When Renault announced that it had decided to sell a majority stake in its F1 team to tech investor Gerard Lopez, many people in the sport questioned what the strategy was.
Was it a way for the manufacturer to pull out of the sport while appearing to stay involved? Was it a fig leaf to cover up the embarrassment of a pullout? Is this team still Renault, even though as much as 75% of the UK based team is now owned by Lopez? And why did they turn down an offer from David Richards, who wanted to rebrand the team Aston Martin and move his entire operation to the team’s Enstone base?
The new car was launched a week ago and is very much branded Renault; the livery is the corporate colour scheme of Renault, echoing the look and feel of the turbo cars back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. So what is this team all about?
Some insight into what Renault are up to and Lopez’ plans for the team comes from a punchy interview with the entrepreneur in l’Equipe this week.
All the talk in the internet business circles at the moment is of the importance of “platforms”, like Google, Facebook and the like. Lopez sees his F1 team as a “platform” and a “hub” around which he can construct a business network.
“Our desire has always been to come into F1 to represent our Mangrove Capital Partners company and develop our activity, which is international business, ” says Lopez. ” F1 will be a platform for us..a hub. We will entrust the racing team to specialists, while the Mangrove people take care of business.
“We will propose to our sponsors something other than a sticker on a car. We will propose collaborations with companies in our portfolio. For example, Genii (an arm of Mangrove) is working on an engine which reduces consumption by 40%. The development of this would benefit from a partnership with an oil company.”
And by being so closely aligned with Renault he hopes to propose to the automotive giant, “some interesting projects regarding new technology, the environment and so on, areas where we are very strong.”
Lopez is a big believer in internet in cars, for VOIP, navigation and other applications and has investments in programmes to perfect the technologies.
“If Renault is promoting its brand for the first time in a long time, it is doing so in a structured way,” said Lopez. “There was no point in us taking part in some sideshow where we act as a sightscreen for Renault to creep out of F1 on tip-toes. When we saw that Renault was prepared to show its colours in a serious way, we said ‘This is a partnership which could work.’ ”
He is not short of self-belief, “Mercedes aligned itself with Brawn because Brawn would bring it success. Renault has aligned with us because Genii can bring success, ” he says.
He argues that his approach to F1 is “do it properly or don’t do it at all.” When you have involvement in world renowned brands like Skype, “you can’t damage its reputation by mediocre performances in F1.”
Lopez does not want to be seen as a team boss. Genii installed Eric Boullier in Flavio Briatore’s old office as team principal. Renault will have a representative on the executive committee of the team. Boullier will represent the team at FOTA meetings, but Lopez will take up Renault’s seat at F1 Commission meetings, involving the FIA and will deal with Bernie Ecclestone.
He is an interesting character and it’s clear he is not doing the F1 team as a billionaire’s vanity exercise, but rather looking to establish a new business model, based on F1′s colossal following and media platform.