F1 Has By no means Been Hotter—and the Luxurious World Is Fueling Its Meteoric Rise

The 1968 Monaco Grand Prix was a milestone in motorsport history for several reasons. It was the year Ferrari refused to take part, deeming stricter safety measures such as the tightening of the harbor chicane—the spot in which Italian driver Lorenzo Bandini had his ultimately fatal crash the year previously—to be inadequate. It was the first F1 to see wings and a spoiler fitted to a car, thus introducing downforce and changing motorsport aerodynamics (and, indeed, aesthetics) forever. 

Monaco ’68 also ushered in a new era for a sport which these days offers a prize pot of around $2 billion in a commercial sense too. Because on May 26 of that year—18 years after the first ever Grand Prix at Silverstone saw the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss line up alongside Prince Bira of Siam, Count Carel Godin de Beaufort and Alfonso, Marquis de Portago—Team Lotus cars took to the Monte Carlo Circuit’s grid with their traditional British racing green conspicuous in its absence. Instead, their cars had become fast-moving billboards emblazoned with the colors and graphic design of Gold Leaf cigarette packets. 

This eye-popping livery was the result of a £85,000-a-year deal signed by team owner Colin Chapman with Imperial Tobacco, a deal that happened because of the lifting of restrictions which had hitherto limited on-car branding to subtle depictions of Mercedes’ three-pointed star, Ferrari’s famous prancing horse and, here and there, the insignias of tyre or oil companies who had provided their wares to the occasion. 

The rest, as they say, is history: National racing colors were consigned to the past, and a highly lucrative relationship was forged between tobacco and motorsport. Marlboro (McLaren, Ferrari, BRM, Alfa Romeo), Benson & Hedges (Jordan), Rothmans (Williams) and Lucky Strike (Lotus, BAR, Honda) were all among the cigarette manufacturers which decided to elevate their brand awareness by decking out racing cars in their colors in their ensuing years. To say the relationship was utterly bizarre—an elite, money-drenched sport requiring participants to have supreme levels of health and fitness being in bed with carcinogenic cured leaves typically consumed by people with relatively low incomes—does, in retrospect, seem a massive understatement. 

How times have changed though. Following consultation with the World Health Organization, the Federation Internationale de L’Automobile voted to ban tobacco advertising in the sport. Many feared that this would leave the sport bereft of crucial funds—but then global banks stepped in to underwrite F1. Accordingly, the global financial crises of 2008 threatened another major reduction in F1 sponsorship—but there was an unlikely new protagonist waiting in the wings. Global spending on sports sponsorships, around €32 billion in 2010 (or $34 billion at current exchange), almost doubled over the ensuing decade, with F1 attracting a vast slice of the pie—and intriguingly, a huge portion of that input has come from the world’s most lauded luxury brands. 

The 1968 Monaco Grand Prix.

Automobile Club de Monaco

For the fifth season running, global business aviation company VistaJet is flying the Scuderia Ferrari team between races throughout this current Formula 1 season. It’s not the only high-end aviation company in the mix: Canadian business jet manufacturer Bombardier last year introduced F1 team owner Toto Wolff as Worldwide Brand Ambassador. VistaJet is in good company at Scuderia Ferrari: two of the team’s drivers, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, have posed for Giorgio Armani, whilst other commercial entities to have gravitated towards the Prancing Horse as a partner include Riva, the iconic boat builder which is now an official sponsor (“You don’t say, ‘I have a boat, or I have a car’, but ‘I have a Riva, I have a Ferrari’,” as Ferretti Group CEO Alberto Galassi said last year of a relationship that began in 2016). Bang & Olufsen’s logo these days is displayed proudly on the side of the 2023 Ferrari cars, with trackside audio experiences also part of the sponsorship package (the Danish audio giants also have close ties with the Williams F1 team). 

Naturally, the aforementioned fitness level required of F1 drivers is also in the mix: Just ask Technogym, which has developed training equipment for the McLaren fitness and wellbeing centre. And when it comes to the sparkling wine traditionally sprayed from the podium by victors, Taittinger was last year announced as the official Champagne Partner of the Australian Grand Prix. 

And then, of course, there’s the sizzling love affair between Formula 1 and the horological world. There are hardly two disciplines better suited to each other than car racing and watchmaking, and there is hardly a better showcase for each industry’s top talents than Formula 1, where many of the same principles create progressive technologies benefitting the winning of seconds—and fractions of seconds—wrapped up in luxurious packages. 

TAG Heuer was the first brand to jump into motor racing with two feet. When Formula 1 began in 1950, it was TAG Heuer’s mechanical stopwatches that the teams used to time laps. The brand—then just called Heuer—evolved the tech, which made a quantum leap in 1971 when Heuer was contacted by Enzo Ferrari to design a new timing system for him. The “payment” was to put the Heuer logo on the flanks of Ferrari’s racing cars and drivers’ overalls, who also acted as brand ambassadors for Heuer’s advertising. And so watchmaking’s involvement in motorsports marketing was born, and Heuer’s highly reliable timing technology became a staple in the world of championship racing. 

However cool that was, it was nothing compared to the story involving Steve McQueen, the Heuer Monaco and the Hollywood film Le Mans, which solidly made both the actor and the watch historical icons. At the 2023 Formula 1 Grand Prix in Monaco, TAG Heuer—today a sponsor of F1’s Red Bull Racing Team—would be amiss if it did not bring out a new edition of its iconic Monaco watch, now 54 years old and ever evolving.

TAG Heuer is not the only shoo-in watch brand for Formula 1 sponsorship. Even though Richard Mille is a much younger brand (founded “only” in 2001), its credentials might even surpass that of TAG Heuer, given that its eponymous founder has been personally involved in motorsports for most of his life and now even fulfills high-ranking roles within motorsport’s governing body FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile). 

From the earliest stages of creating his now legendary brand, Mille got much of his inspiration from Formula 1. “Racing has always been a personal passion of mine,” as he explained to one of the authors in a personal interview back in the early 2000s. “I own some older Formula 1 cars as well as a Lola XX. In addition, I have many friends and colleagues from the racing world, so it is just a natural progression. The creation of my watches emulates the world of F1 development’s system of thinking. 

“It is a no-nonsense world; every part of the car must have a specific function working at the highest level and a certain quality, especially under stressful conditions. Also, every gram counts—many people don’t realize that F1 cars are really weighed by the gram during their development and construction. This approach really appeals to me. It’s a balancing act, a pushing of the envelope. 

F1 racer

Tobacco brands were involved with F1 for three decades.

Automobile Club de Monaco

“You know, the RM 009 Felipe Massa, the world’s lightest tourbillon wristwatch at 30 grams [that doesn’t incorporate the use of plastics] was born from a challenge by Formula 1 race driver Felipe Massa. He asked me if I could make his RM 006—at 48 grams, then the lightest—even lighter. As I mentioned above, every gram is weighed in F1, and this includes the driver and his watch. But making lighter watches is absolutely not my goal. It was born out of the desire to ‘go to the edge,’ not lightness in itself.” 

Richard Mille sponsors a great many aspects of the motorsport world, and in Formula 1 the brand sponsors the Ferrari and McLaren teams as well as the Monégasque Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc and Fernando Alonso, now driving for Aston Martin—which Richard Mille also briefly sponsored—as well as other racing legends. His eponymous brand has been one of the main proponents when it comes to pulling the watch industry into the 21st and—no doubt the 22nd—centuries with its forward-thinking technologies and uses of unbelievable new materials, many of which come straight from aerodynamic disciplines. This brand’s mere presence in the F1 world truly shows how far car racing has come. 

Of late, F1 has attracted more watch brands that have historically not been involved with the elite motorsports discipline. Girard-Perregaux is one such example, even though it’s a brand that has historically had a stake in motorsports thanks to former owner Luigi (Gino) Macaluso, who took over the traditional brand in 1992 and led it until his passing in 2010. Macaluso was a noted driver, who even won major rally events in the 1970s. “If timekeeping has fascinated motorsport fans for over a century, watchmakers have always been confronted with the challenges of measuring time,” says today’s CEO Patrick Pruniaux. “These two industries naturally attract each other and share a lot of the same characteristics.” 

All of which neatly explains why Girard-Perregaux announced a multiyear partnership with Aston Martin, including the F1 team, in 2021. “The partnership immediately made perfect sense given the common values we share,” he explained in one interview. “We both draw on our heritage, centuries-old skills and the talents of our respective teams to deliver excellence. Similar to the experience of driving an Aston Martin car, we believe that wearing a Girard-Perregaux watch should be a memorable experience, infused with intense emotions. Moreover, the passion for motorsports and Formula 1 goes beyond simple appreciation for the cars and is similar to the passion that brings the watch industry to life—pushing creativity and technical innovation to create exceptional timepieces.” 

The latest timepiece created as part of the collaboration is the Laureato Green Ceramic Aston Martin Edition, available in both 42 and 38 mm and in a ceramic case and bracelet—naturally—in British Racing Green, a color that has graced the U.K.’s race cars since 1900 (particularly Aston Martin). 

Rolex, whose famous Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona chronograph was even named after the famed race in the city of the same name in 1963, became the overall sponsor for Formula 1 as of the 2013 season. IWC has been involved with the Mercedes F1 team since 2013, and French brand Bell & Ross with the Alpine brand since 2016. Both are expected to release new co-branded watches this year. New as team sponsors are Casio (AlphaTauri) and Rebellion (Alfa Romeo), whose owner possesses teams in other racing classes. 

Popular English brand Bremont, which specializes in pilot-style timepieces, began a partnership with the Williams team in 2021, and in 2022 introduced the Bremont WR-22 as well as a limited-edition box set comprising the racing-inspired FW44 Chrono, and FW44 Classic (which includes a Williams racing experience). A new addition to Bremont’s Williams line will be announced in June 2023. “Bremont has built its foundations on British engineering and as such we have naturally sought to collaborate and work with British brands that hold the same values,” as Giles English, co-founder of Bremont, puts it. “We’re proud to be working with Williams Racing, a team with an incredible history and such a poignant name in sport. The links between our two industries are considerable and beneficial on many levels. Over the years we’ve seen a substantial crossover between the manufacturing skills in F1TM and watchmaking—we’ve employed a number of individuals from the F1 industry to date.” 

Naturally, many watch brands invest in Formula 1 for its ever-growing popularity and ability to capture more of the overlapping target-audience attention than ever before. “I believe that F1 has completely evolved with the times, and this is reflected in its growing audience day by day,” says Girard-Perregaux’s Pruniaux. “It’s an evolving sport where each year the rules are modified to meet the needs of the race as well as the expectations of the public, but also the cars. And especially the cars! In addition to the driver skills, the car plays a key role in the rankings, and each year the suspense is created around these new cars. Like in watchmaking, there’s a challenge to continue delivering excitement while evolving and innovating. This is what drives us daily at Girard-Perregaux.” For Nicolas Jayr—the Perpignan born-and-bred Vice President of Global Partnerships at the motorsport-focused cross-media creative agency Race Service—Liberty Media acquiring the rights to F1, back in 2017, is a major factor in the luxury world’s infiltration into single-seater motorsport’s top echelon. “When Liberty Media took over from Bernie Ecclestone, the sport was starting to fall in terms of the audience getting older, and it was losing touch a little bit—fans felt it was becoming predictable, they weren’t getting what they wanted,” he says. “There’s been quite an interesting turnaround over the last few years in terms of how the sport managed to transform its fortunes. People have been reminded of what F1 is all about.” 

Alain Prost’s 1986 Marlboro McLaren

Alain Prost’s 1986 Marlboro McLaren

Automobile Club de Monaco

Echoing Mille’s sentiments, Jayr believes that F1 and luxury, artisanal endeavor–and especially incredible feats of engineering–are natural bedfellows. “At its core, F1 is a battle in which man and machine are pushed to the limit,” he says. “That’s a very emotional, very gritty concept. Motorsport is all about human endeavor at its best—including the creation of those machines. You have so many technology brands associated with it because it’s seen as the pinnacle of technology. We’ve also had a lot of crypto brands trying to make a name for themselves and coming into the sport. F1 has always been a great way for brands to achieve visibility, in terms of its global appeal. It’s pretty unmatched—few sports give you such instant reach.” 

For Jayr, 2021 is as significant a milestone in F1 history as 1968: “It was the year when the fortunes for F1 really started to change,” he says. “And it was a perfect storm of different factors: the Netflix series Drive to Survive, distributed around the world—and especially Season 3, Man on Fire, with Romain Grosjean being trapped inside the cockpit for 27 seconds before making an escape from conflagration—is just one. 

“When viewers see him, like a phoenix, getting out of the car… it brought back to people’s minds the reality that this is a very dangerous sport. F1 has always had this debate—‘Is it too safe now?’—and every now and then you have those moments that just make you realize actually how emotional, how dangerous, it is and how those guys are pushing the boundaries of possibility. That is something that appeals to luxury brands who are trying to convey a certain attitude, an element of fearlessness, and the love of risk.” 

The synergy between motorsport and horology, for Jayr, is a glaring one. “In F1, decisions and big outcomes are based on split-second incidents,” he says. “Then there’s the craftsmanship involved at the team level. The drivers embody the fearlessness and that attitude. But it’s also a team sport—you go to a factory like those of Mercedes, AMG or Red Bull Racing, and you witness incredible achievement in terms of pulling together. It’s a coming together of some of the brightest minds not just in sport, but generally in life. Also there’s this chasing of tiny increments of improvement—that’s something that really resonates with luxury brands and their values.

Adrian Taylor, Business Development manager at VIAGP—a UK-based company which specializes in marketing and branding opportunities through Grand Prix racing—agrees. “We’ve had and still have amazing high-end brands such as Rolex, Tag Heuer, Richard Mille, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari, Moët & Chandon, Ray-Ban, Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger involved with F1,” he says. “And, due to the considerable growth in its popularity over the past five years, we expect to see even more high-end luxury brands join the sport. It is, after all, the most exciting and glamorous sport on the planet. And—perhaps due to the amazing success of Drive to Survive—we’ve seen a younger and more diverse demographic than ever before in the sport. The 18-34 group are loving F1 and the research shows that more than 30 percent of them are female.” 

Meanwhile Emanuele Venturoli, Communication Manager at RTR Sports Marketing, describes F1 as “possibly the world’s most powerful sports marketing platform”, referencing its cumulative TV audience of 1.5 billion over the course of the most recent season. “On top of that, the values connected to F1 are extraordinary and hard to find in other sports,” he elaborates. “The pinnacle of motor racing is highly technological, future-oriented, fast, exciting, very sexy. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that luxury brands—as well as tech brands, financial brands and so on—want to leverage on such a cool and effective marketing tool.” 

Venturoli believes that F1 sponsorship’s bond with upmarket branding and endorsement will grow stronger in the years and decades to come. “These are long-term processes and the wheels are spinning in the right direction,” he says. “What Formula 1 needs to do now is to ensure a competitive field with more drivers racing for the podium, and to make sure they produce a genuine, true-to-the-spirit racing series. Formula 1 has always been, and always will be, very luxurious. The glamour has always been a huge part of this sport: think Monaco, think Ferrari, think Rolex.” 

In short, F1 is on the up—and the world of fine living is propelling its ascent. And with luxury sectors recovering well from the Covid slump, and with F1 seeming to be in ruder health with each passing year—a planned street-circuit Las Vegas Grand Prix on the cards being exemplary of this—we should expect to see more and more livery which toasts the joys of la belle vie to become more and more ubiquitous in the sport in the years to come. 

Source: Robb Report

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