When the Red Bull Racing team officially took on Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury division, as a title partner in 2013, it seemed like a deft marketing move aimed at raising awareness of the Infiniti brand throughout the countries that host Formula One races. Infiniti has long tried to differentiate itself in a crowded performance market, and aligning with the pinnacle of motor sports goes a long way toward chipping away at the abiding domination by such brands as BMW, Mercedes and Porsche. But change in this case isn’t just about naming rights or marketing opportunities: For its inaugural effort, Infiniti teamed up with four-time F1 world champion and Infiniti Red Bull Racing driver Sebastian Vettel to provide feedback on performance and handling to Infiniti engineers and designers. For Vettel, the process was initially out of his comfort zone. “In F1, everything happens very quickly,” he says. “If I have a problem in the first practice, it has to be solved by the second. With road cars, the process is longer. You don’t have to find a solution just for yourself, but for every customer. I had to learn to be patient.”
The result of his input is Infiniti’s Q50 Eau Rouge. Named after the famous uphill curve at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, home of the Belgian Grandprix, the “F1-inspired” concept performance sedan debuted at Geneva last year. Despite the cherry-red paint job, the Q50 Eau Rouge is not simply lipstick on a pig but the first harvest from what is hoped to be a long-term exchange of ideas and technology between race team and sponsor. “Infiniti is a performance brand, but we’re always working on futuristic technologies,” says Kyle Bazemore, Infiniti’s Senior Manager of Communications. “They make the driving experience safer and more fun.”
It used to be that cars could be designed for speed, efficiency or safety, but rarely all three. The first generations of hybrids, for example, were safe and efficient, not exactly meant to get a driver’s pulse racing. As Infiniti introduces new advances to its road cars, such as direct adaptive steering and improved hybrid technologies, the involvement with F1 has been integral in seeing that the “fun to drive” element is not lost. Just as in the paddock, Vettel’s highly tuned sensitivity helped maintain the emotional element of driving—the pleasure of getting from point A to point B. Meanwhile, recent advancements in racing—such as changes in F1 specifications that call for the use of smaller and more efficient engines that are just as powerful as their predecessors but use 30 percent less fuel—signal that even this high-charged world is headed toward automobiles that have both heart and mind.
Which is why it’s important to note that Infiniti isn’t the exclusive benefactor of the relationship with F1. “As F1 becomes increasingly dependent on battery and hybrid technology, having access to the kind of resources Infiniti provides is invaluable,” says Christian Horner, team principal of Infiniti Red Bull Racing. At one point, for example, it was discovered that the magnesium used for Infiniti’s production-model paddle shifters was lighter than what the F1 team had been using. Since every ounce counts in F1, the race team quickly enlisted its sponsor to provide materials for the race cars’ new paddle shifters.
Although Vettel recently announced he’ll be leaving Infiniti Red Bull at the end of the 2014 season, the synergy between team and sponsor is set to continue. Teammate Daniel Ricciardo, who has already won three races this year, could easily step in. And as Red Bull Racing moves from sponsored team to practical R&D arm, it can’t be long before the collaborative efforts yield benefits demonstrated not only in models like the Eau Rouge Q50, but also in Infiniti’s full line of cars. After all: Who knows driving better than professional drivers?