We met Andreas Sigl
So then we asked, "Well, what does that mean?"
, the global director of Infiniti's Formula One
involvement (that's him above on the right), at the US Grand Prix
in Austin last year, and our questions to him were aimed at understanding what Infiniti was doing and where it intended to go. In spite of regard for its products and increased sales, few outside – and even inside – Infiniti
seemed to have a clear idea of what the brand stood for.
Its F1 partnership with Red Bull Racing
was a key example of that. A brand with no motorsports pedigree – save for a listless dalliance with Indycar
and the Infiniti Pro Series – was suddenly married to the world's marquee racing series, but one being continually declined by other brands and even its own entrants for a lack of relevance to road cars. The introduction of the Infiniti FX Vettel Edition
didn't clarify matters; we still didn't understand how Infiniti logos on Adrian Newey's chassis' made the G
, et al any better – or who was even supposed to make the connection – and if we were exceedingly cynical we could have said the terrifically expensive Sebastian Vettel
-fettled FX mutant was a marketing mission that needed a hand grenade but instead got a high-impulse thermobaric weapon.
Seven months after that Austin Q&A with Sigl, during which time Infiniti has become title sponsor
of Red Bull Racing and publicly anointed Sebastian Vettel
its Director of Performance, we met Sigl again in Montreal during the Canadian F1 Grand Prix
. It was there we got an answer to what Infiniti stands for: "We've boiled the brand down to the four 'p's," he said. "Performance, passion, precision and provocation."
So then we asked, "Well, what does that
mean?", and Sigl gave us some background on what's been happening behind the scenes of the partnership.
First, let's have a reminder of the timeframe for Infiniti's project. Last year Sigl said "I think it will take a long time – in terms of product alone, five to ten years, then you've got architecture and point-of-sale [i.e., the Infiniti Centers replacing old dealership facilities]." This year Infiniti CEO Johan de Nysschen mentioned the 25 years it took Audi to regain its footing in the US after the unintended acceleration issues from the '80s. That means that even though the first shot will be fired this year with the Q50, we're looking at somewhere between 2025 and 2038 for an Infiniti brand that fulfills de Nysschen's personal mission of being "accepted into the club of global luxury car brands."
We're looking at somewhere between 2025 and 2038 for an Infiniti brand that fulfills de Nysschen's personal mission.
"Global" is a key word to the project. Infiniti is active in more than 50 countries, almost all of which care more about F1 than the US does. On its partnership with Red Bull Racing, Sigl said making a blatant connection between the technology transfer from Formula One to Infiniti road cars wasn't the point. "Our goal is different; we want global awareness for the brand, we want to reach hundreds of millions of viewers every other weekend." This isn't, "Win on Sunday..." This is, "Let people know we're here."
"This isn't 'Win on Sunday...' This is 'Let people know we're here.'"
When Sigl said in Austin that Infiniti was going "longer and deeper" with the F1 tie-up, that's what the four-year term of the title sponsorship allows them to do. "You can start projects that you can follow through to the finish," he said, and that means getting Vettel further integrated into the development of its cars. Remember when it was news that a manufacturer was testing a car on Nürburgring? You can think of Vettel as Infiniti's personal 'Ring – a marquee way to both develop and add more perceived value to a car. Sigl said they wanted to use Vettel three ways, the first being as an individual who can inspire and reward employees and dealers.
You can think of Vettel as Infiniti's personal 'Ring.
The second way is "to bring him further upstream for all products." Vettel was at the Circuit Paul Ricard after the Monaco Grand Prix reportedly testing a production version of the Etherea, but Sigl explained that Vettel drove a range of cars and the test was about getting Vettel into the mindset of developing to a specific customer. "We exposed him to the way we develop a car," Sigl said. "We had him drive our cars and competitor cars and then gave him a buyer profile, like a person named Pascal, she's 34, she lives in London, she wants an agile car and this is the car she drives now." Directly after the Canadian Grand Prix Vettel went to Infiniti's North American Technical Center in Farmington Hills, MI to do more study on the processes by which a carmaker gets a product on the road.
"We exposed him [Vettel] to the way we develop a car,"
Infiniti plans to use Vettel from bottom to top. "He can help us develop Infiniti's entry car or Infiniti's super sports car," said Sigl. And at the top is the third way the brand plans to employ him. The production version of the Etherea has been rumored to sit on the platform of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, will be called the Q30 and be Infiniti's entry-level car. On the side of Vettel's RB9 race car is written the alphanumeric "Q100," which Sigl said represented the company's super sports car, and Vettel is the one who will help fill in the steps from the (purported) Q30 all the way to a Q100.
Vettel will help fill in the steps from the (purported) Q30 all the way to a Q100.
It goes the other way, too. We were told before that Red Bull is studying and using Nissan's Scratch Shield paint because it can improve the aerodynamic properties of the race car. In Montreal Sigl told us that the race team is studying the magnesium compound that Infiniti uses for its paddle shifters for use as paddles on the RB9 steering wheel, which are currently a titanium alloy. In Austin Sigl told us, "You can't point to a button on [an Infiniti] and say 'This is from F1,'" but in two instances you might be able to point to the RB9 and say, "This is from Infiniti." As for more crossover on the way, we were told during our tour of the Infiniti Red Bull paddock "You might not see much happen this year, but next year there'll be more."
In two instances you might be able to point to the RB9 and say "This is from Infiniti."
In Austin, Sigl had said that Infiniti wants something in the space occupied by the M division at BMW and AMG at Mercedes. Asked if that had come any further, he suggested that it would come but there would be much more to it than simply conjuring a name. "We need a performance brand, a halo car to bring people in," he said, "but we are just 25 years old in the US, only two to five years old in other markets. The other carmakers, they're more than 100 years old and their performance brands are as old as we are." The subtext was that Infiniti has many more important things to do right now, like get the company moving in the right direction, before it begins the task of starting a halo division. In the meantime, rumored models like the more powerful versions of the Q50/Q60 and the "charged induction" performance sedan with more than 550 horsepower that de Nysschen mentioned in his Facebook note can begin building the bridge to that halo division.
Infiniti has many more important things to do before it begins the task of starting a halo division.
Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told CAR that he wanted Infiniti to have 10 percent of the luxury market, or about 700,000 sales per year. No timeframe was given, but coming off of 165,000 sales last year, that means Infiniti needs to start meaning something to buyers – its products need to be life aspirations, not just neat cars to own. That requires differentiation from its competitors, and the word we were given in Austin was omotenashi, the concept of intense Japanese hospitality that would define every interaction one has with the brand. Asked about that again, Sigl's update was that "The German brands are a bit clinical, cold. We want to be the seductive alternative, a provocation." When we said that had an Italian ring to it, Sigl said "Yes, we're more dialing that way."
"The German brands are a bit clinical, cold. We want to be the seductive alternative."
A few last notes from the weekend:
- In a good week, Adrian Newey will make 100 drawings, by hand, of a new part for the car. The drawing is then digitized and CAD/CFD tested. If it makes the cut, it is produced in the parts factory and taken to the wind tunnel – the team uses the same tunnel that was used to test the Concorde.
- The parts factory works 24 hours a day, six days a week.
- Remember when the team's pit crew broke the record for pit stops five times in the Malaysian Grand Prix, resetting the record at 2.05 seconds? We were told that the pit crew's focus on fitness was increased this year with the hiring of an ex-British marine to be the human performance engineer for mechanics.
- We spoke to Antonio Felix Da Costa, the team's second reserve driver (after Sebastian Buemi), and he told us that the biggest effect the driver can have on the drivability of the car is with the differential setting on the steering wheel.
- Also on the wheel is a knob to let the team know about tire wear so that other teams don't know, one being the least wear and five being the worst.
- We've read before that F1 cars are notoriously difficult to drive. Da Costa said to the assembled journos there, "Any one of you could probably drive an F1 car right now. The problem would be driving it fast."
- We see tire warmers all the time, but da Costa said that everything on the wheel corner gets heated: hot air is blown on the brakes, hub, rum, tires and brakes. He said the carbon brakes are especially touchy, in that you have to hit them hard to get them up to temperature – if you use the pedal lightly then they'll glaze over and then "you don't have great brakes for the rest of the race. If they glaze, you need new brakes.
- Speaking of tires, we were also informed during the paddock tour that the optimal temperature for the tires is 100 degrees Celsius. The tire warmers only get them close to that temperature, though - the ambient heat of the brakes, which can get up to 800 degrees C, does the rest.