Behind the scenes F1: Why major oil company split with McLaren for Red Bull

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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