The $1 Billion Southeast Asian Formula 1 Team Bid That Failed: Where LKYSUNZ Goes From Here

When the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), Formula 1's sanctioning body, opened an expression of interest for prospective new teams to join the series, many of us assumed we knew who that application was designed for. Andretti Global, helmed by Michael Andretti of the American motorsport empire and backed by General Motors, had told the world it intended to compete with the best of the best in the pinnacle of open-wheel motorsport. No one was expecting the bombshell announcement that a prospective team based in Southeast Asia and Africa had secured $1 billion in funding to make its motorsport dreams come true. That team is LKYSUNZ.

The team was perplexing. A smattering of inspired white men from England and Europe told the world that they had found a massive gap in F1's market — Asia and Africa — and they had already begun working with local governments and universities to create a Formula 1 team with a purpose. But where did this $1 billion come from? How was this team prepared to not just pay F1's mandatory anti-dilution fee, but to pay it three times over? Where are its headquarters, and what are its goals? How the hell do you even pronounce the name ‘LKYSUNZ’?

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LKYSUNZ — pronounced “lucky suns,” in a nod to the Asian roots of the team — was founded by Durand, chief commercial officer Andrew Pyrah, and chairman Paul Fleming. It is a brand new endeavor born out of Durand’s previous effort to climb the Formula 1 ladder with Panthera Team Asia back in 2019. Right out of the gate, the team announced that it had acquired $1 billion in funding as part of its bid to enter the Formula 1 grid, but questions were immediately apparent. Who was investing in this team, and why? Where is it based? Does it even have a car prepared, or a facility? It’s run by three white men who ostensibly seem to have no actual roots in Asia, Africa, or the “youth culture” that the team’s press releases claim to target; how can it actually be called Asian? Jalopnik intended to pull these strands apart to understand the reasoning behind each of the team’s claims.

Things began to make more sense when I spoke with Durand, who has clocked multiple decades working in motorsport. As he attempted to build and sell LMP2 race race cars in Asia, Durand was told by a local contact that “to do something in Asia, you need to be in Asia, and at the time, they were only interested in Formula 1.

“But locally, those communities see Formula 1 as European. It’s not a World Championship; it races worldwide, but it’s a bunch of English [personnel].”

The European bias in F1 racing quickly became clear to Durand; to be successful in the sport, it was almost a requirement that you be located in England or a European country. As a result, F1 teams hire from the local talent pools, effectively excluding a significant portion of the world’s population from participating in F1. It’s no longer a global sport, Durand says, as there is no investment in the diverse countries of Asia and Africa.

“There is so much talent in those underrepresented communities,” Durand told Jalopnik. “Technicians and engineers from Southeast Asia — they don’t even look at motorsport because they don’t think they can have a future there. And Formula 1 always picks from the same pool of people.”

Cast a wider net, Durand argues, and you’ll be able to pull talent from communities that have been historically ignored by F1. There’s a whole world out there filled with people who would tackle a problem in a different way than would the same group of people from Oxfordshire, and there’s no telling how revolutionary those new ideas would be, or how relevant they could become in a different country.

That being said, LKYSUNZ knew that it would struggle to actually get its footing in an Asian or African country — at least at first. The goal was to build a state-of-the-art headquarters in England or Europe, then use the team’s status in F1 as leverage to establish various footholds in its target continents. At that point, LKYSUNZ intended to essentially work its way down the ladder; with its F1 team in place, it could develop local teams to compete in regional motorsport categories while also setting up motorsport-focused programs at African and Asian universities. After a few years, LKYSUNZ would be able to staff its F1 team with engineers, technicians, and drivers that it has raised from the ground up.

“I don’t consider success as the day we win our first race, or get our first pole position, or win our first Championship,” Durand told Jalopnik. “We will win the day that we have other teams stealing our personnel, when people say, ‘Those talents from Africa, from Asia, working for LKYSUNZ — we want to hire them.’”

The elephant in the room is, of course, why a group of white men from those aforementioned English and European countries should be in charge of a team that is, at its core, an effort to diversify Formula 1.

“This shows the problem, if people are wondering why three white men would be interested,” Durand said. “Diversity should not be a question. Everybody should be interested in diversity.

“But the second thing is that this project has to start somewhere, and it is probably easier for me to do it than somebody else.”

What Durand means is that he and his LKYSUNZ co-founders are loaded with the kind of motorsport knowledge that a more localized effort may not have access to. Durand, Pyrah, and Fleming have all seen how Formula 1 works in its current state; in many ways, they not only know the rules of the game as they currently stand but also where F1 is in dire need of improvement. That expertise can serve as the backbone of LKYZUNZ’s international efforts — at least until more local initiatives can gain that knowledge themselves.

“The war I have in front of me is huge,” Durand said of his team, “but for anyone else, it would be 10 times harder.”

The easiest thing to do, Durand said, would be to set up a comfortable team out in Milton Keynes, where he could rely on a guaranteed pool of talent (albeit a small one) and a set of fans. He could rely on being easily folded into the F1 universe. But he’s not interested in doing things the easy way, not when he believes the future of the sport lies in Africa and Asia.

“Yeah, okay, I’m a white dude — but we’re working with people who are not,” he continued. “I don’t pretend to know everything, but we work with people in these local communities that trust us. We have engaged with the right actors to gain their trust and explain what we are doing to get them involved. Mainly, we will be the link between those communities and F1.

“The team, LKYSUNZ, will not be three guys. It will be 400 people. Right now, we are the face of it because we are the ones in the press, but that will not always be the case.”

Durand pointed to the impressive amounts of funding as backing up his claims. While he was cagey about providing specific donors, he noted that the money has been invested by Legends Advocates Sports Groups in America as well as politicians, universities, and automotive groups in countries like Malaysia, where LKYSUNZ intends to operate. The company has been offered those investments because it’s the first one to truly engage with the people on the ground, many of whom have been waiting for the perfect opportunity to compete in an international arena.

In interviews with other publications, Benjamin Durand has noted that the proposal LKYSUNZ submitted to the FIA was, perhaps, a little incomplete. When I asked what that meant, he noted the big things: a lack of a factory or prototype vehicle, and an unproven competition record. But he also admitted that LKYSUNZ was up front and realistic about its expectations in the sport.

“Andretti is coming in saying, ‘I’m going to win the World Championship in five years,’” Durand said.

But LKYSUNZ doesn’t expect to be a front-runner right out of the gate.

“Maybe if we arrive and we work hard, we can finish eighth in the Championship our first year, but because of [the scope of] what we are doing, we’re probably going to finish ninth, 10th, or 11th,” Durand admitted. “We’ll lose performance because we have to create everything from scratch.

“But the bid is just one aspect. You have to ask, holistically, what is more important for you. Is it more important that you have a team that can win the Championship, or is it more important to have a team that brings something new to F1? A new fan base, new forms of revenue, new sponsorship opportunities?”

“What we are trying to do is be good enough to be in F1, to be part of the system without damaging our image or making F1 look ridiculous,” Durand added. “But in the same way, we are bringing something different into the sport. Those first years may be difficult, but we are investing in building something. The first years of an investment, you spend money to build something you can use. But we will grow, and develop, and the investment will pay off. The complaint is that if another team comes, it is going to take part of the cake. And for us, the solution is easy: let’s make the cake bigger. Let’s open new audiences that will pass along the benefit to everybody.”

The FIA, though, has made its decision. Of the four teams that expressed interest in F1, Andretti was the only one selected by the FIA to move on to the next step, thereby answering the question of what the organization values most: The ability to field a successful team right out of the gate. Right now, the FIA isn’t looking for a team that would mine an entirely new experience for F1; it’s looking for a competitive team that will appeal to its growing American audience — something that Durand views with caution, considering the fact that the American fan base seems to be reaching its breaking point with the sport.

Now, the big question is, where does LKYSUNZ go from here? The game plan isn’t clear just quite yet, but Durand told Jalopnik that the team is exploring two different options.

“The first is to look at what is available in terms of partnering with an existing team, or buying out an existing team,” he said. “That’s not easy. There aren’t many options, but we are talking to some teams to see if we can work together.

“The other option is to reverse engineer what we were trying to do. We were trying to start with Formula 1, then develop the [training] academies and [join] other championships. Instead, we can start from the base: develop technical academies, hire the best people, join other series. Then, when it is time again, we apply to F1.”

There’s no telling when that opportunity will next arise, but if LKYSUNZ has achieved anything in its failed F1 bid, it’s getting its name and its mission into the mouths and minds of the Formula 1 sphere. It may not have a team, but it has a goal, and LKYSUNZ is still working to achieve it.

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