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Analysis

Why the time was right for Ford's F1 return with Red Bull

Some 22 years after pulling the plug out of Jaguar and handing the keys to a certain Dietrich Mateschitz, the paths of Ford and Red Bull have crossed again. And their 2026 Formula 1 alliance makes sense for both parties.

While Ford's domestic sales stalled in 2022 - partly due to the electronic chip shortage which hampered the entire sector - its EV sales doubled to make it the US's second-largest EV automaker behind Tesla. New models include the all-electric Mustang Mach-E and even an electric version of its iconic F-150 pickup truck, the F-150 Lightning.

Ford was looking for ways to increase its reach around the globe and Formula 1's recent surge inevitably made it an attractive proposition. As Ford CEO Jim Farley said at the Red Bull livery launch on Friday: "Around the world, we have almost 200,000 employees. And we are really excited to engage a whole new generation of customers with our electric vehicles."

The Blue Oval had been evaluating F1 for some time, but the category's current hybrid rules proved a stumbling block for most interested manufacturers. While a technological marvel, the extreme efficient MGU-H motor recovering the car's exhaust gases also proved extremely expensive to develop and bore little relevance to road car technology. It's been known that Volkswagen, which will buy into Sauber with its Audi brand, felt the MGU-H was a stumbling block in its bid to join F1 and it put off Ford as well.

After lengthy negotiations, the FIA finally ratified F1's new engine regulations for 2026 last August; rules which were specifically designed to make the 1,000+ bhp hybrid power units both more cost-effective and more ecologically sustainable.

The MGU-H is gone and instead, the MGU-K will do more of the heavy lifting, recovering up to three times the energy from the brakes. F1 is also moving to sustainable fuels and the new rules should help reduce the fuel burn per grand prix.

The 2026 power unit rules reset therefore proved a once in a generation opportunity for a manufacturer to enter F1 on its own terms and on a relatively level playing field, given all marques will need to develop a new power unit and the head start for existing manufacturers won't be this small again for an entire cycle.

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Six manufacturers have registered to supply a new power unit from 2026, which includes not only new boys Audi and Red Bull - Ford but also Red Bull's existing partner Honda, which re-entered F1 quicker than it could pull out.

Ford's return with Red Bull will mark its first formal involvement in F1 since it sold the Jaguar team to the Austrian energy drinks manufacturer in 2004

Ford's return with Red Bull will mark its first formal involvement in F1 since it sold the Jaguar team to the Austrian energy drinks manufacturer in 2004

Photo by: Lorenzo Bellanca / Motorsport Images

Ford's global director of motorsport Mark Rushbrook explained that Ford's case study of what a sensible Formula 1 programme could look like started over two years ago.

"It was a long journey," Rushbrook said when Autosport asked him about the timeline of Ford's F1 return.

"It started two-plus years ago as we started to see and understand what the future of the sport was, what the commitment, the technology changes, the commitment to sustainable fuels, the net-carbon zero, and the change to the technical regulations to make electrification an even bigger component of the hybrid power unit.

"That became of interest to us where we knew we could contribute something technically to a programme but also could continue to learn in those areas.

"And in parallel to that, we saw what was happening to the sport itself with the popularity, the growing global fanbase and diversity of that fanbase would then give us a platform to tell our story.

"As we saw that really coming together and continuing to grow, we started that consideration of 'OK, this is looking like maybe it's the right time to get back into Formula 1'."

It is clear that Ford was waiting for the significant 2026 rules shift to be confirmed in order to advance to the next stage, because without them it would not have entered.

"No, I don't think we would," Rushbrook confirmed. "If it was a carry-over power unit, without this opportunity, that would have been a step backwards for us..."

Ford explored options with current and prospective teams and from the outset, it ruled out a full takeover like the disastrous Jaguar programme, which made Ford last drop its F1 tools. It felt "none of them seemed right" until Red Bull came along.

Ford achieved great success as an engine supplier with the ubiquitous Cosworth-badged DFV that powered Stewart and Tyrrell to glory in 1971 and 1973

Ford achieved great success as an engine supplier with the ubiquitous Cosworth-badged DFV that powered Stewart and Tyrrell to glory in 1971 and 1973

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

"With Red Bull, it was very quickly apparent that what they were looking for in a partner is something that we could bring, and what we were looking for in a partner is something that they could bring," Rushbrook added.

"While that started the latter half of 2022, it went very quickly in the sense that we knew it was the right partnership from the very beginning."

The breakdown of Red Bull's Porsche talks certainly accelerated discussions, as in Ford Red Bull found a technical and commercial partner that could contribute to its own Red Bull Powertrains division in Milton Keynes, without wanting equity or putting its own footprint on the entire operation.

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

"It's a very different relationship to what was discussed with Porsche," Red Bull team boss Christian Horner explained.

"This was purely a commercial and technical deal. There's no exchange of any shares or participation within the business.

"It's a very straightforward agreement where we will have the ability to share and have access to R&D, particularly on the EV side, cell technology and software development and so on.

"And then, on the commercial side, obviously, with Ford being so prevalent in the US, as a commercial partner, it enables us to achieve even more penetration in that market.

For Ford too, the Red Bull deal isn't just a badging exercise as it pledges to co-develop the power unit by embedding itself in the outfit's Milton Keynes campus. Ford's advanced battery cell technology is one area the manufacturer hopes to contribute, and it also aims to gather knowledge on aerodynamics in a two-way transfer of technology.

Ford CEO Jim Farley joined Red Bull's drivers and team principal Christian Horner at its 2023 New York launch last week

Ford CEO Jim Farley joined Red Bull's drivers and team principal Christian Horner at its 2023 New York launch last week

Photo by: Red Bull Content Pool

"The initial areas that have been identified where we're working are certainly in the battery cell technology, in the electric motor itself, the controls software both in the fundamental software as well as the calibration of that to optimise the performance, the analytics within the power unit itself but also across the total car," Rushbrook explained.

"We're also hoping to learn more about aerodynamics to bring that back to our road cars, some of the processes and tools that they have.

"As far as people involved, there certainly will be Ford Performance employees that are part of the team. I certainly expect that we will have employees located full-time in Milton Keynes, but not yet at this point.

"We're still working through who and when and how, but definitely some strong areas there where we're committed to work together."

In view of Ford's global EV ambitions, the timing of F1's engine regulation pivot couldn't have been better. Time will tell if Red Bull reaps the rewards.

Additional reporting by Jonathan Noble and Luke Smith. 

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