Big news in the watch world today as Rolex has been announced as the long-term Official Timekeeper for Formula 1 racing, effective as of the 2013 season. Being both the Official Timekeeper and Official Timepieces of Formula 1 is no small achievement and the role had previously been occupied by brands like Jacques LeMans, Tag Heuer, and most recently Hublot. Being THE watch brand for Formula 1 is a big deal for a number of reasons, most notably the considerable audience attracted by F1. Formula 1 has a global viewership of over 500 million fans, making it one of the most watched sports in the entire world. Combine that audience with branding that is hinged on prestige, innovation, cutting edge technologies, and sporting elements such as team rivalries, big egos, and highly competitive top tier driving and you have an ecosystem that is an ideal platform for promoting a luxury watch brand.
Rolex is an interesting choice as their connection to racing, technology and luxury is easily understood but the overall move is a huge departure from the relative pantomime of Hublot. Rolex is a conservative, insular, and very cautious brand that does not bend for any will but their own. Hublot is, in many ways, their opposite, being an innovative, fast paced, and very flashy brand that effectively echoed the aesthetic of F1. I've always thought that the tone of Hublot was a good fit for the grandeur, excess, and theater of Formula 1. Case in point, when F1 owner/dictator Bernie Ecclestone was robbed and beaten up for his Hublot watch (among other items), Hublot and Ecclestone produced the ad seen above, which features a photo of Ecclestone sporting a ripe-looking black eye. From a historical standpoint, Rolex is the natural choice as they have been involved with motorsports for decades as well as maintaining a varied portfolio of sports sponsorships in yachting, skiing, tennis, golf, and equestrianism. Motorsport has always been part of Rolex's brand image and they have been directly involved with events like the 24 Hours at Daytona, the Goodwood Revival, and they are the also the Official Timekeeper for the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans. While it seems almost a natural progression that Rolex would eventually connect with Formula 1, I don't expect this new relationship to look anything like the previous one shared with Hublot. To contrast the differences between these two brands, simply look at these examples of their advertising (each are the result of partnerships within professional motorsports).
The Hublot partnership (which began March of 2010) will come to a close at the end of this year despite what seemed like a good relationship between Ecclestone (F1) and Jean-Claude Biver (Hublot). One has to wonder if there was love lost between the two organizations or if this change is of a purely financial nature. A partnership such as this is undoubtedly expensive for the watch brand and Rolex has the deep pockets needed to fund a global program that would include advertising, promotional considerations and, using Hublot as an example, special edition watches.
While it was easy to understand Hublot producing a wild looking promotional model like the F1 King Power Austin Limited Edition, can you honestly imagine Rolex following in step? It's nearly impossible to envision a Rolex slathered in F1 branding, sporting a brake rotor bezel and produced solely to promote a new stop on the race calendar. What is both possible and exciting is the idea that Rolex will leverage this new F1 partnership to launch an update to the Daytona. The Daytona is Rolex's famous and somewhat long-in-the-tooth racing chronograph which has been connected to professional racing since its initial debut in 1963. The current Daytona is due for an update and Formula 1 would make for a fitting platform from which to launch the next generation of Rolex's iconic race chronograph (maybe a 50th Anniversary edition?). So, while it is unlikely that we will see a Rolex play host to any considerable F1 branding, the partnership between Rolex and Formula 1 translates to massive exposure that may be the ideal stage for announcing a new Daytona. With the 2013 F1 season kicking off in Australia on the 17th of March, it's anyone's guess what we might see at Baselworld only a month later.