Guten tag, Red Bull
Let me tell you a story involving tobacco, energy drinks and F1 rivals.
Suzuka 1989. The infamous race. “The professor” and the Brazilian prodigy fighting for glory in the last race of the F1 world championship. Prost needed to finish ahead of Senna to win the chip. Senna needed the win to become two-time world champion. On Lap 47 of 53, Prost ran over Senna as the Brazilian was going to take the lead in the last chicane of the circuit. With Senna out, the Frenchman was winning the title. But the Brazilian returned to the track and ended up winning. However, the race director disqualified Senna for a move that was considered illegal back. Many claim that the decision was made by the Frenchman FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) director to support his fellow countryman. A title won off the track and years of controversy followed.
Whether you can recall the epic battle, or you’ve seen it in documentaries or movies, the classic white and red livery, or the “Marlboro” car, is one to remember for the ages. And one can say that tobacco and not gas was fuelling the sport back then. Classic liveries such as John Player Special and Lotus (HKG: 0175) defined the image of the sport. Other memorable cars were Williams and Camel, which crowned Nigel Mansell, or the forever classic Marlboro, of Philip Morris (NYSE: PM), and Ferrari (BATS EU: RACE) that made Schumacher a legend, and even year before when he won two world championships with Benetton and Mild Seven.
However, the F1 broke ties with tobacco at the beginning of 2010, and since, two brands with two different messages have dominated the scene. Mercedes and Red Bull.
Mercedes, with its F1 team headquartered in the UK, has ended up on top in the last 7 championships. After Daimler AG (BATS EU: DAI) took over Brawn GP in 2010, Mercedes engineering focused on producing and developing a fast, efficient, almost boring, and stable car, infusing the classic German engineering mindset. Mercedes had to bring a driver that would represent them on and off the track, across the world. Lewis was a perfect fit. British, skilled and efficient. The perfect combo.
On the other hand, Red Bull has focused its marketing strategy by sponsoring extreme sports events and almost impossible stunts. It’s been 9 years since the supersonic free-fall. To the day, the video of the 128K feet fall has 47 million views. The energy drink saw its rise in the 90s thanks to its anti-marketing, influencer strategy and focusing on one product. Its move to the world of sports began in 1995 when it showed up with its logo in a Sauber F1 car. Ten years later they became an official F1 team and four years later won their first of 4 world championships with Sebastian Vettel. They landed in the world of sports with a clear vision. Red Bull is risk, excitement and fun, after all, it “gives you wings” to achieve the impossible. Max Verstappen became the perfect image for the Red Bull F1 team. Young, ballsy, with his “YOLO”/ carefree driving style, is now ahead in the 2021 championship.
It’s hard to match the legendary rivalry between Prost and Senna, but many draw parallels with this year’s contenders. In both cases, their rivalry transcends sports. The winner in Abu Dhabi will put on top a different style of driving, of marketing, and a different “way of life” even. We haven’t seen, in a long time, a battle between two personalities that are such a pure reflection of their teams and the brands they represent. The young prodigy, risky with nothing to lose. The consistent British legend, searching for glory as the driver with more championships in history.
Will we see a 1-2 battle similar to the one we saw with Senna and Prost back in Japan? Hopefully, pure racing will decide the title. A nail-biter for sure awaits this weekend.