Before shutting down for Christmas, and avoiding discussions about the positives and negatives (not to mention utter astonishment in one case) of the team principal transfer market, I think it’s a good moment to address the manufacturer market for 2026.
In the old days Bernie Ecclestone did not like to see car companies acting only as sponsors. He believed that it gave them an easy ride in the sport. Badging engines or chassis built by others was only about money and they all had plenty it if. His view was that if a manufacturer wanted to benefit from F1, they had to do the job properly – by making an engine or buying a team.
Things have changed now, with car manufacturers McLaren and Aston Martin both using Mercedes engines in F1, while Alfa Romeo has been allowed to dress up a Sauber-Ferrari and has been hoping that people will buy its road cars as a result. It is a cheapskate way of doing F1. Whether badging machinery in F1 really works is an interesting discussion. It isn’t against the rules and it’s a cheap way to get value out of the sport, although one must ask whether Alfa Romeo has really gained anything from doing it. In 2018 Alfa Romeo sold 83,438 cars. This has since dropped to 25,964 units in 2021. The bosses still talk of 200,000 in five years, but let’s see what 2022 and 2023 bring before getting excited. Car companies often have expectations that they fail to live up to.
When Alfa Romeo appeared in F1 in 2017 there was talk of “a long term plan” but that is now over. The programme with Sauber ends next season as Audi is in he process of buying the whole kit and caboodle in Hinwil, with plans to build its own engines in Germany. Good luck to them with that. Still, this strategy is a bit more meaningful than the company turning up in a formula without much real opposition and then trying to make a lot of noise about winning it over and over again.
Shooting fish in a barrel is never that impressive an achievement.
Alfa Romeo needs to look elsewhere, and says, with the usual car manufacturer PR baloney, that it will now “evaluate among the many opportunities on the table and decide which will be the best one to sustain the long term strategy and the positioning of the brand.”
Badging Ferrari engines is not something that has ever worked in F1, although it did work for Lancia in rallying with the Stratos back in the 1970s. Having said that they were not competing against Ferrari itself, which probably explains why that could happen.
What one can say is that Alfa Romeo road car quality is improving and in theory the firm’s image will get better and so sales ought to increase. But that’s all theory for the moment. Alfa Romeo is now making money and so that is at least a start.
In the car industry there are some interesting results when one looks at badge engineering (in other words, using the same piece of machinery, but giving it a different name). Some buyers don’t know the difference, some don’t mind, and so badge engineering is fairly widespread in the industry. It’s much cheaper to borrow a successful design than to create a new one.
If one believes that badge engineering will work in F1, there is a huge opportunity for a car company with the right approach to take F1 by storm in 2026.
Red Bull spent a vast amount to start its own powertrain business, but that has turned out to be a very far-sighted strategy. This way, the racers have control and we will not see the kind of mess that there was when they were working with Renault back in the day, or how things were when McLaren was with Honda. Or Williams with BMW come to that.
Red Bull Powertrains should be a slam dunk success for a manufacturer – as long as the team can build a competitive engine in 2026. A car company could come into F1 with limited risk and maximum exposure, at a fraction of the cost that such a programme would normally cost. So is it any wonder that we are hearing names such as Ford, Hyundai, Porsche and so on? It might even be Alfa Romeo.
The question for Red Bull is which car brand best fits the bill. Logically, it will be the firm that offers the most and creates the least hassle. Porsche likes to own what it does, but Red Bull Racing didn’t want to be told what to do, so that relationship fell apart. Honda has always done its own thing because it wants to train its engineers and get new technology as well. So that does not really fit. F1 is more than marketing and so it is hard to see the current relationship continuing. It is a marriage of convenience at the moment that is working well, but a new engine is unlikely to be a Honda, and so the Japanese need to decide whether to go down that route, do its own thing with a different team, or leave F1. A relationship with Honda might work well for a rival team, but there is still the dreadful spectre of the cataclysmic McLaren-Honda relationship lurking out there.
If I was a car company executive I think that I’d be on the phone to Christian Horner to see how the auction is going. Better still I’d take on someone who knows F1 and use them to have the discussion for me. Maybe this is why Hyundai is tipped to be hiring Cyril Abiteboul…
Ford is a good candidate as well with a CEO (Jim Farley) who is new to the role, has big ambitions and understands what the sport can do. Leaping into bed with Red Bull makes a heap of sense for Ford.
It makes sense too for Stellantis, where Carlos Tavares is a huge fan of the sport, although he’s cautious enough not to go too far. That could mean a more meaningful involvement than the Alfa Romeo-Sauber relationship.
Brands that badge F1 teams don’t get much of a say in what happens in the team. They are just there to lug in sacks of money and most sensible F1 folk know that it is best that way because the majority of car industry executives have not the faintest clue about F1 and underestimate how difficult it is. They come waltzing in, spouting a great deal, and often leave with empty pockets and slumped shoulders, if indeed they still have a job. I will not name names, but there is an impressive roll of honour of car firms in the last 40 years who thought they knew better.
Letting those who know what they are doing is something that requires faith and it does not always pay off, but it is worth remembering that Ford is still third in the all-time list of F1 victories as an engine supplier. Yes, Ferrari tops the list but has been doing it for a lot longer. Mercedes is next, mainly due to the recent run of success, but Ford is third, but left F1 in 2004, a generation ago. To put it into perspective Ford has had more wins in F1 than Renault… the key point in this is that Ford’s success came from its relationship with Cosworth, which began in the mid-1960s. Ford didn’t own Cosworth until 1998…