Austrian wings

The hills are alive
Picture this idyllic, pastoral scene in Austria: quaint half-timbered houses gathered neatly around a lake, which is surrounded by rolling green hills and the occasional clump of forest. In the village, everything is immaculately ordered. The local people – some wearing apparel that looks suspiciously like lederhosen – greet each other politely with a discreet ‘gruss got’ before carrying on serenely with their everyday business. 

Then there is an ultra-modern glass and chrome temple in the middle of it all; absolutely incongruous but designed to blend in with the countryside at the same time. The village is Fuschl-am-See, around half an hour east of Salzburg, and the temple is Red Bull’s headquarters: a company that has shaken up the staid image of Austria as much as its flagship building has made its mark on the sleepy village of Fuschl.

One of the just 1,406 inhabitants of the place is Dietrich Mateschitz: the billionaire founder of Red Bull, who – despite his global empire – doesn’t believe in having a long commute to work. The story of how he founded the company has passed into legend. While on a business trip to Thailand in the early 1980s, he asked some Thai lorry drivers at a truck stop for directions and noticed they were all drinking something called ‘Krating Daeng’: a drink designed to stimulate them for the long hours on the road. Krating Daeng is the Thai for ‘Red Bull’ – and an idea was born. By 1984, Mateschitz had scraped together some cash (which was a considerable struggle) and founded Red Bull GmbH.

Berger king
Back then, nobody could guess what the company would become. Not so much the commercial success – although it sold 6.790 billion cans of the drink last year – but what it would go on to stand for. Mateschitz quickly got into sports sponsorship: long before he owned two Formula 1 teams, the very first driver to benefit from Red Bull sponsorship was Austria’s Gerhard Berger, back in 1985, while he was driving for the struggling Arrows team.

Fittingly, the first meeting between Berger and Mateschitz took place at Zeltweg, after the Austrian Grand Prix in August of that year. Berger recalls that they went for a beer together a quickly struck a small personal sponsorship deal that was worth around $10,000: not a huge amount even back then. “But for me it was like Christmas; I needed the money!” remembers Berger.

It was the start of an enduring relationship, with Berger always taking a can of Red Bull with him onto the podium whenever he was up there. This incurred the wrath of Bernie Ecclestone, who resented a sponsor getting this valuable exposure for free. 

Red Bull’s penchant for guerrilla marketing was already in evidence, typified in later years by the Red Bulletin. It was a daily magazine printed entirely within the Formula 1 paddock, so subversive that it was personally banned from the McLaren motorhome by Ron Dennis: an achievement that the former editors are still proud of now.

Lord of the Ring
But Red Bull is company that balances commercial success and the occasional provocation with philanthropy: particularly close to home. In 2004, Red Bull acquired the former Osterreichring, which at the time was known as the A1-Ring and rechristened it the Red Bull Ring that we see now, following a €70 million renovation programme. In order to get people to the track efficiently, and to cut down on traffic and pollution, Mateschitz bought a fleet of around 1000 bicycles, which were then given to the local community. He also sponsored an initiative for local businesses and farms to sell their products at the grand prix. And that’s part of the dichotomy that will always surround Red Bull: it's corporate and feudal at the same time. ‘Just an energy drink company’ in the disparaging words of one team boss, yet one that makes up a fifth of the Formula 1 grid and has arguably given more to the sport than any other sponsor or team. Incredible to think that the whole story started with a beer and a handshake between two Austrians at Zeltweg nearly 35 years ago.

Read more