With just ten teams on the grid and the popularity of the series on the rise, there appears more competition than ever to join the exclusive club of Formula One.
Another example of that came in January, when General Motors announced that it would be supporting the entry ambitions of fellow American automotive giant Andretti Autosport. It coincides with a time when Formula One is growing its presence in the US market, with races in Miami, Austin and Las Vegas all featuring on the 2023 calendar.
Managing to secure the backing of General Motors was a major coup for Andretti, but why did the Detroit-based company not opt for a partnership with an existing team? It would surely represent a more straightforward path into Formula One, in much the same way that Audi is gradually purchasing shares on the road to majority ownership of the Sauber outfit.
Perhaps it is as simple as Formula One not being the only priority for General Motors. Being accepted into the sport in partnership with Andretti would be the preferred outcome, but a Formula One team would be sitting alongside the company’s existing entries in various other motorsport series, including through its Chevrolet brand in Nascar and IndyCar and Corvette in endurance racing.
Plus, this is not the first time General Motors has flirted with the idea of entering Formula One. In the mid-2000s, the company had very private exploratory conversations with former series owner Bernie Ecclestone’s management team about an engine supply deal. Back then, the company estimated that a US$15 million to US$20 million engine programme would make sense as an investment, and the thinking was to support one team as a factory effort and at least two teams as engine suppliers.
However, with that plan not coming to fruition and a clear pathway for sustainable success not revealing itself as Formula One moved away from the old V8 concept, it showed that General Motors was prepared to walk away from any series if it does not see an appropriate fit.
Orchestrating the situation then was long-time global racing veteran Chris Lencheski, who from 2002 until 2008 was the chief executive of SKI & Company, which at the time was the global agency of record (AoR) for General Motors Racing.
In my experience, the men and women of General Motors and General Motors Racing do not come to receive participation trophies.
- Chris Lencheski, Chief Executive Officer, Phoenicia Sport and Entertainment
“General Motors has always looked for the best platforms to compete and win,” Lencheski tells BlackBook Motorsport. “Everyone in the GM Racing ecosystem understands the business and the ‘game’ of the business. They are amongst the smartest, most capable executives in the racing business, full stop.
“GM has competed, won and, in some cases, dominated in every global series it has chosen to participate in and, if they choose Formula One, the entire paddock will be lifted up across every business segment.
“I have seen it before, especially with Le Mans. We will see it again if Formula One teams are savvy enough to see five to ten years ahead when the US market has matured.
“In my experience, the men and women of General Motors and General Motors Racing do not come to receive participation trophies.”
The American dream
While Formula One is a different beast now under the ownership of Liberty Media, the approach of General Motors has not changed.
As Lencheski outlines, the company will not join the series to do laps at the back of the field. If its team is not challenging for podiums within two to three years, then General Motors will only view its potential entry as a failure.
It’s also worth noting that General Motors has decided to pursue this opportunity through its Cadillac brand because of the growth opportunities that it presents. Cadillac is the prestige brand for General Motors, but it has a relatively small market share outside of North America. There is also the opportunity to promote the brand beyond just being a range of hulking SUVs.
Still, the proposed Andretti-Cadillac entry has not been greeted with universal excitement within Formula One. Reuters previously reported that a “strong majority” of the existing ten teams are against expanding the grid and diluting their share of revenues. After all, Formula One is currently performing well from a commercial perspective, so that guarded response is understandable.
Formula One chief executive Stefano Domenicali has also adopted a similar stance, stating at the end of last year that expanding beyond ten teams is “not a priority”.
Two icons. One pursuit. ��— Andretti Autosport (@FollowAndretti) January 5, 2023
Andretti Autosport is thrilled to support the news of Andretti Global and General Motors with @Cadillac, two American powerhouses coming together to pursue the opportunity to compete in the @FIA @F1 World Championship.#CadillacVSeries #AllAndretti
However, not capitalising on its growth in the US market could be viewed as a very short-sighted stance from Formula One or the teams being acutely aware of the impending date when the existing Concorde Agreement is up for renewal.
The current US$200 million anti-dilution fee – the amount required to enter Formula One – is not seen as enough by the teams, especially as this was an arbitrary amount agreed in talks during the 2019 season. Now, with the series’ popularity soaring, teams reportedly want this number to triple to US$600 million.
However, this is Andretti Autosport with support from the largest car manufacturer in the world and key backing from investment firm Guggenheim Partners, which claims to have more than US$285 billion in assets. Whatever the fee ends up being is unlikely to be an issue.
Plus, Liberty Media is a US-based company so it is subject to the Sherman Antitrust Law, which is designed to promote fair competition. The mooted US$600 million fee could be seen as an attempt to ringfence Formula One and, therefore, monopolise the sport. So there’s a chance it might not even happen. But Formula One teams also reportedly have a veto on any potential entrant to the sport, so it’s possible that all this conjecture may come to nothing.
It equally begs the question: why has General Motors attached itself to an entry that may not even line up on the grid?
An existing avenue
General Motors could have agreed a deal with an existing team on the grid. While it might not have played into its winning strategy, it could have been part of a long-term plan. A historic team like Williams has the right tools to make the charge to the front of the grid if it had backing from General Motors.
After all, the start of this season has shown that there is potential for the established competitive order to change, with the Williams car showing a surprise improvement and Aston Martin demonstrating how considered investment can haul a team towards the front of the grid.
Of all the teams, Williams would make the most sense for a manufacturer tie-up. The Grove-based outfit has a long history in Formula One and there is considerable advertising inventory still available on its car, meaning there is a significant opportunity to make the team more successful on the commercial front.
Social media stirred false rumours around Porsche purchasing the team, but the truth of the matter is that there is no reason for current owner Dorilton Capital to sell, at least not before the new Concorde Agreement is signed.
Should any team be allowed to join Formula One, it would result in a considerable windfall for Williams, so it makes little to no business sense for Dorilton Capital to exit. However, despite the promising start to the season, it still feels as though there is some discontent behind the scenes.
Gulf has received considerable visibility at Williams despite the lack of investment, as seen here adorning the team's pit crew
Firstly, in the pursuit to fill up empty space on their car, Williams could be undervaluing their sponsorship deals. Multiple sources have indicated that the recent contract signed with Gulf is worth in the region of US$3 million, which is far below what a Formula One team should expect given the level of publicity that the oil company is receiving. The deal reportedly also includes more than one livery takeover.
On top of that was the shock exit of team principal Jost Capito at the end of last season, just days after the German had conducted an interview with Forbes discussing his plans for the team in the future.
“We understand where we have come in at in the standings, but getting championship points – that’s our initial goal, and then we build from there,” Capito had said.
Four days after the article - in which driver Alex Albon described the 64-year-old as “a father-like figure” - was published in December, Capito retired. It’s hard to believe that Capito would have been tempted out of an early retirement in the first instance to head up a long-term project for just two seasons.
It implies a less-than-harmonious situation behind the scenes and a source with knowledge of the situation has described decision-making at Williams as somewhat chaotic. That is hardly a backdrop against which a major car manufacturer like General Motors would want to make an investment.
But with James Vowles now stepping in as team principal, Williams may have happened upon a steadying presence. With vast experience of the efficient machine at Mercedes, the hope is that Vowles can impart some of his wisdom on the ailing Williams outfit.
In a Q&A on the Williams website, Vowles mentioned how “some of the facilities [at Williams] are not necessarily at the same level as they were in Mercedes”, highlighting the distance the team still has to cover in order to become a genuine force again.
It is also a stark reminder of the investment required to not just compete in Formula One, but to be a success - something General Motors would have been acutely aware of when choosing to partner with Andretti ahead of an existing team like Williams.
Formula One would be a better place with the Andretti-Cadillac team lining up on the grid in 2026, but its teams need to look beyond their own self-interest if the series’ American dream is to become a reality.