x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

A race to the finish and back to the start

Could a rise in recalls by car manufacturers be tied to their withdrawal from auto racing?

BMW is desperate to widen the Mini's appeal.
BMW is desperate to widen the Mini's appeal.

This week's column may be riddled with more errors than usual. In fact, it is possible that in a few days I may have to recall it. I am in good company.

Because along with the public relations people who every few days issue a press release - then minutes later send another e-mail saying they want to recall it, which of course makes you much more interested in what you previously ignored - motor car companies have been busy recalling their cars.

Toyota has been having trouble with its brake fluids and fuel pumps; Nissan with its brake master cylinders. Over the past year Toyota alone has recalled more than 10 million cars and trucks. It is no surprise that the Baltic Dry Goods Index is back at record levels, up nearly 11.5 per cent last month. It is all the cars going backwards and forwards along the shipping lanes.

I have no scientific proof for this, but I can't help thinking that these car makers' malaise stems from the fact that they have withdrawn from motor racing, most specifically Formula One, which has just rolled into town. Nothing improves a car or a company more than making it compete at the highest level.

Something similar happened to me when I started to play football in Hyde Park every Monday night 10 or so years ago. Up against me were some of the finest touch players in London. They might have been pushing 40, but they retained much of the guile of their youth, if not their figures.

In the words of the oldest business cliche, I had to adapt or die. In fact, I did neither, although one poor fellow did keel over and was recalled to his maker, never to be seen among the plane trees again.

But it's not just F1 that helps car makers raise their games. Although BMW is linked by name with the Sauber-Ferrari team, it is another famous brand missing from this year's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix grid. Like Honda and Toyota (and, to a lesser degree, Renault which is now largely privately owned), the German purveyor of the Ultimate Driving Machines have reacted to the global recession by quitting F1.

You could say all three have used the recession as a convenient excuse to pull the plug on what were hugely expensive and far from glorious F1 programmes.

BMW, though, hasn't entirely turned its back on motor sport as a marketing communications platform. It has recently confirmed plans to re-enter its domestic touring car championship and, on an international front, has announced plans to prepare its Mini brand for the World Rally Championship.

While this could be seen as an emotional decision, there are very real commercial reasons behind the decision. BMW is desperate to widen the appeal of the Mini brand and to that end is introducing more and more derivations; it even launched a prototype Mini electric scooter at the recent Paris Auto Show.

Its latest four-wheeled Mini is the sizeable four-door Countryman, nicknamed the "Mini Hummer" on account of its considerable bulk, although it would take a braver man than me to take one for a spin along Sheikh Zayed Road.

The introduction of the more macho Countryman gives BMW a chance to start selling significantly more cars to men, and not just short ones. The World Rally Championship offers BMW the perfect marketing platform as it boasts a 90 per cent male audience. (The other 10 per cent probably think it's a shopping channel that's gone off on a tangent).

My spies tell me that BMW has commissioned the renowned UK motorsport specialist Prodrive to prepare the Mini for competition. Prodrive is run by the entrepreneur David Richards, who doubles as the chairman of Aston Martin, James Bond's favourite car (at least in the early films). Both companies have considerable shareholdings from Kuwaiti investors.

While there are no BMWs on the Abu Dhabi GP grid, it may not be long before we see them back competing in the UAE as Abu Dhabi is bidding for a round of the World Rally Championship. If this bid is successful we could see a new generation of Mini rally cars earning their spurs whizzing up Jebel Hafeet rather than just the Alps.

This will be good news for buyers of BMW - the 7 series is particularly popular here - for their favourite wheels will now be tested at the highest level.

My only advice to buyers of BMWs is never to buy a pink one. I can't help thinking that everything made in pink, cleverly aimed at the female market, is absolutely useless. My wife is a sucker for this sort of nonsense. In her time she has bought pink mobile phones (they pack up after days), a SatNav (fine until you need a hasty decision, at which point it freezes) and even a pink tennis racquet (it seemed to have no sweet spot, and hardly a middle at all).

If you must buy pink things, stick to ice cream or raspberries.

Til nxet weeke. Oh no, recall.