Why do Automakers Invest in Racing?

Audi and Maserati are the latest companies to announce upcoming participation in racing. The relationship between urban and competition cars is deeper than you think

Everyone knows that racing is an expensive sport. Teams have to invest a fortune to hire the best workers, another fortune to build the best car, and yet another fortune to transport such infrastructure around the world race after race. It is difficult to make ends meet even with their majestic sponsorship contracts.

Everyone also knows that the car industry is going through a tough moment now. Everyone is pushing for electrification, but the scenario is still not as favorable as it could be. Automakers need to invest a lot now and hope for demand to rise later. And yet, several of them also spare to invest in racing. Why is that?

Alfa Romeo’s racing experience dates back to the 1940s (source: WheelsAge)

Racing is more than a sport

Pressure is high in both fields, but it is also different in each one. Urban cars have to make money, so their makers design them to make compromises. Some cars trade performance for mileage, others end up ugly to maximize their internal room… Everyone knows that it is impossible to make a car good at everything.

1951 Ferrari 500 F2 (source: WheelsAge)

When it comes to competitions, we have the opposite scenario: the cars are meant to be the best. Teams exhaustively work on every single part in order to reduce weight, improve aerodynamics, increase power… they strive to optimize the car in every single way while complying with the race’s regulations, of course.

Engines are an example that clearly illustrates that difference. In urban cars, they have lower performance because they have to resist years and thousands of miles of regular use. Racing engines, in turn, deliver maximum performance at the expense of lasting literally one or two races. It is a whole different context.

There are many competitions that use modified production cars, like the 1963 Mercedes-Benz SL (source: WheelsAge)

The best of both worlds

In short, coveting the first place drives automakers to research new technologies. And those, with proper adaptations, eventually trickle down to production cars. Most companies have divisions specialized in that work. They reinterpret new solutions to make them reliable and affordable enough to be used every day.

1972 Lancia Stratos (source: WheelsAge)

Audi and Porsche, for example, have raced with hybrid and diesel technologies. Honda has created many aftermarket components based on what works well in competition cars. And countless automakers have designed car models following principles of aerodynamics which were initially put to practice in races.

Now, we must not forget the emotional appeal. Racing is a sport and, as such, has fervorous fans around the world. Winning race after race builds hype around the team and that always affects the urban division to some extent. After all, who does not enjoy bragging rights? Especially when you can advertise them?

1975 Ford Escort RS1800 (source: WheelsAge)

Homologation specials

This topic inevitably leads us to a specific variation. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, stock-car race categories required manufacturers to build a certain number of cars for street use. The goal was to ensure they were stock cars, that is, the cars were not optimized to the point of no longer being appropriate for urban use.

1987 Peugeot 205 T16 Dakar (source: WheelsAge)

Since typical urban cars would not be suitable to race, automakers went the other way around. They built racing cars that could be driven on city streets. That has led them to create wonders such as the Peugeot 205 T16 and the Ford Escort Cosworth, not to mention the very first BMW M3 and Subaru Impreza WRX.

That racing requirement has largely ended by now, but its concept persists. There are important benefits to enjoy from integrating both versions of cars even when they are not as close as homologation specials. Recent initiatives, like Audi’s and Maserati’s mentioned above, are only exploring them in a different way.

1996 Dodge Viper GTS-R (source: WheelsAge)

Urban and racing cars today

While we said above that racing is a sport, we have to admit it is a luxury sport. Having that in mind is key to understanding what carmakers are doing these days. Aston Martin, Mercedes-AMG, and many others are using their presence in global competitions to advertise their urban car models to wealthy customers.

2005 Chevrolet Monte Carlo NASCAR Race car (source: WheelsAge)

This has become more important than ever because the car market is undergoing complex changes. The rise of electrification has put traditional automakers on the same grounds as newcomers in many aspects. Excellence in racing has become a way for the former ones to prove they are still relevant in nowadays.

From now on, we can expect racing and urban cars to strengthen their connection even more. Companies have understood that such integration brings valuable tangible benefits while the emotional appeal helps reel in new customers. Does your favorite automaker already compete in races? If so, in what categories?

Renault keeps celebrating the R5's fiftieth anniversary. Check out all about the Turbo 3E concept right here!