Ford's Red Bull partnership suggests American automakers have embraced F1, so long as they deliver

Horner: Ford partnership a big moment for Red Bull (2:02)

Christian Horner and Ford CEO Jim Farley discuss why they have chosen to team up for the 2026 Formula One season. (2:02)

NEW YORK -- Five years ago, all of this seemed impossible. Formula One broadcasts were just returning to ESPN airwaves, Netflix's "Drive to Survive" series was still a year away from premiering, and the sport's popularity in the U.S. showed few signs of emerging from a decades-long slumber.

There was a four-year period when the only stop the series made in North America was Montreal. The introduction of the Circuit of the Americas in Austin in 2012 promised much, but attendances quickly declined following the early excitement.

Now, as the aftershocks subside following the news that Ford has entered into a strategic partnership with Red Bull to to develop power units ahead of the 2026 season, enthusiasm for F1 in America may as well be fueled by the energy drink funding the team.

Austin holds the sport's three-day attendance record at 440,000, set in October. There are now two other races in the U.S., in Miami and Las Vegas, and a fifth continental stop in Mexico City. Heck, Ford is only the second American automaker to announce its intentions to join F1 in the past month.

- Watch Formula One all season long on ESPN

The first was General Motors, whose Cadillac brand announced in the early days of the new year that it would partner with Andretti Autosport to field an "all-American" team beginning in 2026 at the earliest.

That news prompted pushback from within the paddock, though. A senior team figure told Reuters last month that a "strong majority" of the teams were against expanding the grid and diluting the share of revenues.

"It's all about money," Andretti told Forbes shortly after F1 teams' lukewarm reception to his statement of intent. "First, they think they are going to get diluted one-tenth of their prize money, but they also get very greedy thinking we will take all the American sponsors as well.

"It's all about greed and looking at themselves and not looking at what is best for the overall growth of the series."

There's some truth in that.

Should the teams' split of revenues determine whether the grid is expanded beyond its current 20 cars? The franchise model of American stick-and-ball sports that F1 is seemingly keen on adopting would dictate that, yes, existing teams should have a sizable say in who is and isn't allowed to join. But a look back at decades gone by, when grids routinely flirted with (and occasionally surpassed) the 30-car mark, suggests that existing teams shouldn't be the arbiters of who's worthy of joining the club -- that's long been the job of accountants, and bankruptcy courts.

But there's also some truth in the teams' objections to Andretti-Cadillac's proposal.

The same source in Reuters' reporting said that GM's involvement is more of a "badging exercise" than a full manufacturer commitment. Statements from parties with a vested interest in the project have seemingly legitimized the claim.

"It'll be more of a collaboration, I think, with another manufacturer," Andretti is quoted as saying by Autosport. GM president Mark Reuss added: "We have a signed agreement with a power-unit supplier to begin with, and then as we move forward, we bring a lot of our expertise to create things for the future as well."

Formula One has been insistent that any new entries to the sport need the backing of a manufacturer, which led Andretti to Cadillac, but "backing" can mean many things.

Sauber has the backing of Alfa Romeo, but you'd be hard pressed to find anything on the successor to the C42 with roots in the Italian brand's Turin headquarters, save for maybe the livery. Audi is in the process of a heralded acquisition of the team ahead of a full works effort for 2026, manufacturing its own chassis and power units.

If Andretti-Cadillac already has a deal with an existing engine supplier, it's difficult to conclude that its effort is closer to Audi's than it is to Alfa Romeo's -- even if Reuss takes umbrage with that assessment. And that's what brings us back to Ford.

Red Bull is already manufacturing its own power units. After Honda's abrupt departure from Formula One after the 2021 season, the nascent Red Bull Powertrains took over the Japanese manufacturer's intellectual property through the 2025 season. Red Bull has spared no expense building out the program, and unsurprisingly has entertained the possibility of developing its own engines from 2026.

Horner: Red Bull have gone from hunter to hunted

Christian Horner admits it will be difficult to repeat the success that Red Bull had in the 2022 F1 season.

The capability is there. The institutional knowledge is there. The finances, too, although developing a new power unit from scratch will add hundreds of millions to the budget.

Like its rival on the other side of Detroit, Ford is adamant that its involvement goes beyond sponsorship and stickers. It claims that it will be providing more than just funding, and will lend its expertise in areas including battery cell and electric motor technology as well as power-unit control software and analytics development.

"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 [Red Bull team principal] Christian [Horner]'s really good at what he does, and in '26 we can help with the battery, the engine and the battery control software, and they can help us with aero.

"In the electric 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, 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."

The Blue Oval has a rich history of grand-prix racing in which to call upon, too, which is more than Cadillac and GM can say. Ford powered teams to 174 victories, 13 drivers' and 10 constructors' championships between the 1960s and 2004.

Of course, those engines were designed and built by Cosworth, commissioned by Ford, until the Michigan marque bought Cosworth in 1998. The six years in which Ford actually owned Cosworth yielded just two of those race wins.

Ford's statements provide some optimism that its partnership with Red Bull will be more substantive than the bulk of its relationship with Cosworth or GM's plans with Andretti. That history is reason enough to employ a healthy dose of skepticism, though.

As F1's popularity in this country continues to skyrocket, there is a race to capture American fans, American sponsors, and the American dollars each has to spend. It would be a shame to see the two biggest automakers in the U.S. pander to those audiences, promising feats of engineering only to deliver sleights of hand dreamed up by their marketing teams.

Having Formula One teams powered by Ford and Cadillac would be just dessert for a segment of America's iconic car culture that was largely forgotten about when the series left the country behind. Let's hope Red Bull, and Andretti, deliver it.