After races in Australia, Malaysia and Bahrain, the Formula One circus returned to home ground this week as the motorhomes of the drivers and teams pulled into the historic Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit near Imola in Italy. The San Marino Grand Prix means a return to the European Grand Prix lifestyle which is of necessity, very different to the fly-away rounds. It's where magnficent, luxurious, purpose-built surrounding can be driven to the circuit to make life more bearable, more fun and more efficient for 11 of the 19 race meetings each year. It's where the world first sees each new mine's-bigger-than-yours motorhome. It's where the world first saw McLaren's portable and palatial F1 nerve centre and this weekend, it gave us the first glimpse of what will surely become one of the most notorious and elite high-tech nightclubs on the planet - the Red Bull Energy Station.
It was fairly predictable really. Here's the scenario. A fellow by the name of Dietrich Mateschitz started selling Red Bull energy drink in Austria in 1987. In 1992 it expanded beyond Austria for the first time and thanks to a marketing campaign based around over-the-top, extreme living, Red Bull has become one of the best known brands in the world in a very short space of time. As the world's best known and top selling energy drink, synonymous with staying up all night, partying and extreme sports, Red Bull sponsors and aligns its brand values with a raft of sports that include ice climbing, BASE jumping, adventure racing, cliff diving, aerobatic flying, BMX, skateboarding, street luge, ad infinitum.
Mateschitz has long recognised Formula One Racing's global profile and audience reach and for the last few years has sponsored Formula One team Sauber before getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pick up the Jaguar Formula One Team when Ford decided to bail out of F1.
Mateschitz's golden touch is already paying dividends in his new venture. Inheriting a car that was simply uncompetitive in 2004, the old machine has somehow grown wings in 2005 and inexplicably found a degree of competitiveness that was not there in 2004. On top of that, Mateschitz picked up one of the most talented and marketable racing drivers available, David Coulthard, just as he had been dumped from top team McLaren, and gave him a chance to stay at the elite level on a significantly reduced salary and with something to prove.
In four races so far this year the Red Bull team has scored points from five of eight opportunities, with Coulthard delivering a fourth, sixth and eighth places for fifth place overall in the championship table, and second driver Christian Klien a seventh and eighth for sixteenth overall. Those results see Red Bull sitting in sixth place in the constructors championship, in stellar company, two points behind Williams BMW. Household names such as BAR Honda, Sauber Petronas and Jordan who were all expected to trounce Red Bull are all still behind them on the table.
Formula One offers a global reach like no other sport - 350 million television viewers per race globally, massive publicity in emerging markets such as China, and a part of the European culture. With pin-up boy Coulthard commanding a fair share of the global TV audience time, and some extreme brand values to live up to, the Red Bull Energy Station was predictable.
As the Official Formula One site stated in its headline, "Red Bull takes hospitality to a new level." The official site's article on the Red Bull hospitality bohemoth really sums it up in the first paragraph. "There had been plenty of speculation about the new Red Bull motorhome - how big would it be? How stylish? How cool? How much party room? How much Red Bull? Unbelievably, what greeted the paddock was even bigger and better than anyone had expected."
In terms of size, the Red Bull Energy Station is massive. Indeed, it is much bigger than any of the motorhomes that had often been described as palatial by those scribes lucky enough to be invited inside. As www.formula1.com stated, it makes "motorhomes previously dubbed palaces look like mere gazebos. "
It has three floors, the top story being a sunroof. "It is truly unique and takes a completely different "open house‚" approach, both in terms of its architecture and the welcome it provides to guests, media and anyone else who cares to stroll in‚" explained Claudio Hatz, the interior designer on the project. "We have adopted a different philosophy with this unit, which takes some of its inspiration from the unit we used in MotoGP."
Working alongside Hatz was the Austrian design company, Kitz Exclusive. "The fact that the structure has to be assembled and dismantled before and after every European race and in some cases, repeated in time for the following weekend, was the biggest challenge. In terms of the concept, it meant we put functionality as the top priority, rather than design. For example, the glass floors are made with a special silicate to ensure the panels don't break in transit."
For its debut race at Imola, 40 people spent three days erecting the facility, although these numbers should come down to 25 people and 2 days after this first outing. Transport is taken care of by nine trucks and when it is up and running two electricians and two technicians are on duty, while catering involves five chefs and five front-of-house staff.
On Saturdays, a guest chef will be on hand and this week, it's Roland Trettl, who can usually be found in the kitchens at Red Bull's Hangar-7 in Salzburg. The Hangar-7 restaurant successfully employs a rotating guest-chef where the world's best-known celebrity chefs take up residence in the Hangar's restaurant for a month at a time, ensuring that regular clientele have a never-ending culinary journey at the same restaurant. Not convention, but 100% par for the course for the off-beat, question-everything brand associations.
"The main difficulty with this project is that we had no experience to base it on‚" continued Hatz. "What was difficult? It's easier to tell you what wasn't difficult! Actually the hardest thing was perfecting the hydraulically operated roof, which shuts down the upper terrace in the event of rain."
Then of course there's the hospitality supplied by the Red Bull hostesses. Red Bull's penchant for over-the-top hospitality is known the world over, and ranges from the famous Hangar - 7 venue, restaurant, museum and centre of sensory experiences in Salzburg, through its famous parties. At this year's Fosters Australian Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne, the Red Bull Racing Launch Party was held in a converted warehouse/wharf and was no misnomer in being labelled "Party Of The Decade." Estimates of the cost of the party ranged as high as US$2.5 million.