By on February 22, 2014

Unhappy with his team’s performance this year in general and at the 2014 winter Olympics in particular, a German bobsledder compared the team’s slow sleds to the Trabant, the primitive 2-stroke powered cars sold in the former East Germany. ABC News quoted bobsled pusher Kevin Kuske, who has won four gold medals at previous Olympics, as saying, “If in 2010 we were sitting in a Formula One car, then this time we were sitting in a Trabby.” At the same time, German bobsled enthusiasts are a bit unhappy with BMW because the German car company helped make the sleds for the America bobsledders, who so far have done well in Sochi.

Germany has traditionally been a power in the sliding sports but the national team is having a bad year. The Olympics have started poorly for German bobsledders, with their two-man teams missing a medal for only the second time since 1964. It wasn’t just that they were off the podium. The best German finish was eighth, a very poor showing for a team used to medaling. Some German bobsled enthusiasts are questioning the German bobsled federation’s ties to the Institut für Forschung und Entwicklung von Sportgeräten (Institute for Research and Development of Sport Equipment), FES, which built the bobsleds the German team uses. FES was established in the early 1960s by the East German government and according to Reuters the institute receives 90% of its funding from the German government. After reunification, the West German government and sports federations absorbed many elements of what had been East Germany’s extensive sports training apparatus focused on Olympic success.

It’s not clear if Kuske’s comment were a reference to the East German origins of FES or simply a joke comparing the slow sleds to a perennial “worst cars of all times” contender.

While the German team is unhappy, the American team is celebrating, having taken bronze in the men’s two-man bobsled event and silver and bronze in the women’s two-place competition. Making the Germans even more unhappy is the fact that a German company, BMW, had a major role in the American bobsledders’ success. BMW/Designworks USA, the automaker’s California design studio, designed and built the American team’s new sled and the company spent a reported $24 million on the project. BMW North America has a sponsorship deal with the U.S. Olympic team that runs through 2016 and the Olympics are an important part of their marketing effort. BMW North America also sponsors the Canadian Olympic team.

The American team’s previous sled had been built by NASCAR’s Bodine Racing, and a number of high performance automotive companies have contributed to the sport, with Ferrari helping the Italian team and McLaren the British team. The Designworks team came up with a bobsled that, to use Mr. Kuske’s metaphor, comes closer to a F1 car than to a Sprint Cup racer. It’s made of carbon fiber, which saved 15 lbs, and since bobsledding rules mandate a fixed weight for the sleds, the reduced weight of the basic sled allowed the BMW Designworks engineers to have some flexibility with weight distribution, lowering the center of gravity and yielding a better handling sled. Preliminary designs were tested with fluid dynamics in the digital domain, while full size models were fine tuned in a wind tunnel.

As mentioned, BMW’s sponsorship of the American and Canadian Olympic teams is an important part of their overall marketing effort in North America.  Commercials for the i3 and i8 EVs were debuted during the opening ceremonies on NBC and cars on BMW’s stand at the Chicago Auto Show had license plates decorated with the Olympic rings, an American flag and the slogan “Proud Partner”. A series of commercials, short films and advertisements, like the video at the top of this post, tying BMW to the American and Canadian Olympic teams has been produced.

Around the world, local subsidiaries of foreign owned automakers use sports, including sponsorships of Olympic teams, as part of their marketing efforts trying to portray them as community members and good corporate citizens. It’s of a part with publicity about how many Americans, or Australians, or Austrians for the matter are employed locally by those companies, or how much local content Camry’s built in Kentucky have. Doing that, though, has been a delicate dance when “Japanese quality” or “German engineering”, the engineering, manufacturing and design cultures of companies’ native countries, have been part of the marketing mix. The Olympics, with their heavy dose of nationalism, provide an opportunity for automakers’ foreign operations to show that they are part of their adopted countries’ local communities, but as BMW is finding out, it’s also an opportunity to offend the folks back home if one of their adopted countries’ athletes outperform those of their native land.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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16 Comments on “German Olympian Compares Team’s Bobsled to Trabant As BMW Spends $24 Million Building Americans’ Successful Sleds...”

  • avatar
    Dean Trombetta

    This is a great marketing effort for BMW. I am surprised that other auto companies have not done this. The bobsleds seem a natural fit for an auto maker.

  • avatar

    Then again, didn’t U.S. luge contestants complain about the luge sleds designed by Dow Chemical? In Olympic sports determined by a clock, the equipment is important, but my first thought was the old adage, it’s a poor workman who blames his tools.

  • avatar

    In a couple of years, BMW’s sleds will become too heavy and plush with vague steering. Cadillac will start manufacturing them and it will be Gold across the board.

  • avatar

    I surprised this didn’t get more coverage in the auto industry. Especially with the results. The NASCAR reference is great fodder for some of my buddies.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny how some will mock the NASCAR connection, after all NASCAR cars often don’t appear to use the latest and greatest technology. Yet that fine-tuning of basic equipment is pretty much what a bobsled appears to be. And look at the spread between first and second place in many Olympic races…hundredths of a second. Just like the spread in NASCAR.

      Germany need not feel off-put by the BMW connection. Considering where the work was done and who did it, the names involved are more likely to be Smith, not Helmut. BMW in name only.

  • avatar

    Automakers building bobsleds could backfire on them: see Under Armor and the US speed skating team fiasco. Even if the debacle wasn’t UA’s fault there will be some tarnishing of their image.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    I think the Winter Olympic females are quite stunning, better looking than the female summer Olympians.

    As for BMW, like any business it appears money talks.

    As for the Trabant comment, I wonder if the German’s could have improved their performance on the same equipment.

    Maybe the US teams should see what numbers they can get out of the ‘Trabant’.

    Sort of like motor racing, two different drivers will generally give two different times.

    • 0 avatar

      I really like the look of many of the Olympic women as well, though the summer games give an opportunity to show way more skin. Still, even in winter attire, the tight form fitting outfits show a stunning level of fitness and muscle condition. Really awesome…

  • avatar

    Besides marketing, BMW can’t seem to turn down an opportunity to play with carbon fiber. I wonder if they will learn anything applicable to cars from this?

  • avatar

    Needs more flame surfacing. and bangle butt

  • avatar

    If only they would come out with the diesel, stick shift bobsled…in brown.

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