What's in a name? In F1, it's all about the money

Formula One is gearing up for a new season with two "new" teams on the grid, at least in name: Stake F1 and Visa Cash App RB. Only, these are two existing teams under a whole new guise.

The former is the new name for the long-running Sauber entry, which was rebranded as Alfa Romeo in 2019 in a deal that ran until the end of last season. The latter is the new identity for Red Bull's second team, which previously raced as Toro Rosso -- Italian for "Red Bull" -- before taking on the name of the energy drinks company's fashion brand AlphaTauri in 2020.

Unsurprisingly, the names (especially Visa Cash App RB) have had overwhelmingly negative reactions from F1 fans.

On the surface, and when compared to the other eight teams set to compete in 2024, the names are ridiculous and borderline farcical, but both represent a key injection of big money at key points in the lives of these two outfits. They are perhaps the biggest indicators of just how enormous the commercial opportunities have become in the global boom F1 has experienced in recent times.

Sources have told ESPN both naming rights deals are worth between $30 million and $35 million per year. To put that into perspective, MoneyGram's title sponsorship of Haas is worth around $20 million a year.

The different types of sponsorship in play here -- title sponsorships such as MoneyGram's and naming rights such as Stake and Visa Cash App -- are important to differentiate. The reigning world champions are technically known as Oracle Red Bull Racing, while the team they overtook as F1's lead outfit are officially Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team. Despite their official titles, these teams are referred to as Red Bull and Mercedes by fans and media alike, a distinction from the new identities of Stake and Visa Cash App, who will have everyone following the sport tripping over every word in conversations surrounding these teams.

At a time when F1 used brand awareness as one reason for rejecting Andretti's bid to join the sport -- "While the Andretti name carries some recognition for F1 fans, our research indicates that F1 would bring value to the Andretti brand rather than the other way around," a statement read -- the introductions of Stake and Visa Cash App RB are particularly galling. What, then, do these new identities mean for their teams and F1 going forward?

Stake F1

Stake will have a two-year run as the name of Peter Sauber's F1 team, which has competed in the championship since 1993. The team ran under its own name until 2006, when the majority of its shares were purchased by BMW and the team was known as BMW Sauber, and then again between 2011 and 2018. Most recently, it gave up naming rights to Alfa Romeo.

Now it's known as Stake. This is a stop-gap naming rights deal until Audi joins forces with Sauber in 2026 as technical partner and engine supplier to the team, as it is unlikely Audi would continue with Stake in a prominent role from that point onward.

Sauber's history contrasts with this new deal. While Peter Sauber has happily given up the naming rights to his team previously, those two occasions were with manufacturers that boasted established legacies in motor racing. Fans were happy referring to the team under its Alfa Romeo guise, which perhaps speaks to how the sport's followers don't care so much about names changing so long as there's some heritage behind it. Stake, an online gambling company, is a huge departure from Sauber's past.

The presence of Stake as a name on the grid this year is perhaps easier to stomach with the knowledge that much more exciting times -- and a return to a name with racing heritage -- are on the horizon for Sauber. The Audi deal, which includes a commitment from the German automaker to building an engine, has made the Swiss-based team a hot commodity in the driver market.

Audi will enter the sport as it adopts a new set of regulations with completely revamped engines. While it might be a tall order, Audi has every right to think it could master F1's regulations at the first attempt and be a legitimate force as soon as it joins the grid.

Visa Cash App RB

Internally at Red Bull, its second team is being referred to by the acronym "VCARB" (Visa Cash App RB), which we will do for the rest of the article.

Unlike the Stake deal, this appears to be a much longer-term partnership between teams and sponsors. Although VCARB's name has come with criticism and mockery on the outside, internally it has brought with it hopes of turning Red Bull's second team -- which for so long has struggled to establish itself as a competitive force -- into a team that can race alongside some of the sport's biggest names. Although the transformation might take time, an annual injection of more than $30 million will go some way toward making VCARB a legitimately competitive team in its own right. Being on an equal or similar footing to the senior Red Bull team seems like a stretch, though, and any such turnaround in the short term seems unlikely.

There's a lot to unpack with this deal. The first, and most obvious, element is that this all happened as a direct result of the death of Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz in October 2022.

His passing prompted something of an existential crisis for the company in terms of how best to proceed with its most famous product: its Formula One operation. Initially, it was felt that selling the second team was the best option. Sources have told ESPN that Red Bull had a serious offer from an interested party in early 2023, which was rejected. Mateschitz's son, Mark, who owns 49% of Red Bull GmbH, argued against the sale, saying his father had always wanted two teams in F1. There was a caveat, though: If the energy drinks giant was going to continue with two teams on the grid, it could not have one that was so clearly the second team.

Red Bull often resisted the media labeling Toro Rosso or AlphaTauri as its "junior team," but this is exactly how it has operated throughout its existence so far. The Italian outfit has given debuts to Max Verstappen, Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo and a host of others, but apart from the Australian's return from a sabbatical in 2023, has never recruited an established driver.

Sources have told ESPN that companies such as J.P. Morgan and Hugo Boss were in discussions about a similar deal, before Visa and CashApp paired up and became the front-running option. As part of the deal, parts of the VCARB's operation will move to Red Bull's Milton Keynes headquarters, something McLaren CEO Zak Brown has suggested could be a way to circumnavigate F1's cost-cap rules.

Despite the promise brought by the finances of the arrangement, fans are most upset by how far the second team's identity has been moved away from its original guise. For a while, it was reported the team would be called "Racing Bulls," a label that was bounced around internally and was understood to have still been in play a few weeks before the company settled on VCARB. The vague "RB" is all that remains of that name. By taking away the "Racing Bulls" option, fans and media are effectively left with no option but to call the team either by its clunky full title or by VCARB.

Red Bull will likely push the line that its second team's new name is no different than when it came into the sport, buying a team that had been Jaguar, Stewart and Jordan, and slapping a corporate title on it.

That comparison is not a valid one, though. Most obviously, the biggest difference is that Red Bull had purchased both teams outright, rather than securing a lucrative naming partnership like Visa and Cash App have done here.

Another selling point may be that Visa and Cash App are brands looking to disrupt the established order, just like Red Bull has successfully done in the past two decades. This also doesn't quite fly.

When it joined F1, Red Bull had already made a name for itself as a left-field, quirky and underground brand -- it had emerged as a staple of the European nightclub scene in the 1990s -- as Dietrich Mateschitz focused on using sports sponsorships as a vehicle for the company as a whole. Fellow Austrian Gerhard Berger was the first sports star to carry Red Bull sponsorship in 1989, and the company soon spread its wings across F1, NASCAR and the emerging extreme sports scene. In 2003, around the same time Mateschitz was doing the deal to purchase Jaguar's F1 team, the Red Bull Air Race was held for the first time. "Red Bull Gives You Wings" was a wildly successful advertising campaign that kept Red Bull's status as an energy drinks company and as an innovator in the sporting and marketing space separate. The same cannot be said for Visa or Cash App. Visa was named 112th on Forbes' Global 2000 list and is one of the most established brands in the world. Even Red Bull is not on the list.

Red Bull expects fans and media will soon get used to calling the second outfit VCARB, just as they got used to the presence of its company coming to dominate and reshape F1 in such a short space of time. Whether that is true remains to be seen.