As the Formula 1 circus moves on to Sochi for the next round, Russian President Vladimir Putin will no doubt be pleased the Haas cars can circumvent the ban on drivers racing under the Russian flag with the adoption of the ‘Russian-themed’ livery.
The irony of course is Haas arrived on the F1 scene with the emphasis on the project being F1’s American team!
Much has been written over why Gene Haas remains in F1, with various theories doing the rounds.
One school of thought is Gene Haas turned down the more than generous offers tabled in 2019 by the Saudi’s and Dmitry Mazepin from a patriot standpoint ensuring an American team remains on the grid.
This may have been in doubt as William’s new owners’ American private equity firm Dorilton Capital was also rumoured to be ‘having a look’ at Haas.
The patriotic angle can now be dismissed as news emerged that Michael Andretti’s Andretti Autosport approached Gene Haas to buy the team only to be turned down.
Andretti Autosport is in the process of raising $287.5m to top up its available spending pot to $400m.
Andretti was a potential bidder for Force India and only walked away when faced with what they perceived to be ridiculous valuations.
With Williams, Dorilton outbid all interested parties to secure the ownership for its unknown mystery beneficial owner.
Andretti Autosport is a serious player running a four car Indy team, a Formula E team with BMW, a 4 car Indy Lights team, and a LMP3 car in the ISMA’s Sportscar series.
Undeterred by Gene Haas’s rebuttal, Michael Andretti confirmed a continuing interest in F1 telling Racer magazine, “If the right opportunity comes up, we’ll be all over it. But we’re not there yet, it would be great but there’s a long way to go if it were to happen.”
Instead of selling, Gene Haas took Mazepin’s sponsorship roubles in return for Junior’s race seat, and of course the opportunity to brand the cars.
Mazepin may or may not be disappointed with Nikita’s performance to date, but he is apparently delighted with the global exposure his company Uralkali has received.
The sponsorship has been instrumental in opening doors and has resulted in new business that has more than recouped his investment.
The world’s biggest potash producer has just got even bigger, and this may have increased his desire to own a team not only for his son’s career but for the business opportunity that F1 presents, not dissimilar to Lawrence Stroll’s F1 journey.
If Mazepin wants to own a team there are only two other realistic options, Williams or Sauber but both will in all likelihood be out of reach.
In Williams’ case, if Mazepin writes a big enough cheque you would naturally assume a private equity firm would do what private equity firms do, namely take the money and run.
The spanner in the works is the motivation behind Dorilton’s backer for Williams, speculated in previous columns, is more heart than head and no amount of money will change that.
A similar scenario exists at Sauber aka Alfa Romeo which is owned by billionaire Swedish Finn Rausing worth $14.4bn courtesy of the Tetra Pak empire.
Rausing became involved in F1 when back in 2016 he was approached by fellow Swede Marcus Ericsson who drove for the Sauber F1 team that was in financial difficulties.
Rausing bought out owner Peter Sauber and chief executive Monisha Kaltenborn initially through his secretive Swiss investment firm Longbow Finance SA, later transferring the ownership to himself.
He appointed trusted family friend Pascal Picci as chairman and took no active role in the running of the team.
Rausing quietly attends race weekends without any media attention.
He is a regular visitor to the factory in Hinwil, Switzerland spending hours happily chatting away to engineers.
Rausing currently supports the team to the tune of $20-$30m so it may be like Williams, a heart and not a head decision, well he’s got to spend his money on something!
The million-dollar question or more accurately the multi-million-dollar question is, would Mazepin start a new team with all that involves.
Well, Liberty Media would like to expand the number of teams on the grid after the pandemic has ended, and Sporting Director Ross Brawn commented to Russian broadcaster RT in July 2020, “If there was interest from a Russian team or any other that we thought was sustainable then we would be fully open to exploring the opportunity.”
One option for Mazepin would be to join forces with fellow Russian billionaire Boris Rotenberg founder of the Russian bank SMP who, along with his brother Arkady owns the SGM Group, the largest construction company for gas pipelines and electrical power supply lines in Russia.
Rotenberg is a close confidant of President Vladimir Putin from his childhood, when both men learned judo together in Leningrad (now St Petersburg).
Rotenberg has had a few troubles of late.
SGM Group was involved in large infrastructure projects in Crimea, which after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to American sanctions of both brothers and their assets.
The U.S. Treasury claimed that Putin had awarded the Rotenberg’s billions of dollars in contracts from Gazprom and for the Sochi Olympics.
EU sanctions followed but only covered property in Rome and Sardinia valued at €30m.
As Rotenberg held Finnish citizenship due to a previous marriage to a Finnish citizen, he bypassed the sanctions. The assets included three villas in Eze, Nice, and Rotenberg’s racing team SMP Racing, which also trains drivers in the city of Le Luc, France.
SMP Racing has a host of Russian drivers on its books including ex Williams F1 driver Sergey Sirotkin, and rising star Robert Schwartzman.
Rotenberg is a confirmed petrolhead and raced in a variety of series from 2011 to 2014, with his biggest achievement coming 2nd in the 2012 – 24 hours race of Barcelona.
Rotenberg is interested in forming an all-Russian F1 team using SMP racing, and made his intentions clear back in October 2019 at the Russian Grand Prix when he said, “The more you try to create in motorsport, the more chance you have to flourish. Do we want to create a Formula 1 team? I think the more teams there are, the more opportunities there will be for our drivers.
“Everything is possible. The main thing is to make the effort. First of all, are the financial considerations.”
Well, in 2020 Rotenberg planned to invest in Dutch car maker Spyker that would enable the company to resume producing a range of three sportscars in 2021 namely: The C8 Preliator supercar, the D8 Peking-to-Paris SUV, and the b6 Venator supercar.
Hoping to emulate Ferrari, McLaren, and Aston Martin with a sportscar manufacturer sponsoring their own F1 team, Rotenberg ambitiously claimed, “Our group of companies will launch the Spyker brand successfully in the league of the world’s best super sportscars.”
Alas, it all ended in tears with the investment never materializing, and Spyker filing for bankruptcy in January.
In May 2021 BR Engineering, the race car constructor established by SMP Racing released details of their third single-seater car, the BR03 developed specifically for the Russian market.
Rotenberg may be down but is not out and no doubt is planning his next move aboard his brother’s $75-million superyacht ‘Rahil’.
So, will a combination of Mazepin’s money and Rotenberg’s expertise create a new all-Russian F1 team? Time will tell.
Garry Sloan is an author, columnist, and podcaster. More details at garrysloan.com