2018 Launch News

Energy Drinks and F1: A Chequered History

Earlier this year, a little-known British energy drinks brand, Rich Energy, made waves when it pronounced itself as being on the verge of taking over the ailing Force India team. Although this supposed bid ultimately ended in confusion and acrimony – with the Racing Point consortium taking over and renaming the team, and Rich Energy’s bid dismissed as lacking substance – William Storey’s firm have refused to disappear: with the news last week that they are to become Haas’ new title sponsors for 2019. In the process, they’ll purportedly be painting the cars black and gold, in a similar fashion to the photoshopped image they Tweeted (having seemingly yanked it from a Lotus design by our old chum Sean Bull) back when the Force India rumours were around:

Whether or not this deal ends up actually happening – and if it does, if it ends up lasting – it’s the latest in a long line of energy drink partners getting involved with F1 teams. In some cases (well, one case) it’s a huge, internationally renowned brand buying not one, but two F1 teams and committing wholesale to them for well over a decade. But in other instances, a brand you’ve never heard of suddenly shows up on a sidepod for a few races and then disappears never to be heard from again. Indeed, if you’ve ever seen a random name on an F1 car and you’re not quite sure what the company does, then chances are, it’s a short-lived energy drink.

It’s unsurprising that the biggest energy drink brand in the world – the one that essentially brought the very concept to Western masses – is also the one with the longest history in F1. Red Bull were far from the massive corporate giant that they are now, however, when they first started sponsoring the Sauber team in 1995. Instead, they were an upstart young brand who were making waves through non-traditional and guerilla marketing efforts – and who saw F1 as a good way to further draw attention to themselves.

Their first F1 livery is still one of the best they’ve had – a smart dark blue effort that pushed their brand prominently without any real competition. But from 1996 onwards, they were forced to share the limelight at Sauber with Petronas, who brought their distinctive turquoise onto the car. Red Bull remained title sponsor through 2001, but were somewhat overshadowed in terms of identification with the team by Petronas’ badging of Sauber’s Ferrari engine deal from 1997 onwards. So it was perhaps unsurprising that they reduced their involvement with the team from 2002 onwards.

Not least because they had also moved into individual driver sponsorship, having founded a driver development programme at the turn of the century. Having started to bring drivers up to F1 via their “Red Bull Junior Team” (a rebranding of RSM Marko) in Formula 3000, their branding made it onto the Arrows of Enrique Bernoldi in 2001 and 2002, and Christian Klien’s Jaguar in 2004.

In 2005, of course, they purchased the latter team – in the process ending their Sauber deal – and the rest is history. Despite initial scepticism over whether or not they would stick it out, they turned the Milton Keynes-based squad into one of the most successful and enduring F1 teams of the modern era, winning consecutive drivers and constructors championship doubles between 2010 and 2013. And they bought the ailing Minardi team at the end of 2005, turning them into their secondary Scuderia Toro Rosso outfit which has similarly endured.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that other energy drinks brands have looked at Red Bull and decided they might want a piece of F1 themselves. And actually, while Red Bull’s sponsorship of Sauber began at the start of 1995, it was later that same season that another brand began a long association with the sport, in the shape of Hype Energy.

Hype was launched in 1994 by one of the founders of the Hard Rock Cafe, and made its first appearance on an F1 car in 1995, taking over a significant part of the Arrows (Footwork) car from the Portugese Grand Prix onwards.

For 1996, however, Hype set their sights further up the grid – and nabbed a smaller, but more prestigious, slot on the barge boards of the then-constructors’ champions, Benetton.

And the following year, they sponsored that year’s reigning champions, in exactly the same place on the side of the Williams; and with the same strategy of using a bright fluorescent colour that was totally at odds with the rest of the livery and had the presumably desired effect of making people go “What the hell is this Hype thing?”

By the end of 1997, however, Hype had left the paddock, concentrating on other areas of motorsport instead. But their association with F1 didn’t end there, as former Jordan driver Bertrand Gachot got involved with their distribution, eventually becoming the company’s CEO. In 2014, he got them back into the sport by way of a deal with Caterham driver Andre Lotterer – and the following year, they began to sponsor Force India, which they continue to do to this day.

It’s worth noting, incidentally, that Hype only became available to buy here in the UK earlier this year. Indeed, non-availability in many of the countries that watch the sport is often a recurring theme for energy drinks brands that get into F1. Take Power Horse, one of the earliest competitors to Red Bull. They entered F1 during that same mid-90s heyday – in fact, they replaced Hype as a sponsor of the Arrows team in 1996, having debuted earlier that year briefly on the Ligier.

Arrows had two different liveries in ’96 – they switched to an all over red and blue scheme when TWR took over fully – but although Power Horse were a prominent sponsor, neither livery was based around their silver and red colour scheme. The same was true in 1997, when Arrows switched to a white and blue livery, with Danka as their title sponsor. Power Horse continued to sponsor the team with a prominent rear wing slot – but dropped out partway through the season amid rumours of financial difficulties.

The brand still exists, but is not generally available in the UK. Amusingly, Power Horse also had a corner named after it at the Osterreichring, during the 1996-2003 period when it was known as the A1-Ring. Unsurprisingly, the name did not continue when Red Bull bought the circuit.

1997 seems to have been the peak year for energy drink products appearing on cars – as, along with Red Bull on the Sauber, Hype on the Williams and Power Horse on the Arrows, there was another tie-up – NRG, who had a small sponsorship deal with Tyrrell for that year only. Like Red Bull and Power Horse, NRG hailed from Austria – but they were a much shorter-lived venture and seem to have disappeared by around the turn of the century.

Meanwhile, maybe there was just something about the Arrows team that made energy drinks want to sponsor them, but there was a fifth such brand that made an appearance on their cars between the mid-1990s and their 2002 demise. This one, however, was a doozy. It all began in 1999, when Nigerian Prince Malik Ado Ibrahim bought a 25% stake in the team. As part of his marketing efforts, he came up with a brand called T-Minus, which was initially trailed mysteriously via a “countdown” on the cars’ sidepods over the course of several races.

When it was finally unveiled, it transpired that T-Minus was intended as a brand that could be licensed and applied to products by other partners. Whether or not it was actually a viable enterprise, we would never really find out – as Ibrahim, and the brand, had disappeared from F1 before the season was out. In the process, pretty much the only product that had ever made it out into the world with the T-Minus label on it was… you guessed it, an energy drink.

T-Minus wasn’t the only short-lived F1 related energy drink to make it into the world, either. In 2001, Eddie Jordan was emboldened by his team’s successes both on the track and in marketing over the preceding few years, and spun off his brand into a drink named EJ-10 (although curiously, the car of the same name had actually already finished competing, having run in the 2000 season). As with T-Minus, Jordan’s intent was that the name and branding could be applied across a wide range of different products licensed by other partners.

While it was initially successful, however, the drink’s launch coincided with a downturn in Jordan’s fortunes both on and off the track. They lost their famous Benson & Hedges title sponsorship (although the brand would still appear on the car in reduced form for a few more seasons), and were embroiled in a court case with Vodafone over a deal that was purportedly designed to replace it. Suddenly, having a vanity brand on the car looked less like the work of a team on the up, and more like one desperately filling space. In 2003 and 2004, the cars carried the branding of the spinoff drink V-10 (essentially an EJ-10 and vodka cocktail) but the writing was on the wall.

EJ-10’s failure didn’t put off other teams from trying to launch their own brands, though: and when Tony Fernandes’ newly-founded Lotus team pitched up in 2010, they quickly tried to branch out into the energy drink field as well. LR8 was the name of their “all natural” energy drink (named for “Lotus Racing” and the eight ingredients, apparently). Despite sharing a can design with one of my favourite ever car liveries, however, the brand quickly hit a snag, thanks to the dispute over the use of the name “Lotus”.

While the team were still called Lotus in 2011, Fernandes moved quickly to rebrand the energy drink, with his team’s cars carrying the new brand EQ8 (no, I don’t know what it stands for either) for the next two seasons. EQ8 actually proved quite successful, making it onto UK high street shelves – but as Caterham began to struggle financially in late 2013 and 2014, the brand seemed to gradually disappear. It had a small presence on the first iteration of the 2014 Caterham livery, and also served as naming sponsor for Caterham’s GP2 outfit; but was nowhere to be seen once Fernandes sold the team later in the year.

A rather more successful drinks brand, Lucozade, had a brief flirtation with F1 in the early 2010s, sponsoring McLaren between late 2011 and 2013. Their logo alternated rear wing space with the team’s title sponsors Vodafone, and given that it came so soon after Red Bull won their first title, it’s hard not to see the linkup as a deliberate bit of spoiling. Unfortunately for Lucozade, though, the sponsorship coincided with a significant dip in McLaren’s form, and when the team launched their Vodafone-less silver and black livery at the start of 2014, Lucozade were similarly nowhere to be seen.

Of the various energy drink brands that have proven consistent competitors to Red Bull rather than flash in the pans in recent years, Monster Energy are perhaps the most prominent, with a marketing portfolio across a variety of different sports. They began sponsoring Mercedes in 2010, but stepped up their involvement once Lewis Hamilton joined the team.

Interestingly, Monster don’t position themselves so much as a sponsor of the Mercedes team, as they do of the drivers individually – Hamilton prominently, and Bottas almost kind of by extension/default – and they don’t brand on the cars themselves, only on the drivers’ helmets and uniforms. They’re a popular brand for fan livery designers to base cars on, though, and we wouldn’t be completely surprised if they stepped up their involvement to become a major title sponsor – if not of Mercedes then potentially elsewhere – in future years.

It’s clear, then, that Rich Energy are looking to improve their standing in a crowded market, by getting visibility in an area where two of the biggest players are (in one case extremely) prominent. Will they be another Red Bull, or another T-Minus? Haas obviously believe in them, having elected to give up title sponsorship of the team for the first time, but scepticism over their role in the Force India saga remains. Either way, we’ll find out next year…

2 Comments on Energy Drinks and F1: A Chequered History

  1. Did you forgot Burn, that was sponsoring now-dead Lotus?

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