian company, and didn’t even personally reply to Ford’s offer.
It's estimated to have cost Ford Motor Company around USD$25 million on the GT40 program over the course of four years – 1964-67. Ford did beat Ferrari, but the only thing that was satisfied was Henry Ford’s ego. Did it sell more Fords? Hard to say, but I suspect the answer is no, certainly not 25 million bucks worth!
My advice to Ford is, go ahead with the Red Bull deal, but temper your expectations. On a personal note, I’d also advise Ford to spend up big, really big, on a competent communications program, run by people who know and understand the F1 PR machine, to ensure it extracts every cent’s worth of value represented in the Ford-Red Bull joint venture.
And that it positively impacts Ford’s bottom line.