I won’t lie, I didn’t see Mario Andretti’s tweet coming on Friday. Even with the time and effort that went into the attempted purchase of Sauber towards the end of last year, and the obvious desire for Michael Andretti (pictured above) to enter Formula 1, I had no idea things had moved to the point he’d allow news of his progress to create his own team to become public.
To be honest, given how limited Michael’s response was, I also didn’t expect Mario to be up for a follow-up call when I requested one, thinking it was likely just a tweet he wanted to put out there to gauge the reaction and create some added interest.
But he wanted to make very clear that this entry is serious. Really serious.
There’s no open tender for new teams to join the F1 grid at the moment, but that doesn’t mean a serious candidate can’t come in. The FIA has been quoted as saying it isn’t able to consider requests right now, but has since clarified to RACER that it simply can’t comment on any perspective entries lobbying to be given a license.
Approaches do happen from time to time in terms of interested parties finding out what would be required to enter a team in F1, but that they so rarely reach even the stage Andretti is at now shows the size of the task. F1 teams are enormous, complex outfits. Don’t forget, Haas delayed by a year when preparing for its debut to give itself more time, and that was for a team with an extremely close partnership with Ferrari.
That is a partnership that has proven fruitful so far. Haas might have struggled last year but it is about to go into its seventh season, matching the life of the most successful new entrant in 2010. In that case, Virgin became Marussia became Manor but disappeared at the end of the 2016 season, with just three points to its name across its history.
Haas found a model that allowed it to almost triple that score in its first race, and pick up points on a regular basis until the last two years. That’s the sort of standard Andretti will be looking to hit as a bare minimum if it is successful in reaching F1, and it will need strong partners to be able to do so.
Whether the preferred power unit partner has been settled upon yet remains to be seen, and Andretti has probably been speaking to all of those who could potentially supply his team, but the smile on Laurent Rossi’s face when asked about the prospect of the Andretti entry suggested real potential for an Alpine (well, Renault) tie-up.
Rossi met with Andretti ahead of last year’s United States Grand Prix, so at least some form of talks were already happening around the time the Sauber deal collapsed, and that might actually give us some added insight into one of the reasons the attempts to take control of an existing team fell through.
Michael Andretti said at the time that the deal wasn’t right for him, even though the wider impression had been that it was the Sauber side that had pulled the plug, having felt it could make a lot more money from a sale than it was set to. But the fact Michael wouldn’t change the way he handled the situation suggests he wasn’t getting the agreement he wanted.
A lot of it came down to control, and the antidote to those concerns would be to put together your own team, with partners and investors you choose to take on the journey with you from the word go, rather than ones you’re forced to do business with because they are a pre-existing part of a current constructor.
Speaking at the end of last year, Andretti told Marshall Pruett that he loves F1 and had a Plan B and C in place post-Sauber, adding: “It’s the ultimate racing experience, and for our brand would be just huge, it just takes us to the highest level you can be in.”
And the desire for brands to be part of it is only being emphasized during this winter, when significant deals have been done. Take Red Bull as an example: The Oracle title partnership and Buybit sponsorship combine to make around $150 million per year, exceeding the budget cap level. Now, there are more costs associated than the $145m figure suggests but enormous funding is now available in the context of what it should take to run an F1 team.
Of course, that’s a very successful existing team that just won the drivers’ championship but by Mario coming out and making the statements he did, he has made an opening very clear to any potential sponsors that are looking at F1 but yet to find the right partner. Add in the apparent ability to pay the $200 million anti-dilution fee (that all new entrants must pay to existing teams to compensate for their loss of revenue share) if required, and it’s not just fan sentiment that will be whipped up by the Andretti prospect, but business opportunities wanting to know how serious it is, too.
And you can’t say Andretti Sr. doesn’t know the sport, so even his timing was good. After the busiest week of launches was over and people thought there was going to be a relatively quiet weekend ahead of the start of testing, he put the information out there to get tongues wagging, knowing it would carry over into the following week when the whole F1 paddock reconvenes for the first time in Barcelona, and similarly not overshadow the IndyCar season opener next weekend.
To suggest there would be F2 and F3 teams in future also ticks boxes for the FIA, while it obviously tallies with F1’s desire to grow further in the United States. But there are clearly reservations too, otherwise Andretti would be able to serenely work in the background with all of the required backing until everything was resolved.
None of it is a guarantee that an entry will be granted, and to get it in time to enter in 2024 is ambitious, but there’s no doubt you have to take it seriously, and F1 and the FIA will be doing so too.