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Analysis

Why Ford can offer Red Bull what Porsche could not in F1

With Ford's confirmation of a partnership with Red Bull Powertrains imminent, it gives the Milton Keynes squad more pulling power in the American market. It's one of the key aspects the Detroit marque can offer which Porsche, expected to tie up with Red Bull before the deal fell through, could not

Ford logo

How fitting that Red Bull is about to launch its 2023 Formula 1 season in New York City. At first glance, a glitzy livery unveil in the world’s most-recognisable metropolis is wholly in-keeping with the outfit’s incredible marketing campaigns that no other grand prix team comes close to matching.

But the reason for crossing the pond is much more significant this time around: in another very poorly kept secret, Red Bull is set to announce a strategic partnership with Ford.

In the shadow of the torch-carrying Statue of Liberty, the energy drink company will reunite with an old flame. And the reason Milton Keynes and Michigan reckon they can make the romance work at the third time of asking is because of the freedom at the heart of union. Intentional or otherwise, there’s no shortage of symbolism.

Of course, it wasn’t meant to be like this. Eight months ago, the t's were being crossed and i's dotted on a press release confirming that Red Bull would collaborate with Porsche for the advent of the 2026 engine regulations. This landmark news was set for the Austrian GP, the team’s home race. However, the announcement would never escape from the ‘Drafts’ folder.

Concern had grown that Christian Horner and co weren’t going to be afforded the autonomy necessary to maintain the structure that was about to land Max Verstappen his second drivers’ title in succession and return Red Bull to the top of the constructors’ championship for the first time since 2013. Then in September, it was confirmed that the deal was completely off.

Horner alluded to the culture clash, saying: “Red Bull has always been an independent team. It’s been one of our strengths; it’s been the backbone of what we’ve achieved and our ability to move quickly. It’s part of the DNA of who we are.

An expected Porsche deal did not grant Red Bull the autonomy it expected

An expected Porsche deal did not grant Red Bull the autonomy it expected

Photo by: Zak Mauger / Motorsport Images

“We’re not a corporately operated organisation, and that is one of our strengths in how we operate as a race team. That is an absolute prerequisite for the future.”

Horner was speaking at a time when the newly established Red Bull Powertrains division was imminently about to stick a 2026-specification engine on the dyno and the late Red Bull co-founder Dietrich Mateschitz in declining health. In that context, major investment to secure the long-term future of the F1 project has always been the preferred option. Hence, once the Porsche deal fell through, speculation moved on and a rekindling of the partnership with Honda was being evaluated and now we have the imminent confirmation of a technical alliance with Ford.

Ford ticks all the appropriate boxes for Red Bull, and vice versa. F1 is enjoying its global, Netflix-led popularity boom. It has finally cracked the American market as a maiden Las Vegas GP this year will complement the existing rounds in Miami and Austin, Texas. That swelling Stateside appeal is why Andretti Autosport is noisily buzzing around F1 and has bolstered its credentials for any nascent entry by partnering with General Motors. Biggest rival Ford wants a slice of that pie, too.

F1’s endeavour to be net-zero carbon by 2030 further helps sell the dream to the Detroit boardrooms as they bring the inherent contradiction that is two-tonne-plus all-electric trucks to market. Racing in the topflight from 2026 onwards, when fuels will be fully sustainable and the electric capacity of the hybrid powertrain increased, will be perceived to be in-line with that sustainability push. Combine it with the ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ adage - which, in partnership with Red Bull, Ford stands a very good chance of doing from the off - then any major F1 presence has real commercial value.

Then there’s why Ford appeals to Red Bull - with what it will, and won’t, bring to the table being of equal significance. Writing a big cheque is a major starting point. Porsche was preparing to stump up to buy a 50% stake in Red Bull Advanced Technologies (the arm of the operation that houses the race team) and back the Powertrains division in a 10-year deal.

Ford won’t be parting with as many dollars as that setup would have required. It is instead thought to be investing in the power unit programme only. In return, expect the famous blue oval to appear on the engine cover of future RB creations and prominent Ford faces to feature at all the major races and have their quotes at the bottom of key Red Bull press releases.

Red Bull and Ford have previous, uniting at Sauber in 1995

Red Bull and Ford have previous, uniting at Sauber in 1995

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

But team principal Horner and Helmut Marko won’t suddenly be pushed to one side to accommodate their American counterparts, as Porsche intended to do by instilling its own trusted chiefs. Red Bull has no interest in that level of bureaucracy that will ultimately only make it slower to respond to the threat of Mercedes and Ferrari and dilute the lean management structure that has borne so much success since 2005.

Ford has previous for this kind of hands-off support. See the World Rally Championship, where it is associated with Malcolm Wilson’s crack M-Sport outfit - the cars of which, as it has happens, also proudly wear the Red Bull logos. The team steers the development, not America’s largest automotive manufacturer. It’s happy to defer and let the engineering experts crack on relatively unimpeded and still racks up the success as a result.

This lack of intervention is exactly what the Red Bull F1 team desires. Not that Porsche’s approach was fundamentally wrong for grand prix racing, just entirely at odds for that particular technical partnership to work well. And it’s also not to say that Ford will have zero involvement in Red Bull Powertrains, just that it will have a decidedly lighter touch than Stuttgart desired. Where Ford has experience with the relevant technology, expect that to absolutely carry over.

And this comparative freedom should not be triggering alarm bells that Ford is about to repeat mistakes from its F1 past. Famously, in the early 2000s, prior to Red Bull buying the Jaguar-branded team, Detroit management were studying the spreadsheets and unaware why millions were being paid to a 'Mr E Irvine'.

Two decades later, current Ford president and CEO Jim Farley can be spotted racing his Ford GT40 at the Goodwood Revival or slithering about in an AC Cobra. He knows the scene intimately. Also, F1 is no longer a niche European activity that Ford will attempt to use to the modernise the image of a sub-brand specialising in leather and wood-trimmed saloon cars.

This time, the project will be firmly on the radar of the American top brass, who will offer Red Bull the liberty it has been dreaming of.

Will Ford enjoy a successful return to F1 with Red Bull?

Will Ford enjoy a successful return to F1 with Red Bull?

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

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