If things had gone according to plan, Colton Herta would be in Miami preparing for the fifth Formula One race of his career.
Instead, the 22-year-old Californian is headed to the inaugural Miami Grand Prix as a spectator. His boss, meanwhile, awaits word on his request to start a Formula One team and bring a true American team to the grid.
Michael Andretti fell short in his bid last fall to purchase the Sauber team when negotiations fell apart over control of the organization. He refuted speculation that he didn't have the cash needed to complete the deal.
“No, 1,000% no, that's not what happened,” Andretti told The Associated Press. “It fell apart because all of a sudden they changed the terms and they wanted to control everything. They wanted veto power on every decision. They changed that two days before the deal was supposed to be signed. So I don't give a crap what anyone says, we were never going to do a deal in which we bought the team but didn't have control of the team.”
In February, his father Mario, the 1978 F1 champion, revealed that his son had asked F1's governing body to expand the 20-car grid and admit Andretti into the top series in motorsports. There's been almost no movement since; the FIA, F1 and Liberty Media, the American company that owns the series, have said very little publicly about Andretti's quest.
Several F1 teams have publicly said they are against expansion because adding two cars will dilute the purse, and there are indications that Andretti isn't the only one asking about starting a team.
With each passing day, Michael Andretti's hopes dwindle. He said he has the infrastructure and plans in place but the longer the process takes, the less time he would have to properly prepare a team.
“I talked to (Liberty Media CEO) Greg (Maffei) and I asked him, ‘Just let it go to a bid, we’ll beat everybody,'” Andretti told AP. “That's all I'm asking. Not that they give it to us. Let us have a shot and we will beat anybody else that's out there. We have great backers. Money is not the issue.”
Andretti said he doesn't have the personal funds needed to launch an F1 team — there's an initial $200 million buy-in fee — and he won't reveal his backers. But it's widely believed his support comes from the Guggenheim group, which owns the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Andretti did confirm his backers are already involved in professional sports.
Andretti, who spent 1993 commuting between the U.S. and Europe as an F1 driver for McLaren, believes the return of the Andretti name would be a boon to the series as its popularity soars in North America. F1 took a four-year break from racing in the U.S. before returning in 2012 in Texas, and Miami this weekend is one of the hottest tickets in sports.
At a news conference in March to announce a 2023 race in Las Vegas — a third U.S. event on the F1 calendar — Maffei was quick to note that F1 already has an American team in Haas. The team is owned by California businessman Gene Haas and run partially out of its North Carolina headquarters, but driver Kevin Magnussen is Danish and Mick Schumacher is German.
Until Russia invaded Ukraine, the Haas cars were sponsored by a Russian company, sported the colors of the Russian flag and Magnussen's seat was filled by Russian driver Nikita Mazepin. Haas has since cut ties with its Russian partners.
“We have 10 great teams already and we have the potential over time to add more teams,” Maffei told AP. “We have a lot of demand for people who want to add teams, either by buying a team or expanding teams. We'll look at that over time and see what they can add and we'll try to build a consensus among the teams and the FIA about who to bring in and what qualifications they need.”
With multiple suitors, AP asked Maffei if being an American gave Andretti an edge considering Liberty and F1's aggressive efforts to expand its North American footprint.
“I think there would be a lot of factors, and being an American can be a positive,” Maffei told AP. “But we'd look at all things that a new team could potentially bring and that's not just access to new markets. Capital opportunities that they know something about, marketing, technology, all of those things would be interesting to us.”
Andretti frankly doesn't have much time to wait, particularly as it pertains to his star driver. Herta tried the European path as a teenager but returned to the U.S. when the road to an F1 seat seemed too daunting for an American.
Andretti has since given Herta permission to test an F1 car this year for McLaren, an opportunity that will help him secure the points needed for a license to race in F1. But McLaren is also evaluating Herta for its own plans and his contract with Andretti runs only through 2023.
Should nothing pan out with Andretti and F1 by the time Herta begins talks on a new contract, he'd be free to return to Europe and race for McLaren or anyone else.
“I want Colton to stay with us forever,” Andretti said. “But if he's got an opportunity and we don't have that to offer, I can't stand in the way.”
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