Columns - The Youth of Today
Who Wins the Battle of the Brands?
BY NICK GARTON
Let's look at another global series for a moment, the FIA World Rally Championship. While Michael and Mika were belting out My Way on the tables of the Log Cabin, one of the other stars of motor sport, Colin McRae, was already nursing a particularly sore head after plunging into a ravine on the Rallye Corsica. Rallying on the open road involves staggering cornering speeds, but the roads are usually in places like Corsica where, instead of run-off and gravel traps, you have drop-off and certain doom. If you're lucky you might have a row of trees or perhaps a solid stone wall to cushion your exit, but mistakes on asphalt have become the biggest fear to the rally crew.
Thus in the wake of McRae's enormous accident it is now being mooted that rallying on the open road should be abandoned, that they should stick to forest tracks and snow plains and deserts and the like, and this puts the manufacturers in a sticky spot. Of course the idea of losing one of their drivers is unbearable, but the only reason they're competing is to sell Subarus, Fords, Peugeots, Mitsubishis and Skodas. To do that they have to be seen travelling very fast on the road because frankly the average motorist doesn't want a car that's good in mud and snow. If they did they'd all be in Land Rovers. After Corsica the drivers are turning to their manufacturers like gladiators to Caesar, and giving them what amounts to the thumbs down would be very bad PR.
Ford and Peugeot must be particularly concerned. After all nobody outside Japan buys Subarus or Mitsubishis unless they read specialist motor magazines and go rallying themselves, while people will always love a Skoda for being a cheap and funky Volkswagen. Ford and Peugeot? We're talking premier brands here. Peugeot has humiliated itself in Formula 1 and now faces the prospect of barreling through the Sahara entertaining tribal folk while Renault returns to winning ways with Jenson Button. Meanwhile at Ford... oh dear. It's knocked almost half a century of saloon car racing on the head, crippled Formula Ford and given the two biggest prizes in sport - Formula 1 and Le Mans - to its low volume brands to leave the Blue Oval wearing a bobble hat in sporting obscurity.
Then again, not even champions get it quite right. The Ferrari legend being so feted in the aftermath of Suzuka is that of a company founded in the Great Depression for rich Italians to keep racing Alfa Romeos. Now it is a small, self-perpetuating arm of Fiat that sells cars to rich people everywhere, while the race team is funded by sales of breathless little Puntos. Do people love Fiat? Not if they've ever driven one. Did you get the urge to rush out and buy a Seicento when Michael jigged on the podium in Japan? Thought not. And this after 21 years and a couple of billion dollars to achieve it - Enzo Ferrari must be chuckling, his name liveth for evermore and someone else is footing the bill.
Still, as Luca Montezemelo and his former national president pointed out, Ferrari's success is an Italian triumph. The masterful strategies of Ross Brawnini, the chassis by Rory Byrnini, the Latin perfectionism of Jean Todtini... hmmm. Then again just look at what the rest are up to with their brand images. There's the invisible Toyota project, Jaguar's happy to have badly designed cars and number two drivers, Honda's got lost in the mire... this leaves BMW and Renault. They seem to be doing the right thing, which is the answer to the question of what the hell they're all playing at: they're trying to be as good as Mercedes.
Mercedes-Benz has been the epoch-making name in motor sport since the days of the Kaiser; it made legends with the likes of Lautenschlager, Caracciola and Fangio through 50-odd years... and then it stopped. When Mercedes came back it was as the uberbrand, letting Ilmor do all the hard work and finally gave its lovely engines to Ron Dennis, who had been looking for the chance to paint everything grey for ages. This has left Stuttgart free to go and trounce everyone in sports cars and touring cars whilst the labors of Englische Kunstlern have made the world expect McLaren-Mercedes, rather than Mika or David, to win Grands Prix.
Even if McLaren-Mercedes doesn't bring home the bacon, Mercedes' head of motorsport, Norbert Haug, can still smile because clearly nobody else really knows how to make the most of their racing. As the world debates whether Ferrari, Italy, Schumi or Brawn won the title Norbert can relax, savor his heritage, his graceful ex-champion Mika and think warm thoughts about next year's dream machine. He can afford to get drunk, throw chairs around, sing karaoke classics and smoke cigars in his underpants with his old pal Schumi - because Mercedes' Deutschemarks made him too. If anyone can match the old tiger of Stuttgart in the dot com era of battling brands they've got a big job ahead of them.