Credit: Andretti Global

Andretti Formula One Deal Puts Spotlight On Honda Relationship With General Motors

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A few of our readers are Formula One fans and already know that Andretti Global — one of the most successful auto racing enterprises of all time — has a plan to enter the world of Formula One beginning in 2026. Why is that date important? Because that’s when the new engine rules will go into effect. In today’s cars, the basic source of power is a turbocharged V-6 engine, but the cars also have an electric motor in the drivetrain powered by a battery. Think of it as a Toyota Prius with nearly 1000 horsepower.

The battery is recharged by regenerative braking. In fact, regen provides the vast majority of braking power at the rear wheels. In F1 parlance, the regen unit is known as the MGU-K (motor generating unit – K) where K stands for kinetic. The electricity it makes is used primarily to recharge the onboard battery.

The cars also have an MGU-H unit where H stands for heat. The MGU-H harvests heat from the exhaust system to make electricity which is used primarily to spin up the turbocharger to minimize turbo lag. The MGU-H is troublesome and not much liked by the teams. When the new powertrain rules take effect at the start of the 2026 season, the MGU-H will no longer be part of the package.

Formula One is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, much to the consternation of older racing fans like myself who remember an era when the drivers drove the cars and the winner was determined by skill, determination, and grit. Today’s cars are technological marvels that are tethered to the engineers trackside and back at the factory who can adjust engine mapping, shift points, brake bias, and a hundred other parameters wirelessly. The drivers spend most of their time not on a track but in multi-million dollar simulators. The cars are more digital than mechanical, which may explain why the sport is gaining popularity with those who are dedicated to video games.

While the sport touts its “green” credentials because of the hybrid powertrains it uses, it remains an activity that is responsible for an enormous amount of carbon emissions as it wends its way around the globe every year.

The Andretti Magic

Mario Andretti is an Italian immigrant who became one of the most successful racing drivers of all time. He is one of only three drivers to have won races in Formula One, IndyCar, the World Sportscar Championship, and NASCAR. He is the only driver ever to win the Indianapolis 500 (1969), Daytona 500 (1967) and the Formula One World Championship (1978). Mario was a fan favorite and highly regarded by everyone in motorsports. One year at the Monaco grand prix, when Andretti was on the pole, he asked the starter how soon after the all clear signal he would wave the green flag to start the race. “Oh, Mario,” the official replied, “don’t worry. When I see your car start to move, then I wave the flag!”

Mario’s eldest son is Michael Andretti, who established himself as a race winning driver in his own right. In 1993, he was signed by the McLaren Formula One team to partner with Ayrton Senna, but the season did not go well for him. As an American driver, he was unfamiliar with the European tracks where Formula One raced (there were no simulators then). New rules introduced for that season severely limited the amount of practice laps the drivers could do. To make matters worse, Michael maintained his home in the United States and commuted to Europe aboard the SST. His refusal to remain in Europe angered the team and made him an object of scorn in the world of Formula One.

But Michael was highly successful as a race driver in America. He won the 1991 CART PPG Indy Car World Series and amassed 42 race victories, the most in the CART era and fourth most of all time. When his racing days were over, he became a team owner.

His organization has become one of the preeminent auto racing teams in America. His organization won the Indianapolis 500 five times and the IndyCar Series championship four times. It has also won the Indy Lights championship five times and the Americas Rallycross Championship five times. Now Michael Andretti, standard bearer for one of the most successful auto racing families in history, has submitted a bid to race in Formula One beginning in 2026.

Cadillac To Debut In Formula One

Formula One is a very closed society that guards itself with a zealous passion. More than a decade ago when Max Mosely was in charge, three new teams were added to the field, lured by the promise of a very low budget cap. Mosely never followed through on his budget cap promise, which left the three newcomers pounding around at the back of the field in a frantic effort to avoid being dead last. Within a few years, those teams folded and Formula One was left with a bad taste in its mouth. Since then, there have been only 10 teams competing, each with two cars and two drivers.

Now the FIA is welcoming Andretti Global with open arms while the teams are all acting like someone spiked the punch bowl with vinegar. The 1993 debacle still lingers, along with a palpable dislike for any rude American upstarts who aren’t part of the old boys network that controls the teams. But the sport desperately wants to increase its visibility in America primarily because the money is too good to pass up. The US is the only country with two Formula One races on the calendar and may soon have a third. Having an American team can only be good for ratings.

But every race team needs an engine supplier. Today there are only four for all ten teams — Ferrari, Mercedes, Renault, and Red Bull. Now pay attention, because this is where things get tricky. Honda used to have a Formula One team, but in 2008 it quit the sport largely due to the global financial turmoil that year. It sold the team for pennies on the dollar to Ross Brawn, a longtime race engineer. Brawn in turn sold the team to Mercedes, making himself a multi-millionaire in the process.

Then Honda decided it wanted to jump back into the game as an engine supplier. It started with McLaren, but that relationship soon soured and it became the engine supplier to Alpha Tauri, the junior team to Red Bull racing. When that partnership blossomed, Red Bull brought Honda aboard as its engine supplier. Then last year, Red Bull bought out Honda and started manufacturing its own powertrains using Honda’s intellectual property.

While all this has been going on, Honda has been one of only two engine suppliers to the IndyCar racing series. The other is Chevrolet. It just so happens that Andretti Global uses a Honda engine for its IndyCar team, so you might think it will use Honda engines to power its new Formula One team. And you would be right — sort of.

The official engine supplier will be Cadillac. Wait, what? General Motors has taken note of Formula One’s surging public profile in America and wants in on the action. The racing may be tepid by historical standards, but the number of eyeballs the sport attracts is a marketers dream.  That explains why Audi and Porsche are also sniffing around, looking for a way to join the F1 party.

Now here’s the tricky part. Even though the engines will carry Cadillac branding, they will in fact be supplied by the same Honda race engine operation that used to supply engines to Red Bull. If you are wondering why Honda and GM, which are rivals in IndyCar, are collaborating in Formula One, consider this. Honda has forged a close relationship with General Motors. Its first EVs for the US market will in fact be assembled at the Cadillac factory (formerly the home of Saturn) in Spring Hill, Tennessee, and use Ultium batteries supplied by GM.

More than anything, this situation shows the power of branding and the convergence in the auto business. Ford will soon be building electric cars based on the Volkswagen MEB platform in Europe. Honda and GM are getting cozy in America, even though Honda insists it will continue to manufacture electric cars of its own design in its own factories in the US.

The Takeaway

Maybe branding has always been the essence of sport, yet it seems like the money involved in sports at all levels is just exploding these days. If Andretti Global succeeds in fielding a team in Formula One, it will be because the sport can practically taste the money an American team will add to the sport’s coffers. It is a chance for Michael Andretti to conquer some of the ghosts left over from his own abbreviated career as a Formula One driver and an opportunity for Cadillac to once again proclaim itself as the “standard of the world” even if, underneath the name on the engine cover, it’s all Honda bits whirring around inside.

The upside for electric car fans is that Formula One is pushing the boundaries in battery performance and management in a way that can only improve the performance of electric cars in the future. Racing made dual overhead cams, electronic ignitions, disc brakes, and turbochargers normal for production cars. Perhaps it will do the same for the auto industry in the electric car era. That’s a good thing, no matter whose name is the outside of the package.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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