The Deep Dive: Audi or Porsche to Formula 1?
Volkswagen Group chief Ferdinand Piech meets Bernie Ecclestone.
Which brand is most likely to compete against Red Bull, Williams, and Mercedes-AMG? Is it Audi or Porsche? And under which conditions would the bigwigs from Wolfsburg consider such a move?
Auto racing's premier series, Formula 1, is ruled by Bernie Ecclestone, the incredibly wealthy and influential Brit who keeps most protagonists on a remarkably short leash. The 84-year-old Napoleon of motor racing is a thorn in the side of the 77-year-old Ferdinand Piech, who is not a great fan of sharing power and profits.
Those in the know say Piech (at right) would only contemplate F1 if Ecclestone agreed to give the teams a much bigger portion of the earnings. Such negotiation could take awhile, which is why VW's most optimistic game plan for top-drawer motor racing starts about three years from now. That's the estimated minimum amount of time for a deal to be signed, for a team to set up, and for the initial brand-related input to bear fruit.
Which brand? Right now, the internal duel is between Audi and Porsche, but so far this is a hypothetical battle with virtual warriors and highly provisional rules.
Audi has just signed off a 22 billion euro investment plan (about $27.4 billion), which is instrumental in boosting annual production to 2 million units by 2020. No, this plan does not specifically mention F1, but its buffer zone is healthy enough to fund two all-new models and an even more ambitious motorsports strategy.
It would be the make's third serious attempt at premier league racing. More than 20 years ago, Middle East money was at hand to finance Audi's own engine, car, and infrastructure -- but then the oil bubble burst. Audi engineers kept the engine up-to-date for four consecutive seasons just in case the sheiks reconsidered. In 1998, the company bought Cosworth with the clear intent to enter F1, but again the deal failed to materialize and Cosworth's racing division was subsequently spun off to Ford.
In the summer of 2014, the checkered-flag task force reconvened once more, this time with Red Bull Racing principal Dietrich Mateschitz reportedly part of the equation. The first round of talks centered on Mateschitz's Toro Rosso F1 team, sources say. But according to two informants from Ingolstadt, the focus has recently switched to Red Bull Racing, the first-tier team that just lost four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel to Ferrari.
Entering F1 with a partner rather than with a white piece of paper is exactly what Herr Mateschitz did when he acquired Jaguar F1, which had started life as Stewart Racing. Audi has apparently also voiced interest in a partnership, be it Toro Rosso or in Red Bull. We don't expect a decision before 2015, but there is no need to hurry since both teams' engine deals are cast in stone and since it will take VW that aforementioned three years to develop a competitive new powerplant anyway.
That's 2018 at the earliest for the motor, and no sooner than 2019 for a chassis designed from scratch. Add two more learning years, and it becomes clear that the new German racing team would not be ready to pitch for the championship before 2021 or 2022. If this game plan does bear fruit, Stefano Domenicali, ex-Ferrari F1, now with Audi in a diffuse standby position, is an obvious candidate for the motorsports director's position.
What about Porsche's ambitions to upgrade from LMP to F1? Porsche competed first in F1 in the early '60s, when it fielded the 718 and 804 with mixed success. In the mid-'80s, Porsche did extremely well with the TAG Turbo entered by McLaren. The next foray was the overweight and slow Footwork Arrows racer, which went exactly nowhere in the 1991-1993 seasons.
This time, the brand would have to start from scratch again, but thanks to the LMP venture there already is a highly competent research and development team in place, with many specialists having previously worked for Red Bull or Sauber. Porsche may be a little better prepared for Hamilton-and-Vettel-bashing than Audi. Why? Because Audi has lately been involved heavily in diesel development, because it farms out a large portion of the R&D work to predominantly British specialist suppliers and engineers and because the team and the backup organization are more familiar with touring car and endurance racing.
Although most of the group's key players have their thinking caps on, no decision has yet been made. After all, the Ecclestone issue remains unresolved, the F1 rules are not sufficiently watertight and, despite the comeback of Honda, the future competitive environment may not be transparent enough for high-end entrants like Audi or Porsche. In addition, the string-pullers in Wolfsburg are keen on finding a potent main sponsor who would have to carry the lion's share of the financial risk. The brand in question must be properly prepared for that sportier new image, and the racing activities within the VW Group need to spread more evenly to prosper: WRC world rally, LMP sports car racing, and F1 deserve three different umbrellas.