f you’d said 10 or 20 years ago that you were going to have a drinks company running a Formula 1 team and a car company doing the sponsorship, everyone would have thought you were nuts.”

Simon Sproule, corporate vice-president of Nissan Motorsport, has a point. However, when Infiniti — the luxury car division of Nissan — became a headline sponsor for Red Bull Racing in 2011 this is exactly what happened. The partnership was born out of the RenaultNissan Alliance and marks the first time that Infiniti has gone anywhere near F1. Yes, the-two year deal is a marketing exercise, and Sproule freely admits that, but there is much more to it. “When we did the deal we were obviously concerned about credibility,” he tells me at the Nissan Design Europe office in London. “Very early on I had a heated discussion with an F1 journalist (not Nigel Roebuck, we think…) who was having a real go at us and thought it was all bogus marketing crap. I said, ‘Look, we have a choice as a brand and we can either spend our money in golf, classical music etc, or we can come to Formula 1. What would you prefer? If you don’t want our investment then we’ll go and

sponsor a Premier League football team’.

“Suddenly he said ‘no, no I didn’t mean it like that’. But you have to accept that there are other ways for car companies to get involved in Formula 1 besides making the car and running the team.” So if it’s not just a marketing exercise, what does Infiniti — a brand with nothing in its car line-up that it could credibly say was influenced by F1 technology — expect to gain from the sponsorship? “What we made sure of when we did the deal was that it wouldn’t just be some stickers on the car, that we would open the door to a technical collaboration,” explains

Sproule. “Ferrari is in a class of its own when it comes to linking F1 with road cars and I don’t think anyone else will come close. We are taking a very different approach. “What we agreed was to let the engineers from both companies get together and figure out what is of interest to them. F1 is the cutting edge of technology, yes, but as a car company we are looking 10 years ahead for some of our big strategic decisions. We’re actually

looking at some of the same stuff as the F1 guys in terms of very advanced material science, weight reductions, aerodynamics, power train and battery technology. “You’ve probably sat in many press conferences with many car companies who’ve said, ‘oh yes, the brakes are directly from F1’, so I’m not going to try and sell you that old

shtick again. However, the fact that our engineers are now sitting in the room with the Red Bull guys, the fact that we’ve opened the door to a technical collaboration… Well, let’s see where it goes, shall we? It’s just willingness on both sides to work together on projects.”

You may doubt the potential, but bear in mind that Red Bull team boss Christian Homer has recently announced that he wants Red Bull to be recognised as a proper engineering firm and that it will move into the car market by building a sports car with Infiniti. He has also admitted that Red Bull is quite naive in terms of battery and hybrid technology— a field in which Infiniti and Nissan excel. So what of the marketing angle? “We were looking for global marketing platforms for

Infiniti, because outside America people don’t know about it. If you asked anyone in Europe, the Middle East, China or places like that if they could name a luxury car maker they would probably say one of the German manufacturers, then maybe Lexus, then possibly us. We had a fundamental problem. “Our growth in the future needs to be in Europe and the emerging markets, and that is where F1 is most popular. We had an agency

run the numbers and we also looked at a Premier League football team, cooking, golf, tennis, classical music, the Albert Hall… a whole number of things. What the stress test revealed was that F1 was very good and it offered big numbers. That’s why we’re in it.” It would have been remiss of me not to mention the likes of

Honda, BMW and Toyota, all of which have left the sport in recent years. Without wanting to sound rude, why did Infiniti want to get involved if it didn’t work for other car manufacturers? “It really wasn’t a worry,” says Sproule. “It all depends on your scope to think outside the box, which is what I’m going to challenge our doubters with. We’re using F1 in a way that I think, for a lot of brands, it should be used. It’s a global marketing platform and a car manufacturer can use it in the same way that the likes of Vodafone do. We’re using it in a traditional way as a global brand, but in a non-traditional way as a car company.” Will it work? And will the technical partnership help either side? In one respect it is already working — Infiniti has experienced a huge increase in brand awareness. In a recent survey Infiniti was named the fourth ‘most seen brand’ of all F1 team sponsors, beaten only by Red Bull, Vodafone and Santander. Not only that, but Homer seems to be finding it very useful as well. An interesting technical partnership? It looks like it. A marketing

driven decision? Certainly — but let’s not forget that this is a car company which is investing in F1. And that doesn’t happen every day.