Red Bull might not be known for much more than energy drinks in the U.S., but in elsewhere, it’s known as the owner of one of the biggest and most high-profile Formula One teams in the world. Buying Jaguar’s floundering team in 2004, it has grown into a serious contender, winning four constructor’s championship titles between 2010 and 2013 on the strength of its Nissan-Renault engines, and ace driver Sebastian Vettel.
But times have been tough for the racing team of late. Vettel decamped for Ferrari in 2014, and its relationship with engine supplier Nissan-Renault has grown strained as the team continues to flounder through the 2015 season. Still, it seemed like business as usual at the company’s Milton Keynes headquarters until recently. Rumors began to circulate that it was planning for the future, returning to original engine supplier Ferrari for 2016, and is even working on a street-legal supercar with Aston Martin. But now it appears that Red Bull is preparing to sell its F1 team to Volkswagen AG, taking a development and sponsorship role while the world’s largest automaker takes the reins.
According to BBC Sport, Volkswagen AG chief Martin Winterkorn has already agreed to the deal with Red Bull boss Dietrich Mateschitz, and Helmut Marko, the company’s motor sports advisor. After spending the past few years quietly hiring Formula One personnel (despite ex-CEO Ferdinand Piëch opposing F1 involvement) Winterkorn’s recent actions have all but guaranteed that we’ll be seeing Volkswagen’s cars in on the F1 circuit by the end of the decade.
Despite earlier denials from both companies, the news doesn’t exactly come as a shock. Speaking with the BBC in June, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner tried to quash rumors of the deal, saying “There has been no dialogue with VW or Audi.” But this was just a month after Marko declared: “If we don’t have a competitive engine in the near future, then either Audi is coming or we are out.” And with Winterkorn trying to distance himself from the autocratic Piëch era, it’s no surprise that the company would make this leap now, especially as its profile grows in other motorsports.
With the company’s current racing pedigree, it’s natural that Volkswagen AG would make the leap to F1. Volkswagen brands Audi, Porsche, and Bentley have won 15 of the last 16 24 Hours of Le Mans. And with Audi taking 13 of those 15 victories, insiders are speculating that the company’s F1 cars will likely be wearing the brand’s four rings logo on their nose, not the familiar VW badge.
There may be another reason for Volkswagen’s sudden move on Red Bull, and that’s power. Volkswagen has spent the year locked in a corporate drama, and at the center of it is Winterkorn. The Volkswagen brand chief was once Piëch’s hand-picked successor as AG CEO, but when Piëch maneuvered to remove Winterkorn earlier this year, the board objected and outed Piëch instead, installing Winterkorn as interim CEO. But Piëch still holds influence on the board, and along with family members (all descendants of Ferdinand Porsche), could still vote to remove Winterkorn as early as this week. By giving a high-profile presentation on the future of Volkswagen at the Frankfurt Motor Show, and making this move on Red Bull, Winterkorn could be flexing his muscles and solidifying an agenda that would make it difficult for him to be replaced.
In the meantime, Red Bull Racing will still move on to Ferrari engines next year. It’s likely to continue to use them until 2018, when Volkswagen should have an engine ready. As for its road car project with Aston Martin, it’s unlikely that Volkswagen would let Red Bull continue the project, seeing as Aston has a working partnership with Mercedes-AMG. Still, Volkswagen has plenty of high-performance engines, so the transition might be seamless. With Volkswagen’s size and power, it’s surprising that it doesn’t already have a presence in Formula One. We’ll have more information as the story unfolds, but considering the state of both Volkswagen and Red Bull, this move could have repercussions that are felt well beyond the race track.
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