F1’s Billionaire Boys Club Is Afraid to Lose to America

The opposition to the Andretti-Cadillac bid isn't just about money—in a sport dominated by Europe, it's about losing face.
Getty/Peter Holderith

I’m not Toto Wolff’s therapist, but if I was, I think I’d be discussing nightmares where the DRS flicks open, the slipstream is departed, and a Silver Arrow Formula 1 car gets passed on a straightaway by a machine that says “McDonald’s” on the side. That would make Wolff’s 2021 season finale episode look like spilled milk.

For those who haven’t heard, the strongest American bid to enter F1 in years, led by the Andretti family, has a new backer in General Motors: Meet the would-be Andretti Cadillac F1 Team. It’s the big automotive partner F1 has been asking for. Except, as soon as it was announced, the news was publicly met with skepticism from the current pack of teams and a snippy statement from F1 about how it needs to approve a new team, not just the FIA. And clearly it was more overtly negative behind the scenes, as FIA’s president Mohammed Ben Sulayem put out a statement on Twitter calling out the “adverse reaction.” This is a serious challenge to the likes of Wolff, who has questioned the Andretti bid at every juncture. “What are you bringing to the show?” he has previously said in the context of the new American team. The answer to his question seems obvious to everyone but him and the interest he and his fellow principals represent.

A possible Andretti-Cadillac entry with backing from General Motors will happen if the FIA approves it. The associated hand-wringing from almost all of F1’s teams concerning this possibility isn’t just about the money. Forget Wolff’s claim that “just adding teams” would dilute the value of the sport, as if Radio Flyer is piecing an outfit together. That’s pretty obviously nonsense. It’s about keeping an exclusive club exclusive, maintaining the status quo, and denying arguably one of the biggest names in racing, one of the oldest car brands in the world, and America’s largest automaker a shot at glory. All at the cost of the fans.

F1’s entitlement is so extreme that even F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali (yes, the former Ferrari principal) has openly said that F1 has “no need” for Andretti’s new team—or any new team in general. It resonates with the opinion of Ferrari’s current F1 team principal, Frederic Vasseur, who simply said Andretti’s team “simply doesn’t make sense today.”

That makes sense to them because they are over there and General Motors, Cadillac, and Andretti Global are over here. To Toto Wolff, an Egg McMuffin may as well be cuisine from another planet. It’s a planet he and his colleagues do not want to compete against. Only profit from.

For the first time in decades, a primarily European sport has had a taste of the pie called “a massive and enthusiastic American audience,” and the sport is happy to take advantage. The 2023 season has three races in the United States, more than any other country. It just makes too much sense. Have you read one of the 3,000 articles documenting the “Drive to Survive effect?” The biggest crowds in F1’s entire history gather for races in America. You can practically taste the potential for teams, their stakeholders, and Formula 1 management to rake in mountains of cash. It’s better than it ever has been, and they want even more.

2021’s USGP in Austin, Texas attracted 400,000 fans. Getty

But a well-prepped local team taking advantage of this and then racing—and perhaps winningin the U.S. and on hallowed tracks like Silverstone, Spa Francorchamps, or Imola? That seems to be a bridge too far. It starts with the money, sure. It ends in something a little more personal.

To be clear, F1 already has an answer for the money question; it’s stated that any new team has to cough up a truly massive $200 million to even set a tire on a racetrack. This money would then be distributed amongst the teams in order to protect any diluted value in the franchise as a result. But in the wake of Andretti’s Cadillac deal, It’s now been claimed that many teams feel this $200 million is simply not enough. This, of course, presumes that a team with Andretti, Cadillac, and General Motors involved wouldn’t bring with it a laundry list of American sponsors seeking a global audience. It’s a stunningly ridiculous concern.

Various F1 teams also still state that the GM part of the equation is nothing more than a glorified branding exercise. This is also laughable in the face of things like the “Alfa Romeo” team that’s set to be rebranded as a works Audi outfit just as soon as somebody can find a pen. And it’s even sillier in the face of GM’s qualifications to support a global racing endeavor. Yes, the Andretti-Cadillac team would initially use a customer engine, probably from Renault/Alpine. But GM, without any direct investment whatsoever, is already prepped to offer way more than a badge. It already has the concrete resources to support racing operations like in IndyCar, and at least one facility, the Performance and Racing Center in Pontiac, Michigan, that could arguably build a ground-up F1 engine.

Of any American company, GM has the resources to compete in Formula 1. Its Milford proving ground was the first dedicated automotive testing facility ever built when it was constructed in 1924. It houses the equivalent of 150 miles of two-lane highway on its 4,000-acre campus, which happens to employ 4,517 people. Outside of Milford, it operates other facilities directly related to motorsports, such as the $45 million Charlotte technical center, which features “three state-of-the-art Driver-in-the-Loop simulators, aero development, and other software-enabled vehicle modeling technology.” GM also operates a full-scale wind tunnel which has recently been upgraded, as well as a reduced-scale facility that came online in 2015. None of this mentions Addretti’s own 575,000-square-foot global racing and technology headquarters, which is set to open in 2025.

Audi is all but certainly taking over Sauber, which is currently branded as the Alfa Romeo F1 team. Before that, it was BMW’s. Audi

Resources aside, though, we can’t go any further without mentioning the only existing American team on the grid, Haas. As of very recently, it’s been not much more than a repository for grifters. It had its F1 debut in 2016 and has made a habit of finishing rather comfortably in the bottom half of the championship every year. It has strong roots in Europe and it’s also an explicit marketing exercise for the business that provides the team with its name, Haas Automation Inc, which manufactures commercial CNC machines.

It has neither captured the American spirit nor capitalized on the growing American audience. The car was previously sponsored by a shady energy drink company called Rich Energywhich is a whole saga in itself. It followed up this ill-fated public embarrassment by getting money from a Russian oligarch, Dmitry Mazepin. The elder Mazepin insisted that his kid, Nikita, be allowed to publicly make a fool of himself in one of the two Haas machines until Russia invaded Ukraine. The Mazepins then departed with their matching haircuts and the sponsorship was canned. Now the team has a new title sponsor, MoneyGram, in a country that is home to brands like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Walmart, Amazon, and Coca-Cola, to name a few.

The other European teams think this is great. More than great. Haas can’t sell itself to an American audience, it can’t take any sponsors from them, and it certainly can’t lift a finger on the track. They think little of them and by extension, American motorsports in general. To quote a recent BBC article, “Within F1, there is a general sense that many of those racing in America in categories where teams buy cars off the shelf and run them with fairly small-scale operations don’t quite grasp just how high the level is in F1, how complex the task.”

GM’s 5.5-liter flat-plane LT6, the most powerful naturally aspirated road-going V8 ever, is handbuilt in a clean room at its Bowling Green, Kentucky assembly plant. It powers the current Chevy Corvette Z06. Chevrolet

Andretti-Cadillac has all of the trimmings of a team that could be the antithesis of Haas. It has the name, it has the backing, and it has the best potential of any prospective American F1 team in history to not just compete, but do so on a level that threatens the status quo. The fans are undoubtedly on board, too.

But across the Atlantic, most of the teams can’t deal with this. Keep in mind, Toto Wolff feels the need to make a comment when his pumpernickel toast doesn’t snap just right. He can’t risk losing. At least, he can’t risk losing to people that are more than happy to get their breakfast out of a bag.

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