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Jeremy Cato, left, was impressed by Formula One champ Sebastian Vettel's humour and humility. (Glenn Dunbar/Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic)
Jeremy Cato, left, was impressed by Formula One champ Sebastian Vettel's humour and humility. (Glenn Dunbar/Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic)

Marketing

Can Vettel start Infiniti's engine? Add to ...

Sebastian Vettel? Who the heck is this kid?

I mean kid, too. To this father of a teenage son, Vettel doesn't look old enough to have a driver's licence for city streets. He wins Formula One races? You're kidding, right?

And so it goes this morning at the Circuit ICAR north of Montreal. These thoughts are rattling around my head as I'm introduced to a pleasant, well-mannered and very skinny young man from Germany. He's wearing a baseball cap and sporting the kind of scruffy beard you'd expect to see worn by a college sophomore backpacking through Europe for the summer.

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We're not in Europe, though. We're standing beside a modest race track in the shadow of one of the great Canadian boondoggles of all time - Mirabel Airport. If ever you want to see a monument to government waste, this is it. But I digress.

Vettel is here as part of his contract with the Red Bull F1 team. Infiniti, the luxury brand of Nissan Motor, signed a sponsorship deal with Red Bull a few months ago and part of the deal includes public appearances for Vettel. He has to rub shoulders with the likes of me. Torture, I know.

The idea is to associate the globally expanding Infiniti brand with what many consider the pinnacle of racing, F1. Vettel is the reigning F1 champ and going into the Montreal Grand Prix, I am told he's won a pile of races this year, too.

Yeah? Really? So what? I am not a big F1 fan. I've been to about half a dozen races and I've found all of them tedious and horrifically dull. Only a few teams have cars fast enough to win; it makes for something less than gripping sport.

Don't believe me? Check the F1 standings. On this Wednesday before the Montreal race, Vettel has won five of the six F1 races, from Australia to Monaco and parts in between. Some might argue the very dominance of a 23-year-old only in his third year on the F1 circuit is exciting and amazing.

I would argue he needs some competition. When the same guy from the same team wins again and again, that adds up to a snooze-fest.

Don't get me wrong. When I finally meet the kid I am impressed by his poise and good manners. Not all F1 drivers are well mannered, and he mixes a good upbringing with a refreshing dose of humour and humility. I can understand why Infiniti might want to sink millions into a partnership with the Red Bull team that employs him and a second driver, Mark Webber, who also has the reputation of a decent sort.

The deal makes sense from another perspective, too. Red Bull uses Renault engines and Renault is in a global alliance with Nissan, the Infiniti parent. The dots connect nicely.

I am hoping Vettel can connect the dots on Circuit ICAR well enough as we climb aboard an Infiniti G37 coupe. This is the IPL version of the G coupe, IPL standing for Infiniti Performance Line.

We'll know what Vettel can do soon enough, once the video crew has finished turning on the on-board camera which will record my laps as Vettel's passenger. Vettel is fiddling over something with the organizers and ignoring me, which allows time for me to think about Infiniti and its new IPL venture.

Frankly, I don't get it. Nissan is busy with Renault in introducing all sorts of "green" electric cars, yet Infiniti is getting all racy with a high-performance sub-brand and an expensive tie-in to F1. This plan has been in the works for some time, in fact.

Just about a year ago to the day, just-auto.com reported that Nissan North America Inc. had filed for trademark protection for the names "IPL" and "Infiniti Performance Line." At that point, Infiniti signalled an intent to boost its image by launching hot-shoe models to compete against the likes of Mercedes-Benz's AMG and BMW's M.

Infiniti could use some jazzing-up and a lot more, too. The brand has a muddy image in the marketplace and rival brands generally have broader lineups, complete with faster, sexier versions of mainstream models.

In a nutshell, sales for Nissan's luxury brand have been disappointing for essentially all of the two decades since Infiniti was launched in North America. Sure, last year sales in Canada were up 16 per cent, but that's misleading. Infiniti Canada's market share is stagnant at 0.5 per cent, while rivals such as Audi - whose sales numbers were about equal to Infiniti's just a couple of years ago - has nearly double Infiniti's sales. Last year, Audi picked up yet another tenth of a point of market share, too.

Audi has a more extensive product line, so some of the explanation is right there in what the two brands offer. Audi, however, has been far, far more aggressive not just with launching new models into new niches, but also about its marketing and in bringing on dealers to push both the brand's Vorsprung Durch Technik message and the its vision for luxury vehicles coming out of Germany.

Infiniti's marketing, to me, seems timid and its dealers far, far too uninvolved in building some sort of consistent brand message. Infiniti's latest slogan, "Inspired Performance," might work, but we'll have to see.

The real shame of it is that Infiniti has some good products. For instance, the redesigned Infiniti M37 posted an "Excellent" score in Consumer Reports' ratings. The new M37 is CR's top-rated mid-sized luxury sedan, in fact. And ALG says Infiniti boasts the top resale values among all luxury brands in Canada and has done so for three years running.

Infiniti has good products, but not full market coverage with a line of models designed to meet a wide range of tastes and needs. Infiniti still needs fixing, then. Worse, sales in Canada were down 15.3 per cent through the end of May. Much of the problem there is related to supply problems in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The vehicle supply issue will sort itself out over time. The bigger brain-twister remains, however: What is Infiniti?

The F1 tie-in and the IPL launch suggest the brand is wedded to the proven notion that power and sex appeal sell. We all get that.

Yet at the same time, Infiniti is part of an auto industry compelled to develop "green" technologies to meet strict fleet-wide fuel economy standards by 2016.

So, on the one hand, high-performance development is at work, while on the other, the industry is pushing ahead with electric cars, hybrids and the like.

"Every car manufacturer has to develop very different technologies" for electric, hybrid, gasoline and diesel cars, Nissan-Renault alliance CEO Carlos Ghosn told Automotive News.

"These technologies are so expensive no manufacturer can afford to develop each of these technologies," he said, adding, "You can't be a niche brand. You have to be present in the upper segment and the lower segment, and the crossover segment and the four-by-four segment."

And the high-performance segment, if you're Infiniti. To whit, the launch of the latest Infiniti model, the M35h hybrid ($67,300). It is a lovely bit of smart, efficient engineering, a fast and astoundingly fuel efficient luxury sedan (0-100 km/h in less than 5.5 seconds).

The combination of an efficient gas V-6 engine (302 hp) and a 50 kW electric motor (rated at 67 hp) translates into a power train rated at the equivalent of 360 hp. That would not be such a big deal save for this one fact: the sexy-looking and high-tech M Hybrid gets better city fuel economy than a pint-sized, $13,000 Nissan Versa sedan (107 hp).

And then…

I am snapped out of my reverie by Vettel, who turns to me and says something to the effect of, "Let's go, I want to go play." If those weren't his exact words, he makes it clear that only this morning did he first set eyes on Circuit ICAR and he's here to have fun. I am his first victim - uh, passenger.

In three seconds we are sideways, tires howling through a corner, Vettel spinning the steering wheel and teasing the throttle and brakes. The G forces unleash the sound box in the back seat from its seatbelt anchor; it hits the back of Vettel's seat with a "thud."

Oops. The sound box controls the audio portion of the video we're shooting, so we stop. We stop right on the race track. The reigning F1 champ jumps out, pops his seat forward and tucks the sound box behind his seat. That's multi-million-dollar driving talent doing the work of a sound guy. I said Vettel was humble, right?

We're off again and Vettel is instantly having fun. A lot of it. Our G37 I don't think is ever pointed in a straight line. The guy loves throwing out the back end on every corner, tossing the car side to side. He mentions this is not something he does in his F1 car.

I ask him if it's difficult to learn a new race course and he says only if he's talking to someone like he is to me. For the most part, he quickly figures out his racing line on a track, he says. This helps explain why he's right now the Sidney Crosby of F1 - the pre-concussion Crosby, that is.

Alas, my drive with Vettel is over just as I'm getting comfortable. No damage done, though I'm sure he's scrubbed $1,000 worth of rubber off the tires.

"Thanks for the ride, Sebastian," I say while exiting, making way for his next passenger. He waves and smiles. I bet his dad's proud of this kid who just scared the pants off of me. I would be, too.

Vettel can drive and win. Now we'll see if he has what it takes to help fix Infiniti.

EPILOGUE

Just days after my drive with Sebastian Vettel at Circuit ICAR in Mirabel, the reigning Formula One champion failed in his attempt to win that Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix. He gave it a good go, however.

I wasn't there and didn't watch. But according to The Globe and Mail race report, the rain was plagued by fierce rain. Race officials, in fact, decided to show the red flag to rain-soaked drivers with barely 25 laps in the books. Red Bull's Vettel was leading comfortably.

Eventually, the race was finished, won by Jenson Button in a McLaren-Mercedes. That youngster Vettel looked to have the fastest car and he was first on the starting grid.

But the kid had better luck last weekend, winning his sixth race, the European Grand Prix.

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