INSIGHT: Why Ford and Red Bull have a huge mountain to climb

INSIGHT: Why Ford and Red Bull have a huge mountain to climb

Red Bull’s newly-announced partnership with Ford for its 2026 Formula 1 power unit project represents the best of both worlds. Red Bull has caught its white whale through a deal earning it significant money, brand prestige and technical support without losing control of its own propulsion destiny. Now, the focus is on the really difficult part – actually producing a competitive engine package.

Those who doubt either how serious Red Bull is about F1 or its capacity to deliver on its ambitions are proven wrong by history. But becoming what is, despite the Ford name, an independent power unit manufacturer that must be competitive immediately, is hugely ambitious. Red Bull is backing up that ambition with significant investment, as it always does. And it needs to, because even with a cost cap in place for the 2026 power units, it’s still vastly expensive even without factoring in the spending needed to set up a brand-new facility from scratch. Red Bull is doing exactly that at what is now called its campus in Milton Keynes, located 50 miles north-west of London, where it has annexed a significant chunk of the industrial estate for its increasingly sprawling F1 headquarters.

According to accounts lodged with the UK’s Companies House for 2021, Red Bull powertrains (RBPT) employed 197 people on average across that year, with 123 of those categorized as involved in design. That number will have risen significantly since then. This is down to aggressive recruitment not just from rivals, with moves like Ben Hodgkinson joining from Mercedes High Performance Powertrains as technical director, but also by moving personnel over from other F1 activities as part of restructuring to comply with the cost cap.

It’s not just about senior personnel, but about filling RBPT with highly accomplished people at every level. This aggressive investment allowed the company to go from its inception to creating its first single-cylinder test engine in what Red Bull team principal Christian Horner has described as “less than 55 weeks”.

The 2021 Companies House accounts also reveal around $90 million of purchasing of fixed assets, much of which will be in the equipment required for the design, development and production of F1 power units. The days when Ford could throw £100,000 (around $1million in today’s money) at Cosworth to support the development of the legendary DFV engine that went on to dominate F1, have long gone, even if that model is echoed in this new deal.

This is because today’s F1 power unit manufacturers are massive, with rivals Renault, Mercedes and Ferrari having built up their capabilities over many years. Even Honda, which has had a stop/start F1 relationship, could base its design and development work in its Sakura base in Japan. Cosworth is the only non-OEM-owned company that has produced F1 engines in the 21st century, and even then it was owned by Ford from 1998-2004. Prior to that, the last fully independent engine manufacturer to achieve any kind of success in F1 was Brian Hart in the 1990s, although he could never attract the funding needed to keep pace with the inflating expenditure of the manufacturers.

This is only talking about facilities and personnel. The deal for what is officially registered as a ‘Red Bull Ford’ engine won’t manifest itself on track until the new power unit regulations kick in for 2026. But Ford has confirmed it is an eight-year deal, one rumored to be worth around $30 million per year, which means it covers 2023-2030. That’s because design work has long since been underway for this engine.

The power unit cost cap illustrates what’s involved. This spending is entirely independent of the F1 team cost cap and establishes a baseline figure of $130m per year from 2026 onwards. However, the cost cap is already in force as $95 million is permitted for each year from 2023-2025. All of the manufacturers are working flat out on the 2026 power unit, with the engine freeze kicking in last year to free them up to do so. But those who are defined as new power unit manufacturers have an extra allowance of $10million in ’23 and ’24 and $5 million in ’25. Red Bull has even created a separate company named ‘Red Bull Powertrains 2026’ that will presumably account for the new engine project.

This is because of the added challenge of catching up with the pre-existing knowledge of F1 engine technology built by the existing engine companies. This is significant because efforts have been made to maximize carryover technology in the highly prescribed bottom end of the engine (the engine block, crankshaft, connecting rods, pumps and other ancillaries) to allow the hybrid element, which increases in power from 120kW to 350kW (that’s 161bhp to 469bhp). Even if the designs themselves will be all-new, that know-how is significant.

The last ‘independent’ – although in this case Ford-owned – engine to find its way on the podium was back in 2002, when Eddie Irvine claimed third at Monza in the Cosworth-powered Jaguar. Motorsport Images

While RBPT is already competing, winning 17 races last year, this is a Honda engine, designed, maintained and prepared by the Japanese manufacturer as part of a continuation deal struck after its official withdrawal from F1 at the end of 2021. It’s no more a Red Bull engine than the Renault the team used from 2016-2018 was a Tag Heuer with clockwork internals.

There was controversy over whether or not RBPT should be considered a new power unit manufacturer, especially when there was the possibility of Honda being involved. But it will have access to this extra spending. While it has a deal to use Honda IP until the end of 2025, it has not acquired any of it so cannot carry any of it over. And given Honda is still doing all the work, the knowledge of the design detail won’t be accessible to Red Bull, even though familiarity with the power unit package will be of a little help. RBPT will be creating its new power unit package from scratch with zero carryover.

One factor that will help RBPT and fellow newcomer Audi, which will have a majority stake in Sauber and have made it into its works team for 2026, is the MGU-H being dropped. This makes the scale of the task significantly simpler, which it needs to be given the increase in power of the Energy Recovery Systems as a whole. With the regulations aiming for the V6 itself to kick out around 400kW (536bhp) and to limit the variation between suppliers, the ERS is the key battleground. That said, the top end of the engine offers greater freedom, in particular to allow it to be optimized for the 100% sustainable and synthetic fuel that will be introduced in 2026. These regulations, focused on the hybrid and the cutting-edge fuel technology, is what drew Ford in and allowed it to reconcile participation in F1 with the evolving automotive landscape.

This raises another factor in the Red Bull Ford deal offering both an opportunity and a challenge. Ford has talked in vague terms about the contribution it can make and Red Bull has always wanted a partner that could not only put cash in to badge the engine, but also offer support on the hybrid project. Exactly how this manifests itself remains to be seen, although there has been some explanation of this.

“Everything’s on the table in terms of resources from Ford Motor Company to contribute to this where it’s going to add value and benefit,” said Mark Rushbrook, Global Director of Ford Performance. “The initial areas that have been identified where we’re working are certainly in the battery cell technology, in the electric motor itself, the control software – both in the fundamental software as well as the calibration of that to optimize the performance – the analytics within the power unit itself, but also across the total car.”

Rushbrook also confirmed there will be Ford Performance personnel embedded with RBPT and making a clear contribution. While the full scale of its co-operation is not precisely defined, Red Bull’s desire for a partner to have an impact with the hybrid project suggests this is more than mere PR fluff. The opportunity is there for Ford to have a genuine, positive impact on the power unit even if it is fundamentally not its product, but the risk is that it might attempt to be too involved.

F1 is hugely specialized and there are plenty of examples of a manufacturer getting too heavy-handed in intervening in areas outside of its expertise. Ford Motor Company itself proved that through its treatment of the Jaguar team it owned that competed unsuccessfully from 2000-2004. Ironically, that’s the same team that Red Bull took over and turned into a world-beater. So it should be down to RBPT to lead the way on what is needed and ensure that Ford’s contribution is maximized but never counter-productive.

All the ingredients are there for the 2026 RBPT power unit to be successful, with no obvious weaknesses there beyond the fact this is a new company. We can take it as a given that the facilities and expertise are there; the key question is whether this will all coalesce into an organization capable of matching Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault, Audi and, should it decide to continue and find another partner, possibly Honda. Red Bull will go into 2026 expecting to be competitive but if it has a problem on the engine side, it could potentially knock it out of title-winning contention for the whole five-year rules cycle. And who knows how Ford will react to that?

However, this is the gamble Red Bull took and backed itself to make a success of. The company has thrived in F1 by biting off more than most can chew and mastering it, so it will most likely do so again. It’s an audacious and ambitious project that deserves to be rewarded with victories on track. But the scale of the challenge it has taken on must not be underestimated.