Formula 1’s popularity in the United States has accelerated in 2022, making it a vital market that the sport’s bosses are keen to grow. Starting in 2023 there will be three races in the United States, in Miami; Austin, Texas; and Las Vegas.
But Formula 1 has only one American team, England-based Haas, and hasn’t had an American driver on the grid since 2015, when Alexander Rossi took part in five races.
Michael Andretti is looking to change that. He is the son of 1978 Formula 1 World Champion Mario Andretti and owns Andretti Autosport, a team that has enjoyed enormous success in the United States through IndyCar, winning the Indianapolis 500 five times. Andretti Autosport also competes in Formula E, Extreme E, sports car racing and the Australian Supercars series.
Andretti’s next goal is to form a Formula 1 team, to race starting in 2024. His team would be based in Indianapolis and would have an 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 is no one out there who is doing that. That’s where we want to be.”
Last year, Andretti came close to taking a majority stake in the Sauber Group, which operates the Alfa Romeo team, but talks fell apart as negotiations neared completion. Since none of the other teams were willing to sell, Andretti set out to create his own.
“He’s very keen to get into Formula 1,” said McLaren chief executive Zak Brown. “He is from a family of high-quality racing pedigree. He has an IndyCar team, a Formula E team, an Extreme E team. We think the more competition for him, the better.”
Brown is not alone in supporting Andretti’s plans. Two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso raced for Andretti in the Indianapolis 500 in 2017, giving him first-hand experience of how the team operates.
“They are a very good organization, very professional,” Alonso said. “They have a lot of good guys there. Formula 1 is a different level, for sure, but they have a passion for motorsport, and it will be very good for the sport to have Andretti’s name on the grid.”
However, they do not share his enthusiasm for Andretti’s Formula 1 plans. Of the 10 teams, only two – McLaren and Alpine – have openly stated their support for allowing an 11th team to join.
“At the moment, you have 10 good teams that are all stable,” said Günther Steiner, Haas team manager. “Why should we change anything if it works like this? Right now, we’re in a good place.”
Formula 1 has a history of teams pulling out. From 2012 to 2016 three teams (HRT, Caterham and Manor) closed due to financial concerns and are seen as examples of the risk of having too many teams.
“If we have a new team coming in with great added value for the championship, this could make sense,” said Frédéric Vasseur, Alfa Romeo team principal. “But we don’t want welcoming someone new to put two or three teams on the grid at risk.”
The concern for the 10 existing teams is that by adding someone new, Formula 1’s prize money fund will be divided in more ways, meaning each team will end up with less money to operate. Mercedes chief executive Toto Wolff said any new team would have to show it could bring more money to Formula 1 than it would cost existing operations. “Because the 11 team means a 10 percent dilution for everyone else,” he said.
To address this concern, any new entry must pay a one-time fee of $200 million that is divided among the current network. Andretti is willing to pay for this, but existing teams don’t think it’s enough to make up for the potential loss of revenue. When this sum was agreed in 2020, the value of Formula 1 was “very different”, said Steiner, who suggested that it would have to be adjusted in the future.
Otmar Szafnauer, the Alpine team principal, thought the higher prize money split would be offset by the extra income that could be generated by bringing Andretti into Formula 1.
“Andretti is a big name in motorsport,” he said. “We’re having more races in the US now, and I think a team like Andretti could maybe make all the revenue bigger so we all benefit.”
Brown was disappointed that so many teams were against the addition of Andretti. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that some of the racing teams have a very selfish view of what should and shouldn’t happen in motorsports,” he said. “I don’t think that’s anything new.”
But Wolff said it was important to recognize that current teams had “invested considerable amounts” in competing in Formula 1, helping the sport grow, and that their value could be attributed, in part, to the limited number of teams creating exclusivity.
Stefano Domenicali, the chief executive of Formula 1, agreed that “the community of teams must be respected” and that any additions would have to be “really significant”.
“We have a lot of people or a lot of investors who would like 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 issue a tender to capture the interest of new teams. Andretti said talks with Mohammed Ben Sulayem, the FIA president, in Miami in May were “positive” but there was still “a big process to go through” to get enough support.
“There are millions of people who accept” the addition of an Andretti team, he said. “They just aren’t the right people right now.”
It doesn’t stop Andretti from making plans to hire staff and establish a base in Indianapolis, which he hoped to start building this summer.
“We’re spending money to get things going, because we feel hopefully we’ll get there,” he said. “We are taking a risk, but we think the risk is worth taking.”