Behind the scenes F1: Why major oil company split with McLaren for Red Bull
Innovation
Red Bull F1
Posted By: Editor   |  17 Jun 2017   |  4:38 pm GMT  |  47 comments

In the latest in our occasional series of interviews with key behind the scenes figures who play important roles in F1, but who are not household names to fans, we sat down with David Tsurusaki, who is Motorsports Technology Manager at Exxon Mobil.

This year the US oil giant surprisingly split with McLaren after two decades of partnership and joined forces with Red Bull Racing. At the same time that meant re-engineering their products away from Honda works engines to Renault customer engines. This makes it an unusual deal and quite a coup for Red Bull, as usually oil companies in F1 target working with the manufacturer teams.

The automotive world is changing fast; electrification, hybrid, driverless cars – is it still essential for a serious oil company to be involved in top level motorsport?

We think so. If you don’t have that level of advanced research people in your company, then you wait for a third party chemical company to tell you what you can make.

Is F1 the most attractive form of motorsport for you?

Well I would say there’s a couple of them but F1 is at the top of the pyramid right from a technology standpoint; in aerodynamics, or in materials, or from a power-train standpoint. We think it’s the top of the chain. But you look at what’s going on in Le Mans racing with Porsche or Toyota, which we’re also involved with, those teams are working with pretty high end technologies also. But yeah we think Formula 1 is right there.

Why did Mobil choose Red Bull over McLaren, when you’d been with McLaren for so many years?

Good question. There were a lot of evaluations going on during that time. Obviously when you get to the end of a contract, the whole marketing piece of it comes into play: who are you going to work with, what are you going to do. It came to a point where the current management wanted to look at a complete evaluation so what are we looking at, what’s the rate of investment, what’s the best way to go, and we obviously tried to negotiate and do what we were doing with McLaren.

We love long-term relationships, and you can tell that from any other programme that we’re involved with like Porsche. Any other programs we’re involved with are normally long-term. This one is a little bit unique in that there’s not an OEM (manufacturer) piece attached to it. We’re not getting business from the OEM so this is a marketing play and there was a lot of evaluations on what’s the best choice for us. We obviously tried to work it with the previous guys.

So this was towards the end of the Ron Dennis era in McLaren’s management, was it caught up in all that?

“It was. At that time, it obviously wasn’t just us, as there were a lot of things going on. Our choice with Red Bull was a good choice. Both with Mobil lubricants and now our Esso synergy fuels so the combination is unique also. That didn’t happen before. We didn’t have that fuel arm of our business involved either, so we had a little bit more involved and a little bit more to play with from an analysis standpoint and more people interested in what value are we going to get.

Going back to the question of being with a manufacturer team, Renault is only affiliated to the team as a supplier, but there’s also Aston Martin on the car as a sponsor as well. Did you get anything direct with Aston Martin through there?

I think there have been some discussions; it’s a little bit disconnected because it’s not really an Aston Martin engineering (project) it’s more of a marketing piece. I know there was meetings with our senior management and the Aston Martin management. I’ve been personally at meetings with Aston Martin in previous years, it’s not an easy connection here as you would think because Aston Martin is using it as a marketing platform, if they were more technically involved I think you could. But who knows, maybe Aston Martin will some day be. But the door is open for those kind of discussions.

You are here in F1 for a reason, so what is the story you tell around your involvement?

Well for us in both the lubricants and the fuels we believe and we firmly believe that Formula 1 is the premier motorsport activity and if you can prove performance in Formula 1 you can prove performance in every day cars and general consumers and is that technology track to road applicable? Yes, absolutely.

And we have some good documentation of history and work that we’ve done with Formula 1 or other forms of racing where the technology has said ‘there’s something here, we should be looking at this technology for the future Mobil 1 product or the future fuel product’. It may be a few years away but that’s why we’re involved in motorsport. The marketing piece is half of it- probably more than half of it. Marketing is more an important part of.

For me, a technical guy, to be involved in motorsport is a nice thing to be involved with because we get to play with things. We get to play with molecules and we get to adjust things and we get to do some exciting things which normally in an everyday fuel or lubricant you don’t have that opportunity to do.

Are you going to be working with other Red Bull motorsport teams, series or with the Air Race?

I don’t know. Some of our marketing people get scared of that but we’ve had a relationship with other Red Bull jointly-sponsored racing-teams. We had a Formula Drift team in the US, that was Red Bull and Mobil 1. There have been involvements in other areas. I talked to the air racing thing but that was all marketing, it wasn’t really about fuel and lubricants. That’s actually an interesting question that I posed to our marketing people. What would we get involved with, what would we be afraid of and what would we be interested in because I think what reed bull does on a marketing side is phenomenal. Not necessarily the super extreme – a guy jumping out of a hot air balloon from space – which is crazy crazy but it’s just cool stuff that people like to see.

Do you benefit from that?

A little bit. But you have to remember each one of those is involved in different sponsors and different sports and I think we’ve tried to talk about putting pieces of that together from a marketing standpoint. I think what we get is just the overarching Red Bull brand in association with our brand. We have Red Bull and Mobil 1. do we think it elevates both of our brands? Yeah we do. Do we have Esso fuels and Red Bull? Yeah we think there’s something there. We sell Red Bull in service stations so there’s that piece that no-one actually put 2 and 2 together until they said ‘oh you guys are doing a deal with Red Bull I think they’re one of the bigger suppliers of product in our service stations’. You need a boost. I think in the UK we did a joint marketing thing with service stations and Red Bull.

So what are you trying to achieve from a performance and a reliability sense?

That’s the story that we want to continue to tell, that people like us that are involved, suppliers like Exxon Mobil that are involved with lubricants in fuels, are at the cutting edge of technology. We’re working at the highest levels of technology because our brands are representing that. Mobil 1 as a brand represents the best, we have to continue to be the best product. As for synergy fuels, this whole synergy fuels thing we’re working at is to elevate the whole concept of fuels, not just – our difference in the seven different parts of the fuel. We’re trying to get that message across around the world and if you’re not in high levels of performance, it’s hard to tell that story.

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47 comments

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1

What a load of waffle.

I wasted 5 minutes of my life reading that and learned nothing whatsoever.

What exactly is the reason they left McLaren and how do they think that their relationship with a chassis manufacturer relates to the Renault PU and it's own Elf products?

How does Renault feel about RBR specifying a different lubricant to the one the PU was designed for? They are not going to give away their secrets or be too happy about their rivals sneaking about in their backyard.

2

Every answer screamed of marketing waffle. Using lots of words but actually saying nothing at all.

This piece was a very good idea though just didn't quite come off.

3

I think they did kind of explain why they left McLaren...

So this was towards the end of the Ron Dennis era in McLaren’s management, was it caught up in all that?
“It was. At that time, it obviously wasn’t just us, as there were a lot of things going on. Our choice with Red Bull was a good choice.

And...

The marketing piece is half of it- probably more than half of it. Marketing is more an important part of.

Reading between the lines... 'Since Honda and McLaren rejoined their partnership with Ron at the helm, partnership has not made sense especially to the marketing team at Exxon-Mobil'.

There you go, got your 5mins of life back. You're welcome.

4

What did you expect from a marketing man in terms of straight answers?

Why did they leave? Because Mercedes was not anchoring that program and results and perception of McLaren were/are that it is a sinking ship. You don't need an interview to tell you this, and we can't expect that type of straight truth from marketing people. McLaren may be winning one day, and everyone will want their name on the car should that ever happen.

5

How does Renault feel about RBR using a different fuel and lubricants?
I don't think they do. I will get my lefty that they both run the same stuff. James has shown us previously with the Shell interactive thing how the fuel is adjusted but you can't tell that unless you have the engine on a dyno. So how is RBR supposed to be testing various fuel mixes to see which works best?
The only difference that Mobil 1 makes to the Redbulls is the colour of the stickers.

6

Hmmm. It seems that they don't really have a handle on what they get from this beyond the symbolism of being in F1. RBR isn't developing the engine- that'll be Renault, working with Total - so the R&D benefits have to be minimal, at least compared to what they would be even by staying with McLaren-Honda. From this, I conclude that Exxon got fed up with McLaren, Honda, Ron Dennis, the general tension of McLaren boardroom politics, or some combination of the above. If so, retaining an F1 image and presence meant they probably had little choice other than to go with RBR; the factories Ferrari, M-B, and Renault are all paired up with their own fuel and lubricant partners.

I wonder how the fuel and lubricant change has affected Honda?

7

In January of this year Renault has switched it's fuel/lubricant supplier from Total to BP/Castrol (oddly only some 2 weeks latter McLaren announced the switch to the same supplier).
So no more Total/Elf involved with Renault.

At the time Ciril Abiteboul commented that this (working with 2 fuel/lubricant suppliers) might be beneficial to Renault, by promoting competition between the different suppliers.
This benefit reminded to be seen, even more so with Honda side of Castrol involvment.

8

I conclude that Mobil got fed up with pouring squillions of dollars on a race car that can't even make it to the starting line or if it did would blow up in a cloud of smoke... hardly a great way to say how good your oil is!

9

i thought a fuel and oil campony would get the most impact being affiliated with an engine manufacturer rather than a racing team.
if mercedes say petronas make the best fuel and lubricants who am i not to believe that?

10

Wow..is that how easy it is for marketing propaganda to tell you how it is and we how it's gonna be?

11

as simple as that sebee.....i used mobil gtx when hamilton from 2008 because hamilton told me it was the best.

12

Blind faith? I will quote my Grandma.

"If Hamilton jumps off the bridge, would you?"

13

yes sebee, yes yes yes, i will..

14

yeah, but i'd first ask 'how high?'.

15

Now, just imagine if a customer team, let's say Williams or FI, got to,beat them using a different oil company. I think that's where Exxon Mobil are betting their buttocks on. So far so good, though.....

16

no need to imagine, red bull beat renault last season and are repeating it this season.

17

did you no that hamilton has won the canadian grand prix 6 times and not a single one of the current drivers has won it twice or more?
or better still, hamilton has won the canadian grand prix more times than all the other drivers put together?

18

like red bull is beating renault?

19

the oil companies get the most impact by supplying the factory to be poured into new cars as they come off the production line. That's where they make their money... plus of course at the dealer serving.
Petronas sponsoring MB is just a bribe (sorry I mean a Marketing Incentive) to sweeten the supplier agreement with the factory.

20

williams set pitstop records because they employed someone from outside f1 to analyse their sporting performance and coordinate them to achieve those times. not a thing to do with former maclaren employees.
most often, people quote percentage figures because they don't know the exact numbers...
we know that lowe and whitmarsh left maclaren, that doesn't mean 80% of the staff left..

21

if that's the case, then the oil companies are still better off partnering with a manufacturer rather than an f1 race team

22

I personally think that they no longer wanted to be associated with a bunch of total losers.

23

Are you saying Total are losers or McLaren/Honda?

24

At least Total is total lost. So they lost Total.

25

This was one of the telltale signs to me that Mclaren were not going in the right direction. When you lose one of the biggest companies in the world as a partner... and end up with BP? A long term partner too, all the while while not having a title sponsor. I'm honestly questioning Mclaren more and more. De la Rosa just said that all the Mclaren guys he knew are at Red Bull and other teams now. I think it's telling Williams are setting pit stop records while Mclaren aren't anywhere on that front.

26

williams employed a sports performance analyst from outside f1 to improve their pit stops, nothing to do with x maclaren staff..

27

williams employed a sports performance

Wasn't it Michael Johnson - or his company that did the work with Williams ? I'm sure I read or heard that somewhere .

28

you're right c63..

29

BP is one of the biggest companies in the world too...

30

There's not that big a gap between BP and Exxon. Number 6 vs No.4 largest Oil and Gas producers and only $35 Bill. behind in annual revenue.
But it still shows have far McLaren have fallen since their disastrous alliance with Honda began.
(and I'm "only" $35 billion away from being a billionaire!)

31

He could have saved people a lot of time and reading by just saying: Rats leaving a sinking ship(Honda) & marketing .. End of interview.

32

And the answer is.......?

33

Hey Frosty...
Good to finally see your head in a photo as you normally tend to avoid the TV Cameras. Keep up the good work.

34

Companies like to be connected and associated with success and that surely played a part in the switch of Exxon Mobile from McLaren to Redbull.
Now since they are working with Redbull and engineering their product for the Renault engine does that mean we will also see them supply the Renault works team also. James?

35

The only problem with that theory is that Red Bull haven't had much success since the new engine regs. I personally think it's so they can be associated with Verstappen.

36

True Laguna however they're options we're somewhat limited too. Outside of supplanting Shell from Ferrari and Petronas from Mercedes (neither of which was likely to say the least) they didn't really have any other direction they could go in.
As for the Vestappen connection, maybe, although I think its more to do with the opportunities outside of F1 as much as those within. The Red-Bull 'brand' is much bigger than one driver after-all.

37

Boy I miss Ronspeak xD
Isn't that Ron Dennis on disguise ?!
...
So Mobil1 left McLaren because Ron was against renewing the contract or the environment was too political convoluted to make a negotiation ???

38

TL,DR: Because of marketing

39

The crowd buying oil and oil based products is getting younger and they need to be seen to cater for that demographic.
|And its probably more fun for a load of old oil exec to be throwing shapes on the dancefloor at a red bull function than attending another stuffy mclaren seminar lol.

40

I couldn't get much out of the wordy answers either. I suspect they had just lost confidence in McLaren. I also wonder about McLarens direction. If they really are considering an Indy car involvement, does that mean they will call a spec-supplied Italian chassis a McLaren? What is McLaren if not a race car constructor?

41

The next time a RB Tick Tock engine blows up, will Exxon Mobil be getting the blame ?

42

I simply can't imagine that Mobil are supplying ANYTHING to RBR besides dollars for the advertising space on the car. Renault are working with their own lubricant/fuel supplier (Total) to finely tune that engine as best as possible and RBR MUST use the same stuff. Playing with molecules? Playing with something else I think 🙂

43

There's a lot of corporate waffle in here. I read it as Mobil 'techies' would have preferred to work with a manufacturer as more freedom and input but the 'marketeers' won the ear of the decision maker(s).

I'd be really interested to know the affect of selling cans of Red Bull in Esso service stations where Red Bull cars are everywhere you look when you're filling up. I'm sure there would be an increase in sales compared to stations where no Red Bull marketing, how much of an increase is what the marketing teams will be working out.

44

Clearly the reason Exxon left McLaren was because their employees on the project were being infected by Ron-speak. This whole interview is an example of how badly off some of them are after so many years of exposure. Exxon were forced to move to a team where their employees had a chance to be rehabilitated. Red Bull also gives you wings.

45
Stephen Kellett

"...and if you can prove performance in Formula 1 you can prove performance in every day cars and general consumers and is that technology track to road applicable? Yes, absolutely."

This is delusional.

Most people driving cars are looking for a place to fill their car at a reasonable price. They don't stop and fill at Esso or Mobil, etc, based on brand. It just doesn't happen, not for the majority of people. People stop because the price is *acceptable* (not necessarily the best), convenient, and you know you'll need fuel within X miles (where X is your own risk level, I bet most people it's about 100 miles).

People do not go, "My god, there's an Exxon Mobil station, I must fill up."
That's bullshit, it doesn't happen.

46

What I understand:
1) F1 is a good technical exercise, but on the lubricants and fuel bit there is very little a company like Exxon Mobil can do differently from one team to another except that it has its product perform at the highest levels in the sport (regardless of team)

2) The "Marketing" argument turned against McLaren - probably because of on-track performance fall off.

47

WHY MAJOR OIL COMPANY SPLIT WITH MCLAREN FOR RED BULL

Their engines didn't blow up.

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