Coulthard's finish lifts Red Bull's fortunes

Updated: May 29, 2006, 8:41 PM ET
By Michael Kelley | Special to ESPN.com

It's probable that the happiest man after Sunday's Formula One Monaco Grand Prix wasn't race winner Fernando Alonso, or his Renault team boss Flavio Briatore, or even hard charger Michael Schumacher, who stormed through the field from the last row to finish fifth for Ferrari. It was Dietrich Mateschitz.

Mateschitz, you'll recall, is the owner of the wildly successful Red Bull drinks franchise and two somewhat less accomplished F1 teams, at least to date. He's currently the only man operating more than one stable in the sport and has shelled out hundreds of millions of dollars in purchase and development costs for the privilege.

That's why David Coulthard's surprise third-place finish after 78 laps through the streets of Monte Carlo, the team's first podium result under Mateschitz, must have been the stuff to send the owner head over heels with joy. It might be a sign that his investments in the sport are about ready to pay off.

When billionaire Mateschitz first bought the former Jaguar team from Ford Motor Co., there was a certain cynicism in the paddock about his motive in entering F1 as an owner, which was seen by some as his using the sport as a marketing platform to promote his product without concern for results on the track. The idea of a novice owner, a former sponsor, using cars as rolling billboards must have roiled the other team owners, a group sometimes referred to as the Pirahna Club and who take F1, themselves and their positions in it very seriously indeed.

That impression was probably furthered when Mateschitz chose to sign Christian Klien, a fellow Austrian with no top-level driving experience, to partner Coulthard for Red Bull Racing's first year. It also probably didn't help when he made a series of apparently contradictory statements regarding his plans as a team owner and the direction he planned to take when hiring drivers and technical personnel and the team's future philosophy. Or that he hired Christian Horner as team director instead of someone more familiar with running an F1 squad, such as former Benetton boss David Richards.

Still, the new outfit he assembled wasn't without prospects or holdover talent and posted a respectable seventh-place finish in last year's constructors championship. It scored points through both cars in its debut race in Australia and eventually earned 34 points for the year. That was the inspiration behind Mateschitz's decision to acquire the former Minardi team, now renamed Scuderia Toro Rosso, as a development squad for drivers and team personnel.

It also led to the hiring (some might say stealing) of designer extraordinaire Adrian Newey from McLaren to handle the car's evolution. He also recruited former F1 driver and technocrat Gerhard Berger to oversee operations at Toro Rosso through buying a stake in Berger's family company.

To promote continuity behind the wheel, he retained both drivers from Red Bull Racing's first season after Klien beat out Vitantonio Liuzzi, now with Toro Rosso, for the second seat. He also was instrumental in the signing of Scott Speed, the first American F1 driver in 13 years, to partner with Liuzzi, a move which was dismissed as yet another marketing exercise to improve Red Bull's U.S. visibility.

Just about none of these measures looked like good ideas after the first six races of 2006. Red Bull Racing had only two points, one each from Coulthard and Klien, and Toro Rosso was stumbling along in Minardi-like fashion, losing its only points-paying result through a postrace time penalty in Australia. It might justifiably have been wondered whether Mateschitz, who enjoys a reputation as a brilliant marketing specialist, was finally in over his head.

It's also possible he was following a tried-and-true marketing maxim: If you have a great idea, be patient with it. Mateschitz spent three years tinkering with the formula for the Red Bull energy drink and its attendant consumer-appeal strategy and believes completely in what he's doing in Formula 1. He built the market for the drink in incremental stages and went from selling a million cans of beverage a year to 2 billion.

If that's the way Mateschitz plans to build his base in F1, and if past successes in one area can be viewed as a basis for future accomplishments in another, his rivals in the Pirahna Club might be looking over their shoulders rather than laughing up their sleeves before long. He's not on the Forbes list of the world's richest people for nothing and has plenty of available cash to get where he wants to go in the sport. The Monaco podium may have been one small step for Red Bull in the overall scheme of Formula 1, but it's one giant leap in its development. Stay tuned.

Around the paddock

Giancarlo Fisichella, expected to take over as Renault's lead seat when Alonso moves to McLaren next year, was once again less than overwhelming when compared with his teammate this weekend, qualifying a lackluster ninth and finishing the race one lap in arrears. Fisichella has built a reputation as something of a Monaco specialist but never seemed to find his edge in the principality and is likely to remain under fire to raise his game. ... McLaren celebrated its 40th anniversary this weekend, remembering the 1966 Monaco race where team founder Bruce McLaren drove the team's first car. Both McLarens had diamond-inlaid steering wheels to mark the occasion. ... As is typical at Monaco, the celebrities were out in force. Film stars such as Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth and Robin Williams were in attendance to promote a new movie. Former Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson was also on hand, according to the sport's Internet site.

Michael Kelley is a freelance journalist and a contributor to ESPN.com.

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