Two reactions came to mind with last week’s bombshell announcement of Andretti Cadillac Racing’s desired Formula 1 entry. The first was one of unbridled enthusiasm to see Michael Andretti and General Motors go all-in on an American F1 entry that will hopefully be accepted in the coming years.
The second stood out more than the first: What an amazing declaration on the state of auto racing by GM.
At a time where the auto industry is going through its greatest technological changes in more than a century with the rise in hybridization and electrification — and when most auto manufacturers are proceeding with serious caution in motor racing as they gradually phase out internal combustion engines — we have GM casting fears aside and doubling down by committing to F1, the sport’s biggest and greatest challenge.
For one of the world’s largest car companies, and an institution that tends to err on the side of conservatism in its major racing decisions, the call to add F1 to its activities — with the massive financial and technological requirements that come with it — gives me immense optimism for where the sport is headed. If a monolith like GM is prepared to expand its factory portfolio in the costly arena of F1, my mounting fears about racing’s long-term health, and manufacturers’ justifications to ramp up in the sport, are significantly reduced.
Its existing array of racing commitments would be more than enough for any manufacturer, from factory involvements in IndyCar and NASCAR through Chevrolet, its beloved Corvette Racing sports car team coupled with its sizable investment in the new hybrid GTP cars with Cadillac in IMSA, plus its programs in the NHRA and Extreme E. All of which makes GM’s proclamation of intent with F1 through Cadillac such a big deal.
A company the size of GM, one that’s been primarily associated with big and blaring V8 engines since the 1950s, wouldn’t step up to the sport’s top tier, in whatever hybridized or full-electric guise, without seeing plenty of runway ahead in advertising value and relevance. There isn’t much left to be learned about the internal combustion engine, so as Jim Campbell, GM’s VP of Performance and Motorsports, said in a call last week, the shift is underway to use racing as a testbed for propulsion technologies that aren’t solely reliant on pistons and crankshafts.
“If you look over the history of the automobile industry and our time in racing, there have been many changes in technologies and innovations, many of which have come right from racing, but others that have started in automobile production that we brought into racing,” Campbell told RACER.
“So as the technologies change over time, we use this platform to learn quickly and apply to the production side of the business. This latest partnership and alignment with Andretti Global and General Motors featuring our Cadillac brand certainly puts another big racing series in the portfolio in which we compete. So we’re proud of that and excited for what’s possible.”
The selection of Cadillac as GM’s Formula 1 brand is another bold decision by the Detroit, Michigan-based company. Why go with Cadillac instead of something with a sportier reputation like Chevy or model line like Corvette that evoke images of big wins at Indianapolis, Le Mans, and Daytona? I couldn’t help but think back to 2004 when I was among the thousands at Sebring International Raceway for the season-opening ALMS and SCCA World Challenge events where GM unveiled the craziest race car of its kind with the chopped, channeled, and slammed four-door CTS-V. The thundering Cadillacs stunned the racing world as the somewhat benign CTS road car was modified into a vision of deafening aggression that changed how the average racing fan thought of the brand.
Two decades later, GM’s using the same playbook for Cadillac with shock and awe in its proposed F1 bid with Andretti to elevate the brand on a global level. Among GM’s myriad auto lines, Cadillac is a core component in its march towards full-EV models, and with that part known, using F1 to draw international awareness to its widening range of electrified luxury and performance Cadillacs makes sense.
Whether it’s a traditional V8 mated to an energy recovery system in its Cadillac GTP car or a tiny hybrid V6 in F1, Campbell says there’s vast educational value to be returned through its evolving relationship with racing.
“Cadillac has a deep history in our whole company around racing and performance, and really using the platform to learn on the track for the technical transfer benefits,” he added. “It used to be, ‘Learn on the track and then take it directly to the showroom,’ and now in addition to that, it’s to take the tools that we use in racing and hone our skills, hone the tools, and then the tools are even more effective when we apply them to production.
“We love the platform because we can develop people on all sides of the engineering business. It’s fast-paced and you’ve got to be ready for the green flag. What I’ve seen is when we rotate people in and out of motorsports, and when they get back to production-oriented jobs, they’re better for it.”
Campbell’s counterpart Jim Danahy, GM’s VP Motorsports Competition Engineering, sees the institutional growth in knowledge throughout its factory racing programs that benefit the entire organization.
“We are learning a lot, not only on the hardware side of things, but on software and IT and data and speed,” Danahy said. “We have a seven-day product cycle in motorsports. We finish a race on Sunday afternoon and the green flags drops again for more the next Sunday. So our ability to be able to learn, adapt with our systems, our simulations, and our people in that short time really helps the broader company.”
To be fair, GM is by no means the only manufacturer to increase its presence and spending in motor racing and reap similar benefits during this transitional time for the auto industry. Among the handful of others, the Volkswagen Group, in particular, has set Audi on the road to F1 in a few years and sent Porsche back to pursue overall wins at the Rolex 24 At Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans this season.
There are encouraging signs with manufacturer engagement across F1 and IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, but there’s something altogether different about GM swinging for the fences in grand prix racing. The internal group who green-lit the program — refused to play it safe — deserve a round of applause.
“It’s exciting for us to see that the company is making the commitment to continue with motorsports,” Danahy continued. “One of the things about General Motors is that we really feel the essence of transformation happening. But if we’re not engaged during the transformation, then that’s a tough place to be. As we go through a transformation in our company, as the auto industry goes through a transformation, as the series go through a transformation, we want to be part of that. Sitting on the sidelines, watching it happen, and then deciding at some point to jump in just doesn’t feel right to us as a company.”