Formula 1’s popularity in the United States is set to accelerate in 2022, making it a vital market that the sport’s chiefs want to develop. As of 2023, there will be three US races, in Miami; Austin, Texas; and Las Vegas.
But Formula 1 has only one American team, Haas, based in England, and it has not had an American driver on the grid since 2015, when Alexander Rossi took part in five races.
Michael Andretti is trying to change that. He is the son of 1978 Formula 1 World Champion Mario Andretti and owns Andretti Autosport, a team that has enjoyed huge success in the United States through IndyCar and won the Indianapolis 500 five times. Andretti Autosport also competes in Formula E, Extreme E in sports racing and the Australian Supercar Series.
Andretti’s next goal is to build a Formula 1 team that will compete in 2024. His team will be based in Indianapolis and will feature American driver Colton Herta, who is the youngest race winner in IndyCar history.
“We want to be an American team that wants to develop American drivers for the future,” Andretti said. “There’s nobody out there doing that. This is where we want to be.”
Last year, Andretti came close to buying a majority stake in the Sauber Group, which runs the Alfa Romeo team, only for talks to fall apart when negotiations broke down. With no other team willing to sell, Andretti began building his own.
“He wants to get into Formula 1,” said McLaren chief executive Zach Brown. “He comes from a family with a high quality racing pedigree. It has an IndyCar team, a Formula E team, an Extreme E team. We think the more competition, the better.”
Brown is not alone in supporting Andretti’s plans. Two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso raced for Andretti at the 2017 Indianapolis 500, giving him experience working with the team.
“They are a very good organization, very professional,” Alonso said. “They have a lot of good guys there. Formula 1 is of course a different level, but they have a passion for motorsport and it would be great for the sport to have Andretti’s name on the grid.
However, their enthusiasm for Andretti’s Formula 1 plans is not shared. Only two of the 10 teams – McLaren and Alpine – have openly declared their support for an 11th team.
“At the moment, you have 10 good teams that are all stable,” said Gunther Steiner, Haas team principal. “Why should we change anything if it works like this? We are in a good place at the moment.”
Formula 1 has a history of breaking up teams. Between 2012 and 2016, three teams – HRT, Caterham and Manor – all closed due to financial problems and are seen as examples of the risks posed by having too many teams.
“If we’re going to have a new team coming in for the championship with mega value, it could be reasonable,” said Frederic Wasser, Alfa Romeo team principal. “But we don’t want to welcome a new person who puts two or three teams in the network at risk.”
The concern for the existing 10 teams is that by adding someone new, Formula 1’s prize pool will be further divided, meaning each team ends up with less money to work with. Toto Wolff, the chief executive of Mercedes, said any new team would have to prove it could bring more money into Formula 1 than the current operations cost. “Because the 11th team means 10 percent dilution for everybody,” he said.
To solve this problem, any new entry must pay a one-time fee of $200 million, which is split between the current network. Andretti is willing to pay that, though existing teams don’t think it’s enough to make up for potential lost revenue. When that amount was agreed in 2020, the value of Formula 1 was “very different”, said Steiner, who predicted it would have to be adjusted in the future.
Ottmar Zaffnauer, Alpine’s team principal, thought that a larger distribution of prize money could be made by generating additional revenue for Andretti in Formula 1.
“Andretti is a big name in motorsport,” he said. “We’re doing more races in the United States now and I think a team like Andretti can make the whole revenue pie bigger so that we all benefit.”
Brown was disappointed that so many teams were against adding Andretti. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that some race teams have a very selfish view of what should and shouldn’t happen in motor racing,” he said. “I don’t think it’s anything new.”
But Wolff said it was important to recognize that the current teams have invested “considerably” in Formula 1 racing, which has helped the sport grow, and that its value can be partly attributed to the limited number of teams that create exclusivity.
Stefano Domenicali, Formula 1’s chief executive, agreed that “the community of teams must be respected” and that any additions must be “really meaningful”.
“We have a lot of people or a lot of investors who want to be in Formula 1,” he said. “Some of them are more vocal than others. But we have to protect the teams.”
For Andretti to join, Formula 1’s governing body, the FIA, must launch a tender seeking interest from new teams. Andretti said talks with FIA president Mohamed Ben Sulayem in Miami had been “positive” but there was still “a long way to go” to get enough support.
“Millions of people are in favor” of adding Andretti to the team, he said. “There just aren’t the right people at the moment.”
That doesn’t stop Andretti from making plans to hire staff and build a base in Indianapolis, which he hopes to build this summer.
“We’re spending money to get the ball rolling because we feel like we’re going to get it,” he said. “We’re taking a risk, but we think it’s worth the risk.”