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New Teams Process: Who's interested in an F1 grid spot?

In January FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem announced the opening of a new F1 teams process, the first stage of which closed on Monday. RacingNews365 Editorial Director Dieter Rencken analyses the situation and outlines what happens next.

By the time you read this various hopefuls will have lodged formal applications under the FIA’s Expression of Interest process for new teams. Controversially announced by the governing body’s President, Mohammed Ben Sulayem, in January, the initiative proved divisive, not least because F1 commercial rights holder Liberty Media and existing teams are comfortable with the present status quo. The teams are anti because prize monies would be shared with an additional team (or two), reducing their individual shares, while Liberty is concerned the teams may push for a larger ‘pot’, in turn impacting on profitability of the NASDAQ-listed entity. Plus, competitive people by their very natures prefer less competition as it makes winning easier… On the flipside, MBS is concerned one or two teams may leave F1 in the not-too-distant future, particularly those owned by motor manufacturers who are focussing electrification. While 10 teams are fine, a reduction to nine or even eight would prove catastrophic, particularly given the lead time required for new teams to enter. Haas took three years to gear up, and had it not entered in 2016 F1 would have nine teams… Thus, the FIA launched the process, which comprises three parts: requests for documents (end-March, $30k), formal lodging of applications (15 May, $300k) and a thorough selection process of any successful entities on 30 June although this is expected to slip due to the number of applications received despite the non-refundable evaluation fee.

How many - if any - will be selected depends on the quality of applications. But, it gets complicated: Although the FIA’s International Sporting Code makes provision for 26-car grids (13 teams), Liberty’s prize fund is structured to pay to 12th place so it is likely no more than two will get the nod. F1’s covenants also stipulate that incomers pay a $200m anti-dilution fee, which some observers believe to be illegal in terms of EU anti-competitive laws but Liberty and the teams seem hopeful the chosen few will put up and shut up rather than rock the boat even before entering F1. There is even talk the fee could be upped to $600m, but that seems a scare tactic… Asked by RacingNews365 in Miami how they felt about additional teams, Toto Wolff and Christian Horner of Mercedes and Red Bull respectively blew lukewarm, with the former saying, “We're not part of the governance [but] I very much hope if we find someone, if we decide to go for another team, that they can really leverage what we have today and make it even greater.” The latter questioned the financial structures and suggested F1’s infrastructure could not accommodate additional teams. “Ultimately, who pays?” he asked. “If [new teams] dilute the income of the 10, it's like turkeys voting for Christmas. Why would we do that? Are Liberty prepared to pay and [prize] fund an 11th team; are the FIA prepared to reduce their fees to help accommodate it?"

That Michael Andretti’s Indianapolis-based team would be a front-runner was clear even before the process was announced: The son of 1978 F1 World Champion Mario long harboured intentions to enter F1; indeed, many suspect his discussions with MBS during the 2022 Miami Grand Prix triggered the process. It is no coincidence that Andretti formally confirmed his application within days of the process being launched. During press calls Andretti revealed that Cadillac was partnering his bid - a trump card - yet Liberty all but shunned the project, barely covering it on its website, inexplicable given Andretti’s record in various categories and that fact that it would be bringing the US luxury automotive brand into the sport. F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali last week criticised Andretti’s vocal approach during a call with Liberty investors. Then there is the peculiarly named LKY SUNZ "youth culture-focused" operation headed by long-time F1 aspirant Benjamin Durand, who has attracted US and Asian partners. The Frenchman, a co-founder Panthera project (see below), plans to operate LKY SUNZ, named after the east-to-west course of the sun, out of a Far East factory although the project will initially be based in Europe. Durand is confident the youthful, international flavour of the project will sway his case. He is also close to Hyundai Motorsport Director Cyril Abiteboul – who recently spoke to RacingNews365 about a potential f1 entry - from earlier talks over Renault power units and ‘B team’ status for Panthera while the latter was team boss of the French squad, so it is not inconceivable that the Korean conglomerate eventually gets involved via one of its three brands: Hyundai, KIA or Genesis. H26, a project launched by successful HiTech F2/3 team boss Oliver Oakes - previously linked to fertilizer magnate Dmitry Mazepin, father of so-so ex-F1 driver Nikita - is another contender. Although Oakes denies the Russian, who has links with the Kremlin, is involved and that independent support has been sourced from Dubai, rumours about clandestine Russian money abound and could provide an insurmountable obstacle. Still, H26 has pushed ahead relentlessly - Oakes is said to have spent upwards of 30 million Euros - and it is by far the most advanced of all projects after recruiting an impressive roll call of F1 technical ‘names’ who have readied a concept car for wind tunnel testing. That said, Oakes is rumoured to have offered to sell the project to other applicants and existing teams, so may well be facing up to rejection.

Craig Pollock, former manager to 1997 F1 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve and founder of British American Racing which ultimately became the Mercedes F1 Team, is another to have thrown his hat into the FIA ring with his Formula Equal application – revealed by RacingNews365 - which has Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at its heart and aims for a 50/50 gender quotient across the team including, when talent emerges, in the cockpit. Said to have Saudi backing, the project forms part of ambitions within the Kingdom to up its motorsport footprint beyond a Grand Prix, Formula E rounds, Dakar and Extreme E events and its WRC application. Indeed, during the recent Saudi Grand Prix, the head of the local motorsport federation Prince Khalid exclusively told RacingNews365 that an own F1 team is on the horizon. “It’s still in the very early stages,” he admitted, adding, “there are lots of feasibility studies. Things are now a lot easier [to enter F1] but there’s a lot to do before we take the final decision. We are looking closely, and we have a lot of interest.” Another outfit in the frame is Rodin Carlin, owned by Australian David Dicker who is based in New Zealand and manufactures road-legal F1 cars based on ten-year-old Lotus Grand Prix technologies under the Rodin banner. The tech billionaire recently acquired a majority share in the championship-winning Carlin F2/3 outfit which he plans to use as springboard for a New Zealand-based F1 team. A long shot… Finally, there is Panthera - founded by French lawyer Michel Orts and Durand - which has blown hot and cold for many years. After they split Orts decided to go it alone and is said to be partnered by Hong Kong insurance broker Calvin Lo, of whom little is known save that he harbours F1 aspirations. He is, though, also linked to LKY SUNZ, so could be hedging his options. Then, as always, there are some unidentified dreamers who requested the original pack, but whether they proceed beyond the $30k stage is doubtful but cannot be discounted - fools and their money are always parted in F1. However, half a dozen solid applicants is around three times that anticipated by the FIA, so the entire process must be said to be a resounding success even if only one makes the grade. Watch this space in July…

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