We are in a car winding through the tight lanes of Monaco to get to our accommodation for the weekend and the pre-Formula One Grand Prix excitement on the street level is palpable.
Team trailers are still being shifted in, barricades are in the midst of being erected and the tourists, hordes of them, are streaming in steadily, taking a picture at every corner of the race track they can access. It’s a mess but there is beauty in the chaos and that’s the real draw of a spectator sport. No matter what medium it may take – 22 dudes chasing a ball, men in polo tees taking their repressed anger out on the greens or guys breaking speed limits in incredibly light cars – the fans are sure to be there in droves, waving flags of their teams.
One can argue (to death as I’ve done before) that the view from the television at home is better. In the comfort of your living room and with aerial views, it is a far better experience. That opinion, however, is heresy to any Formula One petrolhead so I keep my mouth shut the minute we touch the hallowed grounds. As any fan will tell you – the view isn’t what you’re there for. You are there for the raw and electrifying energy that a Formula One race weekend exudes, especially at Monaco.
When it comes to energy, city races are a different beast altogether and Monaco is indicative of that. While Singapore may have the novel distinction of being the first city to host a night race, Monaco doesn’t need that to show us up. What the Mediterranean-facing town lacks in steel and glass skyscrapers, it makes up for with old world charm and a prestige that subtly adorns everything, from the architecture of the buildings to the cars that prowl the streets. Its iconic race is emblematic of that prestige too.
It’s one of three races that make up the “Triple Crown in Motorsport” alongside the Indy 500 in the US and the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France. It has been running since 1929 and been on every Formula One calendar since then, an impressive feat.
For the observant watch lover, however, there is one defining quality that Monaco boasts that can’t be found anywhere else yet – Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer’s branding is everywhere.
Rolex’s standing as the Official Timekeeper of Formula One makes it a hard brand to beat in terms of eyeballs. It is usually found on the barriers and boards around the track. But TAG Heuer is numero uno in Monaco, the city being its home ground. The brand has won the race even before it’s started.
TAG Heuer’s association with Monaco isn’t a new marketing initiative. Its most iconic timepiece, which was created in 1969, bears the name of the city. The square-cased timepiece, a first for its time, was made in honour of the Monaco Grand Prix. The watch went under the radar, skyrocketing in popularity only after it appeared in the cult classic Le Mans in 1971. As the story goes, TAG Heuer was one of the first watch brands to have brokered an ambassadorial deal with a racer. The late Jo Siffert, a Swiss racing driver, took up the brand on his racing suits and proudly wore TAG Heuer’s timepieces on his wrist.
Prior to the filming of Le Mans, the actor Steve McQueen approached his friend Siffert. He was inspired by Siffert’s look and wanted to incorporate the driver’s TAG Heuer-branded jumpsuit as well as the watches Siffert wore into the film. While Siffert happened to wear an Autavia (that was more closely related to racing during those years), it happened by chance that McQueen’s watch for the film happened to be the Monaco. Years after the film and till this day, the TAG Heuer Monaco is still closely associated with Steve McQueen.
These days, under the watchful eye of the enigmatic Jean-Claude Biver, TAG Heuer’s growing number of ambassadors proves that this particular marketing strategy is still the way to go. From actual racing drivers to actors, the brand’s lifestyle approach has attracted the right audience, and the numbers are there to back it up. Aboard a TAG Heuer-branded yacht, which could easily pass for a mini-luxury liner, in the port of Monaco, this “TAG Heuer lifestyle” is in full swing. It’s a day before the race itself and we’re sitting at the top deck of the five-level yacht, sipping cocktails at an all-day bar when the first of many celebrities shows up.
Chris Hemsworth, best known for his role as Thor in the Marvel Studios’ films and one of TAG Heuer’s latest ambassadors, flew in to Monaco to watch the race and take a break from filming the latest Avengers’ flick. Accompanying Hemsworth is a “friend,” as one of the TAG Heuer marketing folks lets on. This friend turns out to be Matt Damon.
In a matter of minutes, the manager of Manchester United Football Club, José Mourinho, comes aboard and starts making small talk with the two actors. From where I sit, the conversation is inaudible and I can only imagine the dialogue between the threesome – “Ah, yes. Manchester… soccer! You guys are owned by that Thai guy, no?” asks the Australian. The American nods enthusiastically, “I’ve heard they call it football over there.” Plausible scenario.
Hublot’s CEO Ricardo Guadalupe (who really should be at the Ferrari lounge instead) has now joined them and Mourinho, a close friend of his, appears more at ease with his arrival. It’s not long before the big boss comes on the scene. Jean-Claude Biver is larger than life and his arrival is met by a round of applause from staff and celebrities alike. He hugs Guadalupe, his second in command in previous times and he shakes the hands of everyone. Yes, it’s he who has pulled all this celeb weight together and he knows it.
As Biver and Hemsworth sit down for a small press conference to talk about their partnership, the room is clearly focused on the actor. Questions about Hemsworth’s career ring out from the audience and his natural charisma is fully on display. This whole time, Jean-Claude Biver looks on, beaming at his ambassador who is clearly performing well. There’s a temptation, as always for myself, to ask Hemsworth a mighty technical question about a complication from TAG Heuer but we know that’s not really the point. He’s there to showcase the marketing might of TAG Heuer and he’s doing it swimmingly well.
It probably comes from the fact that he’s Australian and it’s one of the countries in the world where TAG Heuer sells the highest number of pieces. He’s known the brand since he was a kid and you can tell by the way he asks about the TAG Heuer on my wrist later on in a group interview that he adores the brand. “What watch do you’ve on there, mate?” I can’t help but smile. His interest in a vintage-inspired Carrera Calibre 17 is validation in some way but the day moves on and that night, TAG Heuer throws a party on its yacht.
Other faces of the brand like Daniel Ricciardo, one-half of the Red Bull Racing duo whom TAG Heuer has partnered, joins the shindig (even though the race is the next day). Kate Upton, perhaps best known for her days as a Zoo model, is on board too. The party rages on till late and celebrities stream in and out like it’s no big deal.
But it isn’t really. Not in Monaco, at least. It’s a lifestyle that most never get to see and for TAG Heuer, this is the branding it has been building towards.
The irony is that the next day, we don’t get to watch the entire race. After the first two laps, we’re whisked away, luggage in tow, to the airport. It really doesn’t matter though. Ferrari might’ve gone on to claim the top two spots on the podium (with Verstappen from Red Bull in third) but TAG Heuer’s branding that was everywhere, from track to party, proved that in Monaco, it was the true winner of the Grand Prix.