Someone once famously described Formula 1 as “a symphony of violence,” and nowhere does the orchestra play louder than in Monaco. For one weekend a year, the Monaco Grand Prix offers a James Bond movie come to life, a tax haven the size of a state fairground dominated by shady linen-suited greasers idly exiting their supercars in front of the casino, and billionaire yacht parties featuring overly friendly “models” imported from Asia. The occasional carbon-fiber shredding is just part of the 450 Euro race-day admission.
No sport celebrates money more thoroughly than F1, and right now, no one has more money than Infiniti Red Bull Racing, which won everything the last three seasons. Its frightening dynasty has become synonymous with the sport, and has allowed the world's foremost racing series to reinvent itself for modern times. Albert II may be Monaco’s prince, his face towering over the city on building-size photos like a benevolent deity, but on race weekend, Red Bull is its king.
Red Bull Racing’s roots go back to 1996, when F1 legend Jackie Stewart and his son Paul formed Stewart Grand Prix as an ill-conceived ego project. The team muddled along in the middle of the F1 pack for three seasons until Stewart sold the team to Ford, which renamed it Jaguar Racing and properly bollixed it, never winning the podium and never finishing higher than 7th in the Constructor’s Championship. The team’s biggest claim to glory arrived in its final season, when two mechanics won an inflatable donkey in a soft-drink giveaway for a Shrek movie and turned the donkey into an unofficial mascot.
In 2004, Red Bull put Jaguar Racing out of its misery, buying the team for a symbolic dollar in exchange for an agreement to pour $400 million into the business. No one took Red Bull seriously, branding them a “party team," but behind performance began to improve. With the signing of future champion Sebastian Vettel and engineering mastermind Adrian Newey, it began to improve a lot. Using a smoking Renault RS27 V-8 engine in its cars, Red Bull finished second in 2009, and then seized control of its destiny three races into 2010, giving birth to a dynasty.
This season, the team’s name has changed to Infiniti Red Bull Racing, as the sole luxury brand of the Renault-Nissan alliance has invested countless millions to become the “title partner” of the team. It’s going to be a big help, Rob Marshall, the chief designer of the team’s F1 cars, told me. “In the past, we didn’t have a big engineering company backing us,” he said. “We are a soft-drinks manufacturer. It’s not like we could phone up our bosses in Austria and ask them about new materials for X, Y, and zed. But now Infiniti can provide us with information and raw materials. They have an enormous apparatus we can tap into.”
Infiniti is trying to trade the enormous resources of the Renault-Nissan merger for the hope of gaining the imprimatur of global cool. They want to become a leading global luxury car brand, mentioned in the same breath as Mercedes, BMW, and Audi. As Andy Palmer, Infiniti’s executive vice-president told me, “there are plenty of pretenders in luxury, but they ones we covet are the Germans.”
Paradoxically, the only place on Earth where Infiniti has sizable market share, the United States, is also the corner of the globe where F1 is the least popular. Infiniti wants to win over the rest of the world. It has invested countless millions, and countless hours, on the proposition that Formula One will be its launcher.
“If you are just a sponsor,” said Andreas Sigl, Infiniti’s global director of Formula One, “it’s like paying for sex. We are a partner. We offer a lot more than money.”
Infiniti flew two dozen writers, including me, from all over the world to Monaco for the weekend, at considerable expense. They wanted to show off their shiny new F1 bauble, and they did so with great efficiency. But the scene seaside in Monaco showed they’re still living in Red Bull’s world.