Coca Cola and McLaren

It’s an interesting rumour, and one which has been doing the rounds in recent weeks. But just how likely is the much vaunted tie-up between McLaren and Coca Cola?

To be honest, the initial concept was one which excited me. I’d heard the rumour from a number of paddock sources over the past two months: namely, that when Vodafone’s title sponsorship of the team ends (with some sources claiming it will finish prematurely at the end of this season), Coca Cola will step in. Even a livery had apparently been mooted, a sort of homage to the old Marlboro livery we so associate with McLaren. White and red, lest we not forget, are also Coca Cola’s corporate colours.

I tweeted words to the effect that I’d heard a rumour over a possible Vodafone replacement, but that before I could be sure, some digging was needed. And the more I’ve looked into it, I’m afraid to say the less likely a link up seems.

There is one pretty major hurdle that stands in the way of any such deal, and that is McLaren’s link with GlaxoSmithKline. Now the McLaren, GSK link isn’t as simple as a sponsorship deal. When it was announced back in September 2011, the deal was described as being a “long-term strategic partnership” with an initial run time to 2016.

The project and partnership is designed to see the two companies work directly alongside one another. It runs much deeper than a simple sponsorship. Indeed, a “brand-new state-of-the-art learning facility will be constructed as part of the agreement. It will be called the McLaren GSK Centre for Applied Performance and will be located alongside the existing award-winning McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, Surrey. Employees from both organisations, and other partners, will be able to use the facility to share ideas and collaborate on innovative, dynamic and exciting joint working projects.”

This facility is due to be opened next year… the year this rumoured Coca Cola deal is due to begin.

Lucozade sponsorship on the McLaren
c/o James Moy Photography

GSK already has branding on the McLaren in the form of large Lucozade logos on the car’s rear wing. Lucozade, an energy drink, has certain major competitors in the market place. Red Bull, of course, is an obvious example. So too is Powerade, an energy drink owned by none other than the Coca Cola Company.

It seems fairly simple. For as long as the GSK partnership exists, a Coca Cola tie in would be nigh on impossible.

But McLaren and Coca Cola do have history. Think back to the late 1990s and into the 2000s. The McLarens carried Schweppes logos. Schweppes is part of the Coca Cola group. Why did Coca Cola not continue that sponsorship? If Formula 1 was no longer the right vehicle for Schweppes, why should it be for Coca Cola? Yes the two brands have vastly different identities, but Schweppes, a Coca Cola company, pulled out at a time when Red Bull was starting to make serious inroads commercially and was on the verge of launching its own team. So worried were both the Coca Cola Company and PepsiCo about the threat posed by Red Bull that they either launched or bought their own brand of energy drink, Pepsi purchasing SoBe, and Coca Cola launching its own Full Throttle brand.

Now, is Coca Cola giving Formula 1 a serious look? From what I understand of the situation, yes it is. But is that look being made in relation to the title sponsorship of McLaren? No, I don’t believe that it is.

Hypothetically speaking, if I was Coca Cola, and I was seriously thinking about trying to take on Red Bull in motorsport, I know exactly where I would start. It’d take some selling, but I would start in GP2.

Justin Wilson (GBR)
Formula 3000 International Championship, 2001

Back in 2001 and 2002, Coca Cola title sponsored the Nordic Racing F3000 team running, amongst others, Tomas Enge, Ryan Briscoe and Justin Wilson. The Briton was even crowned champion in 2001 carrying Coca Cola sponsorship on his bright red Lola and overalls. And yet Coke pulled out after two years and having won the title.

So Coke has already been a presence in an F1 feeder category and decided to jump ship. But just as Formula 1 is a different proposition to the championship that Schweppes was a part of, so GP2 is a different game to F3000. The big difference, in terms of Coca Cola’s brand, is that GP2 is the one championship on earth that Red Bull won’t touch. Ever since their logos left the Arden cars, Red Bull has had no official link with the championship and has placed not a single one of their junior drivers in the series. The door, at least from Coke’s perspective, is wide open.

Take title sponsorship of a team. Hell, take naming rights for the championship. Get that Coca Cola logo on every podium, on every set of race overalls, on every car, and then they might start to see some return, start building a presence at F1 events, before making the move across to the big paddock.

Coca Cola may remain one of the single largest and most recognisable brands on earth, but it still loses out to Red Bull in certain new key demographics. Take a nightclub, for example. Of an evening, how many people will ask for a vodka and coke, and how many will ask for a vodka Red Bull?

Red Bull dominates top level motor racing. Motor Racing remains, across the globe, a very cool, aspirational sport, in particular to those very same people ordering a vodka Red Bull in a bar or a club. Red Bull has the energy drink and the motorsport marketing angles completely sewn up. It would be no surprise to see Coca Cola try to take on that dominance. Indeed, it has already started in America, taking naming rights to NASCAR races, and title sponsorship of Drag Racing championships though numerous brands including Coca Cola and Full Throttle. Some voices have even claimed Coca Cola may choose to purchase a rival energy drink such as Monster in order to take on Red Bull. But with Coca Cola already owning Powerade, Full Throttle, not to mention Relentless which is already Monster’s major rival, why would they need to?

Does Coke need to enter F1 to help this push? I can see the arguments asking why they’d even bother. But imagine how much Coca Cola spends on sponsoring major sporting events such as the recent Euro 2012 soccer tournament or the upcoming London Olympics. Now tell me why spending a fraction of that on F1 sponsorship wouldn’t be worth their while?

Of course this whole thing has cropped up because of rumours Vodafone will be pulling out of its commitments with McLaren. This is yet to be confirmed, and there is a lot of assumption going on that they won’t continue with title sponsorship of the team. The world’s largest telecommunications company has come under massive pressure over the past two years with regard to alleged unpaid tax amounting to billions of pounds of lost revenue to the UK tax office, with India also taking the company to task over tax issues.

Meanwhile, all is not rosy at GSK. GlaxoSmithKline announced an agreement to pay $3 billion in fines to US Federal prosecutors for promoting its antidepressants for unapproved uses and neglecting to report safety data about one of its diabetes drugs. While there has been no discussion that this will affect their ongoing relationship and partnership with McLaren, GSK will certainly have taken a knock.

Regardless of Vodafone or GSK’s plight, Coca Cola in F1 would be huge news.

Will its entry ultimately be with McLaren? I doubt it.

But will Coca Cola enter Formula 1? As Coca Cola? I really do hope so.

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19 thoughts on “Coca Cola and McLaren

  1. Two comments:
    1) At corporate level, and F1 sponsorhsip is decided at Corporate level, Coca Cola never sponsors teams or players, always championships, look the world cup or their sponsoring for the Brazilian national team. It is their policy. An exception is on country level where they can sponsor one national hero or place billboards.
    2) Schweppes belonged to Cadburry Schweppes when it was a sponsor of McLaren in the past.

  2. Nice post, Will! Very informative and thorough. I am from the U.S. and would certainly like to see a bigger commercial presence from our “big business” other than the likes of GSK. It would be great visibility for our fan base and newcomers alike.

  3. I thought the coke sponsorship in f3000 was the local bottler and distributor in the czech republic and not actually coca-cola.

  4. Will,

    Great blog, can I ask though why do Mclaren not run the classic red and white livery now? They no longer have backing from Mercedes and I always thought they should revert back to the old “Marlboro” style livery even if its just for Monaco

    • The red and white was very distinct to Marlboro. Like the JPS livery. Some people would say the black and gold works on the new Lotus. Others would say it should have remained in history with JPS. The West livery was distinctive, but when they left and Vodafone took over it was a very natural livery to adapt to the new sponsor. The silver and “rocket red” has become McLaren’s thing now. For how long, nobody knows.

  5. Well there already is this team with a red and white livery…though not sure Phillip Morris would appreciate it :)

  6. Maybe Coca-Cola has a Grand Plan. With the 10 year USGP contract starting this year and the probable New Jersey GP next year Coke would do well to get back into F1 as there are so few US-based companies in high profile F1 marketing deals. Perhaps Coke has taken the initiative to feed on GSK’s financial woes and offer to buy Lucozade. This would solidify Coke’s European sports drink market, and GSK would get a financial shot in the arm.

  7. =Don’t forget that this is Formula One. Mclaren aren’t afraid to grenade new partners if they feel a newer, better partner comes along, even if that second partner is signed milleseconds after the first. Examples: Prost/Senna, Chrysler/Peugeot, BMW/Mercedes, Alonso/Hamilton.

    Mclaren comes first at Mclaren.

  8. Perhaps I am seeing a trend here. Last night on TV Nissan(Renault) commercial featured F1 looking open wheel cars in the ad!
    Looking like they were racing them on streets of NY
    The Female passenger asks a “Driver” for directions. The Driver in helmet(Vettel look -a-like) does not reply
    She states “he is not from around here” The open wheel cars all wearing the “Powered by Renault” badge on the engine cover

    Perhaps the start of something new?

  9. Are you sure that Schweppes’ former participation in F1 came from Coca-Cola? Schweppes in general is actually owned by the Dr Pepper group (which was formerly known as Cadbury Schweppes), and it is only distributed by Coca-Cola in certain countries (source: Also, as someone else said Coke’s bottlers and distributors are very independent and may have undertaken previous sponsorship on their own.

  10. Since Mclaren changed to the Maximuscle sponsor in Hungary (, does this remove the conflict or is there still a contract in place with GSK? If not then this surely adds weight to the possibility of Coca Cola stepping in next season

    • Never mind I just realised Maximuscle is owned by GSK. Got far too excited, I’d love to see Coca Cola in F1

  11. Powerade isn’t an energy drink in the same sense that Red Bull is. Powerade is an athletic recovery drink (competitor to Gatorade in the United States).

  12. McLaren does indeed have a history with Coke, just not the one that Will cited with Schweppes. If you dig up photos of the M8F’s driven by Hulme and Revson in the 1971 Can-Am series, the Coke logo appears prominently on the rear-wing endplates.

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