Heads-up for hydrocarbon heritage

BP-Castrol’s return to Formula 1 as a partner to McLaren-Honda has been announced.  This news has got the F1 community rather excited – let’s face it, any new sponsor announcement is a novelty in F1 these days – but it’s perfectly simple and logical step to have taken.

Castrol is arguably the most prolific partner to motor manufacturers in competiton, attached to Ford in GT racing, V8 Supercars and the World Rally Championship; Volkswagen Group in the World Endurance Championship, World Rally Championship*, World Rallycross Championship, German Touring Car Championship and European Rally Championship; Volvo in the World and Swedish Touring Car Championships and Kia in Global Rallycross.

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Kia is among the multitude of brands supported by Castrol

It is also partnered with Honda teams in the World and British Touring Car Championships, MotoGP and World Superbike championships.  Adding Honda’s F1 programme to the roster comes as Audi withdraws from Le Mans and, crucially, allows partner brand BP the chance to produce high-tech superfuels, which it couldn’t in sports car racing because arch-rival Shell is the official fuel provider.

Is all of this going to generate excitement in the grandstands?  Probably not.  Fuel and oil are distress purchases, even to the die-hard motoring enthusiast.  The key to selling more product is therefore either to have more filling stations, which are costly to maintain, or to have lots of motor manufacturers bulk buying your products at the source.

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Castrol and Honda have a history dating back to the 1959 Isle of Man TT

Ultimately, then, BP-Castrol is moving the chips around in the high stakes game of its commercial relationships with the motor manufacturers.  If the contract to supply lubricants to Honda’s customers worldwide comes up for renewal in a year or two, it’s rather handy to have already agreed three years’ sponsorship of the crown jewels, is it not?

Nevertheless, the drums are already beating with heritage stories, so let’s have a little look, shall we?  Charles Wakefield founded his lubricants company in 1899, and in 1906 developed new, lighter products for the growing number of cars and aeroplanes by adding castor oil – hence Castrol.  Meanwhile, BP began as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909.

Wakefield Castrol Motor Oil, Vintage Land Speed Record poster. S

During World War 1, Castrol was vitally important to many of the engines being put to work in the world’s first fully mechanized conflict, with rotary aero engines needing liberal amounts of castor oil to operate at altitude.  Shell cornered the market on high quality fuels for aviation and Burmah and Anglo-Persian produced the heavy oils needed for shipping.

After the war, Castrol focused upon motor sport to sell its brand: witness the world record breaking aeroplanes and cars and the associated advertising, be it Amy Johnson’s flight from London to Australia or Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird on Daytona Beach.

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Ever since those times, the scrap between Castrol and Shell for hearts and minds has been played out through promoting the sporting successes of their partners.  On balance, Shell has held the upper hand in motor sport thanks to 60 wins at Le Mans plus a heritage of Grand Prix wins with Auto Union, Mercedes-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari and McLaren-Honda (amongst many others).

Castrol’s strongest associations have often been in rallying; a legacy of having former BMC and Ford team principal Stuart Turner heading up its communications programmes.  It has also focused on the Land Speed Record (although many of the cars and aeroplanes have been fuelled by Shell). In contrast, BP has only played a minor role in developing successful competition fuels.

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Since the merger of BP and Castrol in 2000, there has been BP branding for its Ultimate branded premium fuel on Ford’s World Rally Championship cars and the BMW and latterly Audi DTM cars but little real technical endeavour.  It is certainly going to have to work hard and fast to get up to speed in developing the sacred 1% difference between pump fuel and race fuel permitted in modern Formula 1.

The fuel and oil brands are undoubtedly going to trumpet their heritage of success in the months and seasons ahead, which should at the very least make for some interesting diversions at events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Le Mans and the more important Grands Prix of the year. It’s all part of the game, and means that there should be plenty to look out for at the S&G when it comes to historic hydrocarbons!

*Edit: Since this post was published, Volkswagen has announced its withdrawal from the WRC, effective from the end of the year.

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