As Formula 1 completes its back-to-back North American swing this weekend in Mexico City following last weekend’s United States Grand Prix, Infiniti and Renault executives insist the Japanese automaker’s involvement in the sport is more than a marketing exercise. Instead, they say, there is real engineering know-how behind Infiniti’s partnership with the Renault Sport Formula 1 Team — to the benefit of both marques and their on- and off-track products.
If you follow F1, you likely know this represents a significant shift compared to the previous five years, when Renault officially powered Red Bull Racing’s grand prix cars, which also prominently featured Infiniti’s logo. But the Infiniti/RBR relationship stood for little in terms of shared technology. Other than its F1 involvement yielding what Infiniti identifies as positive brand exposure and awareness, its only remotely tangible results for automotive enthusiasts were the 560-horsepower, Nissan GT-R-powered Infiniti Q50 Eau Rouge concept — effectively irrelevant, as the car never went on sale—and a limited-production, essentially forgotten Sebastian Vettel-edition Infiniti FX SUV.
“We wanted to become more credible,” says Tommaso Volpe, Infiniti’s director of global product strategy and motorsport. “We are not a sponsor anymore. We are an actual player in the sport. Totally different than where we were.”
We heard a similar spiel about “technology transfer” at the beginning of the RBR deal, too, but little of that occurred. Recognizing professional racing as a veritable swamp of public-relations hyperbole, often with little or zero substance, we pressed Volpe and Renault Sport Racing managing director Cyril Abiteboul on what has changed and why Renault this year resumed its position as a full-fledged F1 team for the first time since 2010.
“The core project is co-development of [the energy-recovery system], hybrid tech,” Volpe says. “We as Infiniti already use hybrid tech [in our road cars] as a power booster, not as a consumption saver.”
Abiteboul adds, “There was little credibility from Infiniti being in F1 despite awareness success. Renault has a lot of credibility but [got] very little exposure as just an engine supplier.”
When that exposure does come, there is no promise of the type of publicity it brings, a long-standing challenge in the sport regardless of manufacturer.
“When you are just an engine supplier … when you win it is either the driver or the team,” Abiteboul acknowledges. “When you lose it’s all because of the engine,” he chuckles with resignation. “We were incurring most of the cost that you need to incur when you participate in Formula 1. Because actually, [about] 50 percent of the budget of a Formula 1 team is the engine development. But you have far less revenue out of the engine development.
“When you have a team, it’s still 50 percent or so for the engine development, but you also have income from the prize fund for competitors, from merchandising, and from sponsors. So actually the business case for being a team is not so bad compared to the business case of being just an engine supplier. And by becoming a team, there is no question about exposure. Exposure will come with success.”
Indeed, success or lack thereof commands the spotlight in F1, often outshone only by off-track comments from the players in a racing series that spends a large chunk of its time mimicking a political soap opera. So it was perhaps inevitable Renault’s relationship with RBR disintegrated in 2015 when the latter pointed a finger publicly at Renault’s hybrid drivetrain, branding it the weak link in its package. That put Infiniti in a touchy position.
“We’ve been the most exposed sponsor in F1 for years, so we couldn’t complain from that standpoint,” Volpe says. “But the moment they started to make negative comments on Renault, of course we started to put the relationship in discussion. … [But] we made it clear since the beginning, as part of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, we would have [joined] Renault [if it became its own team]. Because for us, in any case after five years, we really wanted to make the step forward and become an active player in Formula 1. … [Despite anything said last year], we would have made this move regardless.”
Still, how much technical firepower in F1 can result from Infiniti’s knowledge of production-car hybrid drivetrains? The system it offers in its Q50 Hybrid Premium sedan, for instance, isn’t transferrable directly into a Renault Sport F1 R.S. 16 car, so it might initially seem a stretch to suggest there is potential for much crossover other than branding. But F1 teams value technical partners with established automotive processes, even though the specific parts in question are different between road and race cars. Another benefit should come in the form of having everything under one umbrella; Renault F1 previously outsourced its hybrid system, a weakness when racing against competitors who run full chassis and drivetrain programs under one roof.
“It’s really very much the hybrid tech, the electronics in particular [that we value],” Abiteboul says. “An F1 power unit has two electric motors, one huge battery, working in a particular way on the electronics involved with engine software. One of the difficulties is to get all of the engine and sources of energy, the fuel and battery, to all work in harmony at different times of race: defend, attack, overtake, save fuel, use fuel—all of these scenarios are what we are constantly improving, and software is important. This is typically an area Infiniti [knows], thanks to background and years of experience of hybrid tech—more than Renault, which no has experience [with those things]. The only entity [in our company] with that experience was Infiniti.”
Volpe adds, “The hybrid in the Q50 recovers energy from braking, it works the same as in F1. No, we don’t transfer direct material or systems to F1 because it is much different, but the know-how is very similar in some areas.”
Additionally, and like another Japanese manufacturer, Infiniti now moves employees from the production-car side in Japan to the race team in France, a practice for which Honda became famous and ultra-successful in the 1980s—though it will not confirm how many people are involved.
“We start with us helping Renault on a specific technology, but definitely we want in the future to take this expertise to our product,” Volpe says. “So the people now working in France will be transferred back to our R&D department working on our hybrid technology again, trying to improve in the future.
“This is much easier now because we have an actual technology we are working on in the car. But also, because of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, there is no problem transferring intellectual property or expertise. What made everything difficult before is when you work with a third-party company you always have strong limitations, especially when you involve Formula 1, where everything is highly confidential.”
Abiteboul offers, “Two things can happen [with such a program]. First it is processes: F1 is all about rapidity of development. We do a new engine in a year; a road car is five years. You improve your time-to-market, your capability of adapting to [the needs] of customers, so you put the company in better shape. Then you have a number of tech breakthroughs that apply to the road car. Not just the hybrid but, for instance, we made substantial steps this year with a new spec of engine, an extra 35-40 horsepower, which equals 0.3-0.4-second per lap. We are looking at putting [the development that gave us that improvement] on a road car for 2020, lowering consumption and improving power by overall combustion. This is the type of exchange we are trying to develop.”
None of this, however, is to say marketing does not remain a critical arm of the program, as is almost always the case in professional motorsports regardless of the category, from F1 to IndyCar to Le Mans racing.
“The image of hybrid tech in the U.S. is that it’s not for performance but is slow and not exciting,” Volpe admits. “Infiniti has had opposite approach, since the launch of the hybrid V-6, to add electric torque to the existing power of the engine. [We’re trying to tell] the story of performance technology, not just efficiency.”