It’s no secret that Audi has been in discussion with McLaren for some time, and that those talks appear to have stalled.
In some ways McLaren is the perfect candidate, in that it is has been in the top four for the past couple of seasons, and is clearly in good shape technically. But it is also a complex organisation with a road car company and IndyCar team attached to it, as well as a variety of shareholders who might not all be on the same page. And does the VW Group need another premium sportscar brand in its roster?
The high asking price and question marks over keeping the McLaren name also appear to have contributed to the deal not progressing. BMW is now being mentioned in connection with the Woking outfit, but an F1 return for the Bavarian marque would seem to be unlikely.
If not McLaren, then who? The Aston Martin name has emerged in recent weeks, and if that seems a little odd given the strong existing links between the British marque and Mercedes, you are right. However, if you think of the organisation not as Aston Martin but as ‘Team Silverstone’ or even ‘Stroll F1’ then the possibility of a future Audi link starts to make more sense.
Is there a scenario Lawrence Stroll continues to use the Aston brand until 2025, and then his team becomes a full works Audi operation?
It might be struggling now, but Stroll has hired some good people from RBR and Mercedes, and the new campus that is being built adjacent to the Silverstone base will be the most modern in the sport, so there is obvious appeal to Audi.
However the years of transition would be politically complicated to say the least, with Mercedes so closely linked to a team that would be set to morph into Audi. It’s also said that Audi isn’t too keen on the long-term Aramco deal that Stroll has in place.
In contrast to McLaren and Aston Martin, Williams would be a pretty straightforward arrangement. The team may have been at the back of the grid in recent years, but it is still a large and well-equipped organisation, with a good facility in Grove that has the space to expand. It also has a very VW-friendly management team led by Jost Capito and technical director Francois-Xavier Demaison.
Capito has made no secret of his interest in an engine deal, but he downplays the suggestion that Williams could be for sale. However, owners Dorilton Capital didn’t buy the team out of altruism, and they are in it to make money in the long-term. Will they ever find a better buyer than Audi? Or is too soon and Dorilton will opt to hold on as the value of F1 team franchises continues to rise?
The other serious contender is Sauber, and some sources say it is now the most likely choice. The company began its growth three decades ago with Mercedes support, and was later further expanded on BMW’s dollar. It then became a private team and a Ferrari engine and gearbox customer once more. It currently runs under the Alfa Romeo name, but that is essentially a sponsorship deal.
For Audi a Swiss-based German-speaking team has obvious appeal, just as it did for BMW when it decided to move away from Williams. However Swiss employment laws complicate matters, and over the decades it has always proved difficult for Sauber to tempt top technical talent away from the British teams. Those who do give it a try often only stay in Hinwil for a year or two before they decided they’ve had enough, and head back home.
Nevertheless Sauber remains a top-class facility, and there’s an existing relationship, as Audi hired the wind tunnel for its WEC programme.
Owner Finn Rausing rejected Michael Andretti’s attempts to buy the team last year, preferring to retain a hand-on involvement in the sport, and the Swedish billionaire certainly doesn’t need to sell. However Audi’s offer may be bigger and better, and ultimately prove to be too tempting.
The only other private team on the grid is Haas. However, its business model is built on its close relationship with Ferrari, and in essence it represents an entry ticket with a decent race team and a small group of designers, and little else. Audi needs a fully-staffed proper facility with wind tunnel and manufacturing facilities and so on already in place. If Gene Haas is tempted to sell then Andretti is a more likely buyer.
Some sources say that Audi has confused itself with the available choices, and that the top management genuinely don’t know which route to take. An added complication is that it will have to buy, or commit to buy a team, sooner rather than later.
There will follow an interim period of some three seasons during which the team concerned will carry on under its existing name, and with its current engine supply arrangements. At what stage will Audi take proper control and put in place any planned changes?
It will be fascinating to see what the company ultimately decides to do.