January 28, 2014 – Sahara Force India, the Formula One team led by Vijay Mallya, made its 2014 pre-season testing debut today in Jerez, Spain. It was the first public display of the team’s 2014 cars and livery, but there was no sign of Whyte & Mackay for the first time since Force India entered F1 in 2008. The Scotch whisky producer is owned by United Spirits, Ltd., which was owned by Mallya’s UB Group until operational control of USL was sold to Diageo last year. The 2014 cars now carry logos for USL’s Royal Challenge Indian whisky in the same spots where Whyte & Mackay logos previously appeared. In an email, a Force India spokesman told WhiskyCast that UB Group decided to use Royal Challenge on the team’s cars this year instead of Whyte & Mackay, but did not specify the reason.
Mallya remains on the USL board of directors, and India’s Supreme Court is expected to hear an appeal from USL and Diageo on Friday seeking to overturn a Karnataka High Court ruling blocking the sale by UB Holdings of approximately 7% of USL’s outstanding shares to Diageo. Those shares were pledged as collateral for loans to UB Holdings and Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines, and creditors won a court ruling last month blocking the sale of those shares without their consent.
Whyte & Mackay had been featured prominently on Force India’s cars from the team’s debut in 2008, following Mallya’s purchase of the assets of the defunct Spyker F1 team. Last year, driver Paul Di Resta was named a global brand ambassador for Whyte & Mackay. However, the Scottish driver was not retained for 2014 by Force India, and his status with Whyte & Mackay is unknown. In addition to the livery, Whyte & Mackay does not appear as one of the team’s 2014 partners in the Force India press kit, though there are still Whyte & Mackay logos minimally displayed on the Force India web site. No formal announcement of the sponsorship change was made, and Whyte & Mackay executives have not responded to our request for more information.
The move is likely linked to the proposed sale of approximately 70% of Whyte & Mackay to satisfy competition concerns raised by the UK’s Office of Fair Trading in November. Regulators have delayed a recommendation to block Diageo’s acquisition of control over USL out of fears that adding the Whyte & Mackay portfolio to Diageo’s own extensive Scotch whisky holdings would reduce competition in the UK’s market for blended Scotch whisky. Diageo and USL have offered to sell all of Whyte & Mackay, except for the Dalmore and Tamnavulin malt whisky distilleries, which they want to retain to supply malt whisky for their needs in India and other export markets. While the OFT is considering Diageo’s proposal, there have been various news reports out of India that the USL board is prepared to consider selling the entire Whyte & Mackay unit.
Diageo’s Johnnie Walker blended Scotch whisky continues as a sponsor of the McLaren Mercedes F1 team in 2014.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on January 31 with additional information from a Sahara Force India spokesman.