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.