In October 2005 Red Bull GmbH announced its takeover of the Minardi Formula 1 team and the establishment of a new organisation called Squadra Toro Rosso. This was later changed to Scuderia Toro Rosso which sounded a little less like a football team. Early in 2006 a deal was agreed for Gerhard Berger to take ownership of half the team, in exchange for Red Bull taking over 50 percent of his transport company. The aim at that point was to have the same cars as used by Red Bull Racing. This meant that it was cost-effective for Red Bull to have two teams as the research and development costs could be split between the two operations. Other teams planning similar moves, but in the end the FIA decided to act and customer cars were outlawed from 2010 onwards. At the time Dietrich Mateschitz said that Toro Rosso would be put up for sale, and he hoped to secure a buyer by the end of 2009. The problem was that there were no buyers to be found, who were willing to invest in rebuilding the infrastructure needed. Faced with having to fund such a programme, Berger sold his shares back to Mateschitz late in 2008. The Red Bull boss then embarked on a programme to return the team to proper manufacturer status, which involved expanding operations in Italy and acquiring a wind tunnel in England. That investment now seems to have paid off and in the spring there were reports that Scuderia Toro Rosso was being sold to an Abu Dhabi investment company called Aabar.
This was established in 2005 with money supplied by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the country’s primary sovereign wealth fund. There was additional funding from the Mubadala Development Company, another state-owned holding company. Aabar was later taken public, but was then gradually taken over by another state-run business called the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC). In these parts of the world, money is not a problem. There is 10 percent of the world’s known oil reserves under Abu Dhabi and the endless amounts of available money mean that the ruling family can do pretty much as it pleases. It has been careful to moderate growth, hoping to retain its Arab culture while transforming itself into a major international centre – and the cultural hub of the Middle East.
One project has been to create the Yas Marina circuit and Ferrari World. The aim was to make Yas Island into a centre of motorsport excellence. The circuit has been successful enough, but business at Ferrari World has been slow. Abu Dhabi needs more to become a tourist hub. The long term goal is for the racing circuit to become the centre of motorsport in the region (a similar desire has been expressed in Bahrain). However, the locals know that the key to creating a clustering effective is expertise, and so Abu Dhabi has been busy trying to import knowledge and understanding of motorsport. It has, for example, lured US drag racer Rod Fuller to Abu Dhabi in exchange for sponsorship of a team in the NHRA. Fuller now runs the Yas Drag Racing Academy and is hoping to develop UAE youngsters good enough to compete in the US.
The Abu Dhabi authorities hope that the same will happen in other areas of the sport. They have hired Europeans for many of the top jobs at Yas Marina, but there are locals there who are learning from them.
F1 teams are not interested in training up people with no experience or background in the sport. They want smart, trained and motivated engineers. In order to create a group of these, the UAE needs to build up motorsport activity and good educational facilities. To do that the country needs to create interest. Thus sponsorship is a start. Mubadala was involved in Ferrari for some time, along with Etihad Airlines, and more recently Aaabar became a 40 percent shareholder in Mercedes GP Petronas, although this was in support of an investment in the main Daimler AG company. Aaabar has no control over the team.
It seems, however, that Abu Dhabi will want a team of its own at some point in the future. Aabar and IPIC have no shortage of investments in companies that would benefit from F1 involvement, to raise global awareness of the businesses, notably Falcon Private Bank, the Spanish oil company CEPSA and the Canadian chemical firm Nova, and so once again money is not the problem. Since the reports of Aabar buying into Toro Rosso all these companies have all appeared in the cars and Aabar boss Khadem Al Qubaisi has been seen sitting on the pit wall with the Toro Rosso management. Up to now Aabar involvement in racing has been low-key, with only a badge on the Mercedes team, but the company is now increasing its profile with a deal for Niki Lauda’s famous head to have an Aabar cap permanently on it – and for the Austrian to act as a brand ambassador for the investment firm.
In the circumstances it is really no surprise that Aabar might be interested in buying Toro Rosso, a team that its owner does not want – and has to fund. With Aabar money he can reduce the costs involved, while maintaining the same level of Red Bull coverage, although ultimately there is no need to have four Red Bull cars in F1 and the team will likely be sent on its own way. The word is that Aabar has acquired a minority shareholding in the team (around 40 percent) and has an option to increase that to gain control (probably around 60 percent). After a certain period of time, in which Red Bull will still have signage on the cars, a full takeover is likely, without the need for any huge announcements.
While it would be foolhardy to try to relocate the race team to the Middle East immediately, it is possible that there might be some kind of a technical centre opened in Abu Dhabi in the short term to bring in engineers who could help teach young locals about the technologies that exist in F1. Williams has recently opened a centre in Qatar to help to develop its hybrid systems. This has been done in the hope that the Qatari government will eventually agree to come in and support its team.
In the case of Scuderia Toro Rosso the motivation is the same… but the process appears to be being done in reverse.
Not that anyone is admitting to such a thing.