While Formula 1 may be struggling to invigorate the spectacle of racing amid another anticipated year of Red Bull dominance, one area it is not struggling in is the off-track coffers. With more races than ever before, and the bumper profits that go with it, an inevitable side-effect is wandering eyes from afar. The sport’s governing body, the FIA, has thus opened an “expressions of interest” process in January for new potential teams to join the current 10-team grid, perhaps as soon as 2025.
Enter Calvin Lo: the Hong Kong-based CEO of R.E. Lee International which, he says, is the world’s largest life insurance broker. The 45-year-old has been “hooked” on the sport since glimpsing Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari on TV in the early 2000s. A trip to Shanghai for the first Chinese Grand Prix in 2004 underlined that adoration. But now, spectating from the paddock isn’t enough.
“I’m having serious discussions about getting involved right now,” he tells The Independent, from an office in Singapore, with all the paperwork lying in front of him. “There’s actually quite a few proposals in front of me right now to see how I can participate.
“F1 needs more teams. There’s too many talents in motorsport to not have more teams. But when I go through it, it is highly aspirational and absolutely, very ambitious. Still, I’d loved to be involved financially.”
But not at the cost of his reputation. Financial prudence and sustainability are at the forefront of his thinking, with the extended FIA deadline for applications closing on Sunday.
The entrance fee for any new team is $200m, shared by all the current teams. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has previously remarked that $1bn is realistically required to fight at the front, a figure Lo agrees is “fair” given the basic costs of recruitment and car development.
“I won’t get myself into that vicious cycle where I can’t hit those financial markers,” he says, adamantly.
“Putting money into the team is not the difficult part. It’s making sure it’s sustainable; otherwise it’s embarrassing for everyone. It’s very intricate, even with an established group of people, with all the sponsorship and the detail.
“But there’s so much potential in this part of the world – it’d be so advantageous to the Asian community and to the F1 ecosystem.”
Audi have already confirmed their entry in 2026, taking over from Alfa Romeo (Sauber), while American giant Ford has partnered with Red Bull for the world champions’ new powertrains division.
While Lo was tight-lipped about naming potential partnerships, he did emphasise his eagerness to join forces with a new team via the current FIA process. Confirmed bids from Andretti Cadillac, as well as a mooted submission from junior formula outfit Hitech GP, were ruled out.
An association with Panthera Team Asia, therefore, seems most probable at this point. Lo also claims to have a financial link with Williams’ F1 team, who were bought by private investment firm Dorilton Capital nearly three years ago, but non-disclosure agreements preclude him from elaborating further. He was insistent, however, that any new team would not present a conflict of interest.
Instead, his new venture, likely based out of Asia, would be his primary focus. The continent is a “huge untapped market” for the sport, in Lo’s view, amid the Americanisation of the sport witnessed at the weekend in Miami. An academy for drivers and academics alike is also a target.
“To truly make F1 global, we cannot forget this part of the world,” he says. “There are races, but the penetration is not high and it’s wasted.
“I would love to have an Asian team with a base in the Pearl River Delta [the wealthiest region in south China]. The initial few seasons would be tough but it’s important for the sport to have more exposure and commitment here.
“It’d be great to have an academy here. Recruiting talents not just for F1, but aeronautics and legal avenues. For young people to be exposed to this kind of world, it could change someone’s life.
“With [F1’s new regulations in] 2026 and the net-zero target of 2030, now is the perfect time to be involved behind the scenes.”
Widely publicised and purported as the “under-the-radar billionaire” – who has previously been said by Forbes Middle East to have a net worth of $1.7bn (£1.3bn) – he says he covets privacy, despite a lucrative lifestyle which, in his own words, includes owning a suite of supercars and a collection of tip-top champagne.
“If I go into F1, you won’t see me,” he reveals. “It’s not my style. It’s also partly to do with my main business and working with clients.
“In my view, the wealthier you are… you don’t go out and flaunt it. Well some do, most don’t!”
McLaren CEO Zak Brown believes there will be at least four prospective teams interested in joining the sport, while F1’s regulations cater for only two more spots. Lo said he’d been included in an initial application to play a financial role – even if he won’t be the face of said new team – and the FIA intends on making a decision about which teams will be granted a shot at the big time by the end of June.
“By 2026, it will be a different world we live in and it’d be pretty amazing to be part of that change,” he concludes. “It’s now about looking at all the plans and making a decision truly from a financial point of view.
“The skeleton is already there. It’s now just getting everyone to commit themselves.”
This article was amended on 31 July, 2023. It previously stated as fact that Mr Lo was a billionaire and owned a fleet of supercars and collection of expensive champagne, that he had a financial link to the Williams F1 team and that R.E. Lee International was the world’s largest life insurance broker, however The Independent has been unable to independently verify these things.