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Ford’s return to F1, explained

Why Red Bull, and why now?

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One of the rumors circulating around the Formula 1 world was confirmed this week, as Ford announced a return to the sport for the 2026 season, in a partnership with Red Bull Racing. The announcement came as Red Bull held a season launch event in New York City, becoming the first F1 team to launch their season in the United States.

Why, after almost 20 years out of F1, is the American manufacturer coming back to the sport?

Let’s dive in.

Ford’s F1 history

Ford’s F1 history dates back to 1967, when the manufacturer entered the sport with its DFV engine. In 1965, the FIA agreed to double the maximum capacity of F1 engines from 1.5 liters to 3.0 liters. That adjustment opened the door for current teams to explore new engines for F1.

One of the results? A partnership between Ford and English-based manufacturer Cosworth to produce engines for Team Lotus. Their engine, the DFV (short for double four valve) became the most successful F1 engine of its era. Unveiled in April of 1967, it scored its first win just two months later, at the Dutch Grand Prix with Jim Clark behind the wheel. In its debut season, the DFV powered Lotus to a second-place finish in the Constructors’ Championship, and Clark to a third-place finish in the Drivers’ Championship.

In 1968, Lotus lost the exclusive rights to the Ford-Cosworth engine, and other teams began to race with the DFV in their cars. Those teams included McLaren and Matra.

From 1967 up until 1983, when Keke Rosberg won the Monaco Grand Prix with a DFV, that engine produced 155 Grand Prix victories. The 1980s saw the advent of the turbo engines, and teams — including Ford — began to slowly shift away from the DFV into turbo engines.

Standing alone, the 155 victories from the DFV engine ranks fifth all-time in F1, and Ford’s 176 total victories in F1 places them third all-time in victories from a manufacturer, behind only Ferrari’s 243, and Mercedes’ 212.

The Ford-Cosworth DFV still holds a number of single-season records in F1. In both 1969 and 1973, a DFV engine won every single Grand Prix. The DFV also holds the record for consecutive victories, as a DFV engine won 22-straight events over 1972, 1973, and 1974.

All told, Ford and Ford-manufactured engines are responsible for ten Constructors’ Championships, and 13 Drivers’ Championships.

Ford eventually moved to a turbo engine at the end of the 1980s, and while the manufacturer could not replicate the success they enjoyed during their DFV era, there were notable moments during Ford’s turbo period. Those include seeing Michael Schumacher win the 1994 Drivers’ Championship with Benetton Ford — although the team was edged out for the Constructors’ Championship that season by by Williams Renault — and the following year when Red Bull Sauber Ford finished seventh in the Constructors’.

That season, there was another team on the circuit with a Ford engine. The Simtek Ford driver by Jos Verstappen.

Yes, Max’s father.

Ford purchased the Steward F1 team prior to the 2000 campaign, renaming it Jaguar Racing. The Jaguar-Ford team saw minimal success over the next few years, and Ford eventually sold the Jaguar Racing team in 2005.

To Red Bull.

Why now?

Ford’s decision to return to the F1 grid in the years ahead makes sense for two reasons, both of which were highlighted by the manufacturer when the return was announced: Sustainability, and the continued growth, and popularity, of F1.

With respect to the first point, in 2019 F1 announced a forward-thinking Sustainability Strategy, focused on three key pillars. First, F1 announced a goal of achieving Net Zero Carbon by 2030, including delivering 100% sustainable fuels. Second, F1 aimed to leave a legacy of positive change wherever it races. And finally, F1 committed to taking steps to build a more diverse and inclusive sport by removing barriers, nurturing talent and inspiring change.

As part of this effort, the next generation of F1 cars to hit the track “will use significantly less energy and produce net zero exhaust CO2 emissions,” due to upcoming changes in F1 regulations. Among the changes, the next generation F1 cars will run on fully sustainable fuel, meaning “no new fossil carbon will be burned, with carbon instead to be derived from non-food sources, genuine municipal waste, or even out of the atmosphere.” They will also have three times the electrical power, as F1 moves away from the current Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs) and to “a far more powerful electrical component.”

Two electrical units currently in use, the MGU-K and the MGU-H, will harness even more electrical energy than they do in the current race cars. “The MGU-K (or Kinetic Motor Generator Unit) will almost triple the amount of electrical power produced by the current hybrid components. More braking energy – that would otherwise be wasted – will be collected and as a result, the aim is for the MGU-K to produce around 350kW in 2026 – a massive increase on the 120kW of energy currently deployed by the MGU-K and MGU-H.

When do these regulations go into effect?

2026, when Ford hits the grid in their partnership with Red Bull.

F1’s stated goals regarding sustainability mesh well with the direction Ford has taken in recent years regarding their vehicle fleet. Ford expects nearly half of their global vehicle fleet to be fully electric by 2030, and has made massive investments in electric vehicles. In 2021, the manufacture announced the plans for “Blue Oval City,” a massive complex in Tennessee to produce next-generation electric F-Series pickups and advanced batteries. The company also announced “Oval SK Battery Park,” another future complex to be built in central Kentucky consisting of twin battery plants that will power a new lineup of Ford and Lincoln EVs.

In addition, Ford is “working to meet increased consumer demand and deliver an annual run rate of 600,000 electric vehicles globally by the end of this year and 2 million globally by the end of 2026 as part of its Ford+ plan.”

In announcing the partnership with Red Bull, executive chair Bill Ford said this about the relationship: “Ford is returning to the pinnacle of the sport, bringing Ford’s long tradition of innovation, sustainability and electrification to one of the world’s most visible stages.”

Then there is the other big line of thinking behind this move.

The continued growth in popularity of F1, both around the world, and here in the United States.

It is no secret that growth in the American market is a huge part of F1’s vision for its future. As has been well documented here and elsewhere, the 2023 F1 season has three races here in the United States, the most ever for an F1 season. That includes the highly-anticipated Las Vegas Grand Prix, which will see drivers streak through the Vegas Strip on a Saturday night.

This continued growth and expansion into the United States seems to count FIA President Mohammed Ben Sulayem in its corner. When the partnership between Ford and Red Bull was announced, President Ben Sulayem mentioned this growth in his statement: “There are few manufacturers who have such a celebrated motor sport history as Ford, so to see them coming back to the FIA Formula One World Championship is excellent news. It further underlines the success of the 2026 Power Unit Regulations that have at their heart a commitment to both sustainability and spectacle, and of course having more interest from the United States is important for the continued growth of the world’s top motor sport category.”

During the Red Bull season launch event Friday — in New York City — Red Bull Team Principal and CEO Christian Horner, along with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez, and Daniel Ricciardo, all spoke about the growth of the sport in the United States, as well as Red Bull’s popularity stateside. According to Perez, the support for Red Bull is “growing so much” in the United States, and the team is “becoming the favorite team of this country.” Verstappen outlined how the United States is “very important” to the team.

Horner himself remarked this week about the growth of F1 in the United States, and made the case for a fourth event in America, right in New York City. In an interview with the Daily Mail, Horner had this to say: “Racing in big cities in the US is really exciting. A race here in the Big Apple, for example, what a spectacle that would be.”

Horner continued: “The sport is growing exponentially, globally, but particularly in the US,’ he adds. ‘You feel it when you arrive, the guy at immigration knows who you are. It’s a step change from where it was previously, and the more we build on that and use that momentum the better.”

Horner also said this about the partnership with Ford after the announcement, in a statement provided to media outlets including SB Nation:

At Oracle Red Bull Racing we always strive to do things first and do things differently. This is the first time we have launched our season outside of the UK and the first time any F1 Team has launched in the USA. The growth of our sport in America cannot be ignored, there are over 50 million F1 fans in the USA, of which 72% follow us, and the way the fans have embraced our Team here has been very special to see. Oracle Red Bull Racing will be Stateside more than ever in 2023, not just racing but also running Red Bull Showruns and the first F1 Team led road trip in America, the USA Grand Tauro, later this year. We also wanted to celebrate with, and welcome, Ford in their home country, as they become Red Bull Powertrains new partner from 2026.

Ford’s decision to rejoin the grid comes just as the sport is exploding in popularity in the United States, and makes a great deal of sense from a business perspective. Ford CEO Jim Farley, in an interview with FOX Business after the partnership was announced, had this to say about the return to F1: “We’re building two million units of electric vehicle capacity. We haven’t built this much since the 1920s, so we have to promote these vehicles to a new generation of customer,” Farley said. “The sport is exploding in America. Three races, a lot of young, diverse customers, and that’s who we want to sell EVs to.”

Why Red Bull?

From Ford’s perspective first, why not?

Red Bull have one of the sports biggest stars — and best drivers — in the fold with Verstappen. The team is coming off Verstappen’s second-straight Drivers’ Championship, as well as their first Constructors’ Championship since the 2013 season. As outlined above, with the growth of the sport in the United States, the partnership with Red Bull — and the return to. F1 itself — makes a massive amount of sense for Ford.

But what about Red Bull’s perspective?

After all, Ford was not the only potential partner in the mix. IN recent month, manufactures such as Porsche were rumored to be options for Red Bull. In the end, however, the fit between Red Bull and Ford made the most sense for both sides.

As Horner told Racer in an interview on Friday, Ford’s presence in the States, along with what they were offering, made the partnership the right fit:

“They are two amazing brands [Ford and Porsche],” Horner told RACER on Friday. “We had some positive discussions with Porsche; in the end it didn’t come to a conclusion, but what we saw from a very early stage with Ford was that there was a genuine desire to do something in a manner that fitted with our own outlook.

“There was no interest in equity, or the direction of steering the technical side of the business. So it was a very straightforward deal — there was a desire from (executive chairman) Bill Ford and (CEO) Jim Farley. I think technically, commercially, it just felt right.”

Again, the presence of Ford in the U.S. market emerged as a driving force, as Horner told Racer: “Ford is such a strong brand, such a powerful brand particularly in the U.S. market, which again is such a key growth market for Formula 1. It just felt like, ‘Do you know what? The stars align with this.’ I think sometimes in life the deals that are the best deals are the easiest and most natural, and this had all of those hallmarks.”

From sustainability, to marketability, and beyond, the partnership does seem like a perfect fit from the outside looking in.

Now they need to deliver on the track, starting in 2006.