NEW YORK -- On Friday, Ford announced its return to Formula One as a partner of Red Bull's nascent powertrains division. The deal will see the famous Blue Oval back on the F1 grid from 2026 onwards, although its involvement in F1 will remain a step short of the likes of Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault (via the brand Alpine), and 2026 newcomers Audi.
Since setting up its powertrains division in 2021, Red Bull has made no secret of its desire to partner with a major OEM [original equipment manufacturer]. Uncertainty over the future F1 involvement of current engine supplier Honda led the team to take matters into its own hands and commit to building its own engines for the next set of F1 power unit regulations in 2026.
It was a huge step for a team that had previously relied on engine partners such as Honda and Renault for one of the most expensive but also performance sensitive components of the car. If necessary, Red Bull would go it alone to ensure it secured its power unit future for 2026, but it was also aware of the sheer size and cost of embarking on the project without the backing of a major car manufacturer.
In its search for a power unit partner Red Bull came close to a deal with Porsche but the German manufacturer wanted shares and control over the team in return - something Red Bull was not willing to sacrifice. The Ford deal, in contrast, will see no team ownership change hands, while still offering significant commercial and technical support in exchange. Win-win for Red Bull.
"It's a very different relationship to what was discussed with Porsche," Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. "This is purely a commercial and technical deal, so there's no exchange of any shares or participation within the business.
"It's a very straightforward agreement where we will have the ability to share and access to R&D, particularly on the EV side, and sell technology software development and so on.
"Then on the commercial side, with Ford being so prevalent in the US. As a commercial partner, it helps us achieve even more penetration in that market."
From Ford's perspective, the deal offers a route back to F1 at a time when the sport is booming without the need to make a heavy investment in an F1-specific factory. It also gives the company a high-profile position in the sport and -- given Red Bull's recent history in F1 -- an obvious route to championship success. What's more, the contract with Red Bull runs to 2030, allowing Ford time to assess the benefits of its involvement in F1 while offering a clean exit if the company's priorities change.
In the meantime, Ford gains access to motoring's ultimate R&D playground where it can develop its electric vehicle technology by contributing its expertise to the hybrid element of Red Bull's F1 engine. Under the 2026 regulations, the electric element of the power unit will produce 50 percent of an F1 car's power, making it an even more significant battle ground for manufacturers.
And as a car company that still has an interest in future sales of the internal combustion engine, especially in its home market of America, Ford can also learn from F1's switch to sustainable synthetic fuels in 2026. Although the idea of efficient hybrid engines powered by synthetic fuels is not as fashionable as EVs in the automotive industry right now, truly sustainable fuels could still play a huge role in mobility in the coming decades.
"We really did our homework and we wanted to be very practical in our approach," Ford president and CEO Jim Farley told ESPN on Friday in New York. "We didn't want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to do an engine program or even more to own a team.
"What we've learned over all those years of being in Formula One is Christian's really good at what he does, and in 2026 we can help with the battery, the engine and the battery control software."
Ford plans to have employees based at Red Bull's engine factory full time, starting this year so that they can contribute to the power unit that is already under development for 2026 in Milton Keynes. At the launch of the new partnership in New York, Ford was keen to stress that this is much more than a branding exercise.
"We don't just go racing as a marketing exercise anywhere and especially in Formula One," Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance said. "The stage that it is and the opportunity to get that technical learning was important for us and without it we wouldn't have done it.
"Everything is on the table in terms of resources from Ford Motor Company and where it is going to add value and benefit. The initial areas that have been identified and where we are working is in the battery cell technology, in the electric motor itself, in the controls software -- in terms of the fundamental software itself and the collaboration of that to optimise performance analytics within the power unit itself and also across the total car."
Meanwhile, Ford also wants to learn from Red Bull Racing's own area of expertise: aerodynamics.
"In the electric vehicle world, aero turns out to be the highest-leverage technology capability in a car company, because you can make the battery smaller if you have really good aero," Farley added. "And there are no better aero engineers in the world than Formula One and at Red Bull. So it's a real practical technology exchange."
Naturally, Ford will also benefit from the marketing benefits and global exposure of F1, which remains a key reason for the involvement of all car manufacturers in the sport. F1's popularity is booming, especially in the United States, and it's no coincidence that Ford's return coincides with interest from its historic automotive rival Cadillac, which is hoping to enter F1 with an all new team run by Andretti Autosport.
"We could see what was happening to the sport itself with the popularity, the growing global fanbase and the diversity of that fanbase, and we knew that would then give us a platform to tell our story as a company about our employees and our products," Rushbrook added. "So as we saw that coming together and continuing to grow, we started looking at it and saying maybe it is the right time to get back into Formula One.
"But you've got to come back in the right way and we took our time to listen to a lot of people. As soon as they knew Ford had some interest in considering F1, a lot of people came forward, whether it was an existing team or a prospective team to see if there was an opportunity for us to partner with them.
"Initially none of them seemed right, and coming back in as a full factory ownership team, as we have done in the past [with Jaguar], didn't feel right because we wanted to come in very strategically to contribute where it made sense and also learn where it made sense.
"With Red Bull it was very quickly apparent that what they were looking for in a partner was something we could bring and what we were looking for was something they could bring. While talks started in the latter part of 2022, we knew it was the right partnership at the very beginning and then we got into more detail and here we are today able to announce it."