As Formula One prepares for the Brazilian Grand Prix a story that won’t go away is that of the Sahara Force India F1 Team rebranding as the Aston Martin Racing F1 Team with extensive, possibly title sponsorship, from Johnnie Walker in 2016.
To the dreamy eyed motorsport fan, myself included, the prospect of seeing the Aston Martin name in Formula One is fantastic. That being said the performance objectives Aston Martin may have for the partnership will have to be kept in check. The Silverstone based team have achieved great things on a limited budget for a number of years, but realistically making further steps up the grid will not happen overnight, even if the team were to receive sizable capital investment any plan for the Aston Martin brand to win in Formula One would have to form part of a longer term commitment. Will the Aston Martin marketers be satisfied with an image of the plucky underdog?
Beyond a possible team rebrand, the suggested commercial deals also raise a number of questions. The Force India team was originally intended to act as a platform for Vijay Mallya to promote, in addition to his airline, United Breweries and United Spirits (UBUS) through the brands Kingfisher, Whyte and Mackay, and Royal Challenge. Following the economic challenges Vijay Mallya and his companies have faced in recent years, ownership of the UBUS companies has exchanged hands. Initially Diageo (parent company of Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff) bought a sizable shareholding in the UBUS business. This change in ownership was reflected in the Force India livery with the addition of Smirnoff branding on the car. However, earlier this year as part of a consolidation strategy Diageo sold its shares in the UBUS business to Heineken. With Diageo’s Smirnoff remaining on the car alongside Kingfisher and Royal Challenge, this in effect means that the Force India team carries branding for two of the world’s largest alcohol companies. A situation that is unlikely to continue into the 2016 season irrespective of any Aston Martin rebrand.
Further mudding the water, or wine, is the recently extended agreement Force India have with the Mexican wine producer Cavell’s. Whilst it can be argued that wine, spirits, and beer are not direct competitors they ultimately target the same consumers. Since signing Sergio Perez Force India have devoted their marketing efforts to developing a substantial Mexican sponsorship portfolio, significantly beyond partnerships brokered through the Slim family (Telmex) This strategic focus on Mexico again leads me to question the likelihood of an Aston Martin rebrand with Johnnie Walker. The team won’t look to terminate commercial sponsorships, but do all these deals meet with the branding demands Aston Martin may place on the team?
One possible theory around the Johnnie Walker rumours could in fact be team ownership. Vijay Mallya’s financial troubles have been long and well reported, it is possible he agreed to offer a silent shareholding in the team to Diageo when they first bought into the UBUS business? Diageo shareholding in the team would explain any desire to consolidate existing F1 partnerships into a single team and bring Aston Martin to the party as a premium brand to support a premium product in Johnnie Walker.
Vijay Mallya’s comments over the Mexican GP weekend that the Force India name has served its purpose and perhaps the time is right to change is sound, with the now Heineken owned Kingfisher and Royal Challenge likely to fall off livery in 2016 and Roy Sahara’s difficulties not reaching any conclusion in the near future beyond Vijay Mallya himself there is very little Indian influence left in the team.
One thing is for sure the Silverstone based team will look different in 2016, will they “Keep Walking” with Johnnie Walker and Aston Martin? Time will tell, but as ever with these stories there is much to this than a paint job and a few stickers.