When Zenith chief executive Julien Tornare was offered the chance to make his brand the official timekeeper of a new motor racing series, his instinct was to decline.
“When the concept of Extreme E was initially put to me, I wasn’t really interested because traditional motor racing doesn’t fit with the green thinking Zenith is now working to,” he says. But Tornare was swayed both by the more eco-friendly nature of this new off-road motorsport championship and the coincidental fact that Zenith was about to launch a sports model at next week’s Watches and Wonders fair, called the Defy Extreme.
Tornare was also familiar with Alejandro Agag, founder and chief executive of Formula E, who launched the eponymous electric racing car championship in 2014. Since then, it has become a fully established international series contested by carmakers such as Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Porsche and BMW.
The first Extreme E race took place last weekend in Saudi Arabia, with nine teams — comprising one man and one woman — competing in the Odyssey 21-E SUVs that were developed for the championship. Four further races are scheduled up to December, in Senegal, Greenland, Brazil and Argentina.
“The tough environments in which the races happen are exactly what the Defy Extreme was designed for,” says Tornare. “We like the green approach and approve of the fact that the competition promotes equality of the sexes.”
But while Tornare doubts the benefits of other watch brands continuing to involve themselves with the world of fossil-fuelled cars, a recent flurry of activity in that area suggests there is still some way to go before such partnerships run out of road.
The inaugural race of this year’s Formula One championship — of which Rolex has been a sponsor since 2013 — highlighted several tie-ups, including Alpine F1 and Bell & Ross; AlphaTauri Honda and Casio Edifice; Mercedes AMG Petronas and IWC; Red Bull Racing Honda and Tag Heuer; as well as McLaren and Richard Mille.
Girard-Perregaux has also joined the F1 party as a partner of Aston Martin Cognizant, Bremont has paired with Williams Racing and, rather than backing away from it, Richard Mille has reinforced its links with the sport — on top of its McLaren deal — by taking over from Hublot as the official watch of Ferrari.
Hublot chief executive Ricardo Guadalupe says his brand’s nine-year partnership with Ferrari came to an end amicably. “The car industry is living through a revolution and we will probably not make further partnerships in that area,” he explains. “Art, design and architecture are of more interest to us”.
In contrast, Tag Heuer has teamed up with Porsche to exploit the two companies’ longstanding use of the Carrera nameplate, while Richard Mille, founder of the brand that bears his name, believes his personal twin passions of cars and watches can continue to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship for a long time to come.
His watches, sold as “racing machines for the wrist”, are coveted and worn by the world’s leading drivers. “Ferrari came to me last summer to discuss the possibility of a partnership,” says Mille. “It was a surprise, and I had to think carefully about it because it is a legendary marque and it seemed important there should be real substance to whatever we do.” Ferrari is reviewing its licensing arrangements.
Mille says the new arrangement with Ferrari does not impinge on the 10-year deal his brand signed with McLaren in 2016. “We are sufficiently creative to be able to develop watches that are very different and we will work directly with the design teams of each marque to ensure we do so. Such collaborations have a long way to go — regardless of how a car is powered, it will always have a mechanical side and an aesthetic side that is relevant to watchmaking.”
Bremont founder Nick English agrees. The British brand he founded with his brother Giles has a longstanding partnership with carmaker Jaguar that this year resulted in the launch of a series of watches commemorating the 60th anniversary of the E-Type sports car. Now, Bremont has entered the F1 arena through a new deal with Williams Racing that follows the team’s break with longstanding watch partner Oris.
Although Bremont is Williams Racing’s official partner, the link, says Nick English, runs far deeper. “The partnership is as much a technical one. Williams is interested in what we are doing at our new manufacturing facility in Henley-on-Thames and we can learn a great deal from having access to the team’s amazing engineering facility a few miles away. They can, for example, teach us how to optimise throughflow of components and product.
“Cars and watches most definitely have a future. It’s only necessary to take a close look at an F1 car to appreciate the incredible levels of design and engineering that go into everything from the suspension and aerodynamics to the chassis and braking systems. The method of powering it, in fact, seems almost secondary — whether it is electricity or petrol, an F1 car will always be at the apex of engineering technology and that technology will continue to filter down into various aspects of civilian life for a long time to come.”