There are many who resent it, quite a number who put up with it, and even more who are too young to remember the sport without it, but it is fact that for nearly a quarter of a century motor racing and sponsorship have become inextricably entwined. Some teams still manage to retain a vestige of their country’s racing colours, chief among these being Ferrari, but even this team, which stood proudly aloof of such vulgar commercialism finally relented a few years ago and allowed the Marlboro logo to adorn the side of its cars along with the trade decals as part of a deal by which the cigarette company picked up the tab for paying the drivers. To many it was the end of an era, a time when even Scuderia Ferrari, with the backing of the mighty Fiat empire behind it, was forced to bend its principles and accept outside money.
Other teams, namely Ligier and more recently Dallara, have managed to run in the national colours, particularly the French team which has always had solid support from patriotic French companies. It has been a long time, however, since a British team last ran in the traditional green, a colour so beloved of the purist racing enthusiast. Even when sponsorship dries up, the teams prefer to run in white, rather like an unfilled billboard, than in the national racing colours of Britain.
Of the sponsored teams, there are two which stand out as the best in attracting sponsorship, and while one has remained in the same colour scheme for nearly 20 years, the other has proved adept at not just attracting, but also retaining, sponsors for years. The first team, of course, is McLaren. Long banished is the orange of the late Sixties and early Seventies replaced by the red and white Marlboro colours. To think of a McLaren in any other colour scheme is almost an impossibility so imprinted has it become on the enthusiasts’ psyche. The other team is Williams, a team that set the Formula One world a flutter with the attraction of the Saudi sponsors in the late Seventies and which has since attracted a good number of prestige sponsors into the sport, which is both good for motor racing as well as for the Williams team.
It became clear, however, that the success of acquiring sponsors was not a casual affair and related to the success of the last race, or indeed the last season, but the realisation of a well though out and prepared campaign that might have begun anything up to two years before.
The man responsible for this military-like operation is Sheridan Thynne, a man who joined the team in 1979 to look after sponsors Leyland Vehicles who were joining the team on the coat tails of the Saudis, and who has since remained, with one short interlude, to mastermind the team’s commercial side.
There are many sides to his jobs, but they boil down to two basic tenets: searching and servicing.
The first part, as already explained, is a long process. “We tend to have long lead times for our sponsors,” he explained to me, “up to two or three years ahead, so that most of this year’s sponsorship was agreed in 1989 and a proportion in 1990. Similarly we’ve agreed a large proportion of 1992 and quite a bit of 1993 already.
“We make a small number of very tightly focussed approaches to companies only after we’ve researched them in advance. When people in the lower levels of motor racing come and see me for advice and talk about how I can help them in attracting sponsorship, I’m always saddened when they arrive wagging their tails like an enthusiastic spaniel saying that they’ve just sent out 200 proposals last week. Saddened because it is inconceivable that there could be 200 companies who might be serious sponsors and it would be better and a significant saving on the stamps and the rain forest if they would apply a lot of thought to those companies and cut the proposals down from 200 to something like six and 10 which they’ve actually thought about and personalised and targeted to the likely requirements of that particular company. So that is our philosophy. We make a very small number of approaches and do this in association with a company called CSS Promotions who have international links. They identify the possibilities which are discussed at length between myself and their Managing Director Steve Herrick.” Once a possible sponsor is selected Thynne and Herrick then set about trying to identify the particular requirements of the company and arrange for some sort of warm approach rather than go cold calling. The time from when we first think about it to the first approach maybe six months or even a year.”
Why, though, should a sponsor be enticed into motor racing? It offers glamour, which might appeal to the individual, but when one is dealing with mega-bucks, there have to be hard commercial reasons. How does Thynne justify motor racing over and above any other sport?
The core is the display on the drivers and the cars of the sponsors’ name which is seen by a vast television audience over an eight or nine month period, and where there are previews and reviews, over an even longer stretch of time. And that is the advantage Formula One has over the Olympics and the World Cup which are the two other major international media events over the years; Grand Prix racing is every year and is at least 75% of the year, so it’s a more enduring media coverage in all forms.
“That is the obvious side, but the percentage that is the total depends on whether the sponsor is a consumer company like Marlboro, Labatt’s or Camel, or whether it’s a company which has different aspirations. For example when ICI joined us they were in the process of transforming a then loss-making subsidiary — ICI Fibres — in the early Eighties from a high-volume, low added value, low technology product company to a lower volume, higher added value, prestige fibre company. They used F1 over a period of time to bring initially fabric manufacturers and garment manufacturers, and then wholesalers and retailers, in groups of 100/150 to races and they used the F1 surrounding to present them against a dynamic background. Apart from the change in the corporate style, it was also particularly useful to them in Europe where they were not as well known as they were in Britain and the rest of the world.”
Having searched and then caught the sponsor to contribute to the overall running of the team, “we see ourselves as an engineering company whose end product is motor racing rather than a team,” asserts Thynne, the next important job is to service that sponsor.
“We sometimes ask new sponsors ‘how many races would you like us to win?’ They look at us slack jawed and say ‘all of them’. I ask the question,” says Thynne, “because I want to explain to them that I think it’s the wrong answer on their part. I think that one of the things a Formula One sponsor is selling is participation in a highly competitive activity, and if you win all the races, it clearly isn’t highly competitive. If I was a Formula One sponsor I would want to secure the World Championship in the last race of the year which you probably could do by winning seven or eight of the 16 races. That is the ideal aspiration. Anything over and above that doesn’t matter initially, but if it starts to get up to all the races, there are two adverse factors. One is boredom and less marginal viewers will watch it on television, and the other is that people will actually want you not to win. Both these are to be avoided. That is as competitive as I would want to be. We have been for most of the 10 or 12 years very much a front running team and that is all I’m selling to people, the capacity to run at the front of the field. I try very hard never to make promises to a sponsor which I don’t believe in all honesty I can’t deliver.”
Having attracted a sponsor into the sport that is when the second part of the Thynne operation comes into play — servicing the sponsor and tailoring Williams and Formula One to suit the sponsor’s marketing needs and providing on-track hospitality. It is not a question of supplying a few tables and chairs, a bit of food and drink and letting them get on with it, it is a highly structured endeavour whose slick operation should reflect on the sponsor whose guests should have had a memorable day out.
For such a day to be memorable, a driver should inevitably have played a part, which is not always the thing most on his mind on race day. “My main task,” says Thynne, “is to try to provide the maximum benefit to the sponsor’s guests with the minimum disruption of the drivers’ concentration on being competitive in the race.”
Typically the driver is presented to the guests at the lunch interval on race day. The guests are already sitting down before the meal with a presenter talking about practice, the circuit, the cars and the rivals so that the guests are warmed up before the driver appears at the presentation. When the driver walks in, the presenter will break off and welcome him. When the applause dies down, he will go straight into an interview with whichever driver it is so that he is, as Thyme described, “working and performing” within 30 seconds of his walking into the actual marquee. The presenter will ask half a dozen questions which are designed to enable the driver to say what he wants to say about his team-mate, his chances in the race, the other immediate competitors, make the odd joke etc whereafter the event will be thrown open to the floor to ask two or three questions. When that is over, which typically would be 10 or 12 minutes from when it starts, the presenter will say ‘right, well Nigel now needs to go to do his immediate pre-race preparation. Don’t ask him for autographs because we’ve given the team autograph cards to sign in advance and so you’ll be given a pre-signed autograph card.’
“The reason for this states,” Thynne, “is so that you don’t get the driver besieged by people pushing around him which they don’t really want on race morning, when the autograph is signed it is on the sponsor’s branded card which acts as a reminder to the guest in the future about the hospitality, and the autograph is more representative of the signature if written beforehand and not under duress.
“It’s fashionable to decry corporate hospitality, but I believe that it is an important part of what most sponsors do. I suppose that those who criticise it imagine that it’s very disruptive for the drivers. We try to arrange it in such a way that the drivers’ involvement is of maximum benefit to the sponsors with a minimum of disruption. We go to great lengths to ensure it’s done like that.” Indeed so structured and organised is the role of the sponsor and what is expected of them at race meetings that Williams have had a book printed which acts as a guideline. “We impose a sort of discipline on the sponsor, but it’s in the best interests of everyone that we do so.”
Most sponsors also provide their own co-ordinator, usually based in Europe, whose job it is is to liaise between the team and their own marketing, promotional and PR departments. “We try to thrash things out using the expertise of that company’s promotional people and our own expertise in Formula One to try and put together ideas to market their involvement in Grand Prix racing in a highly commercial manner. Competitions, dealer competitions, salesmen competitions, employee competitions, customer competitions involving race-oriented prizes, meeting the drivers, coming to the factory and presentations of Formula One to internal staff in in-house magazines so that the staff understand that the company’s involvement is not a jolly for the senior management but is a carefully integrated part of the marketing ploy. One of the reasons why we like sponsors to bring VIP guests to see the factory and use our museum and conference centre is that we’re proud of the fact that we are a business and we believe that it is in our interest, and in the sponsors’ interest, to be seen to be associated with a highly competitive, high tech, capital intensive business as well as with a racing team and to realise that we are a serious company.
“We try and get as close as possible to the companies to understand their marketing aspirations and to advise and assist on how they can achieve them in a manner which varies from company to company. For example in Canada, where there isn’t much understanding by the media of Formula One, Labatt’s selected half a dozen key Canadian newspaper journalists, not motor racing journalists, who spent half an hour talking to me about what makes a F1 team tick and then half an hour talking to Nigel who they have difficulty in getting access to in the normal course of events. This was appropriate mileage for Labatt’s at the Molson Grand Prix of Canada,” Thynne says with a wry smile on his face.
When everything is laid out in black and white, it all looks so easy and obvious but it is amazing how many teams still manage to get it wrong. They may be adept at wooing a sponsor, but hopeless in keeping it. Thynne is relentless in his claims. “We are selling international media exposure, we are selling an association with technical excellence and we are selling an association with competitiveness around the world — and that is something of value to sponsors.” And a word about the doubters, those who denigrate commercialism in the sport? “There is a popular misconception in various places in Formula One that sponsorship is in some way dirty and commercial. For my part, I began an interest in motor racing when, at the age of 10, the father of my head of dormitory at my prep school won the Le Mans 24 Hour race. I have been an enthusiast since that time, and that is quite compatible with doing a professional job in motor racing on the commercial side. It isn’t full of up-front PR people who have no interest in, and no knowledge of, motor racing.”
There speaks a committed man. — WPK