Romancing the racing machines
For supposedly strong-willed individuals, many business tycoons seem rather sheep-like in their behaviour. If one mogul buys a mega yacht with a submarine, they all have to buy mega yachts with submarines. If one buys a Swiss ski lodge, the whole village ends up being bought. Football clubs, private jets... the fashion changes but the trend stays the same.
At the first glance something similar appears to be happening in Formula 1. Three of the F1 teams competing this year are owned by entrepreneurs who have made their millions/billions from the airline industry.
Vijay Mallya owns the Force India team, which is sponsored by his airline and drinks business, Kingfisher. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic, has bought an F1 team and called it Virgin Racing (having had his appetite for the sport whetted as sponsors of Brawn last year – the eventual world champions).
Last but not least is Tony Fernandes, the entertaining boss of Air Asia, who now owns one of the most famous names in motorsport, Lotus.
This could just be a case of billionaires showing off as usual but I think the connection between aviation and motorsport runs deeper than that.
There is, of course, an obvious link in that both involve speed. Is it really surprising that men who like big engines and going fast are naturally drawn to these two activities? Perhaps, it is also something to do with the entrepreneurial spirit required to launch an airline or run an F1 team. Every season in F1 is like launching a start-up business so it is no surprise that self-made men like Mallya and Fernandes are both intimately involved in their teams – indeed, my attempts to track down Fernandes for an interview this year are being arranged around his F1 commitments. Sir Richard, too, has taken a keener interest in the running of Virgin Racing than some other of his recent ventures.
For entrepreneurs used to the high-octane world of airline competition – which can be nothing if not unpredictable – F1 may provide the same sort of seat-of-the-pants thrill.
There is also a business case for these entrepreneurs to be involved in F1 because the airline industry is, by its nature, global and the travelling circus of top-flight motorsport lends itself to the promotion of global brands. This can also be seen in the individual race sponsors: Gulf Air's name was plastered everywhere during the Bahrain Grand Prix last weekend and Etihad is sponsoring the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the end of the season.
However, there may be a more fundamental link between aviation and motorsport than mere sponsorship and billionaires seeking new kicks. The origins of modern Formula 1 go back to the period after the Second World War when British aerospace engineers found themselves at a loose end as the war effort wound down. There were also a lot of disused aerodromes dotted around the English countryside and the two came together to create motorsport as we now know it. Aerospace engineers brought a knowledge of high-performance engines and aerodynamics to teams who were now racing on safe aerodrome circuits, and the fans came flocking to the sport. This was all a far cry from the "touring" style of racing that had been done in Continental Europe prior to the War and it proved a winning formula (so to speak).
The connection between aerospace and motorsport continues today with Airbus, for example, sharing computing power and know-how with the Williams F1 team while McLaren until recently had a relationship with BAE Systems, Europe's largest defence company.
Perhaps the airline moguls running F1 teams today are an extension of that relationship. If so, this passion for both flying machines and fast racing machines is certainly a more romantic relationship than F1's historic marriage to the deep pockets of the tobacco industry.
- The author is the Business Correspondent of The Times of London
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