No Formula 1 team has suffered more false dawns than Williams. Twenty-three years since its last world championship title in 1997, the question is whether the recent sale to New York-based private investment firm Dorilton Capital is yet another one, or a genuine fresh start that can set it back on the path to greatness.
It’s early days, given the takeover was completed last week and the new ownership can only be judged based on what happens in the coming years after the €152million ($179m) move. Little has been revealed beyond confirmation that the Williams name will remain, although Dorilton Capital’s self-proclaimed approach is one of patience, continuity and long-term thinking. None of that means the incumbent leadership will remain, and it’s understood there will be changes at that level, but financial stability will make a massive difference.
To understand what needs to happen to rebuild Williams, it’s necessary to understand how it got here. This is a team that has fallen a long way and endured its two worst seasons in 2018-2019, if you set aside the uncompetitive start-up year in 1977 running a customer March chassis for pay driver Patrick Neve.
Today, its problem is very clear. It has the best engine package on the grid thanks to a long-term partnership with Mercedes, which runs until 2025 after having been extended from the original seven-year deal that began at the start of the 1.6-litre V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014. Therefore, the problem is the chassis and, in F1 terms, that means aerodynamics are the key weak point.
But that is also partly a manifestation of wider problems. Just as the new Concorde Agreement has been touted as a massive step forward for a more equitable F1 and a big step towards partially leveling the playing field, the 2013 agreement had the opposite impact. This wasn’t a single agreement, instead being built from a series of bilateral agreements with teams, but it loaded the dice more heavily in favor of the big teams than ever before. Although Williams did have its own advantage in the form of a $10 million ‘heritage’ payment, this still hurt it.
Williams was already an outlier in terms of its economic foundation, the only team on the grid that did not have shareholders with the resources to pour in money should they choose to do so. While it did get a financial boost from its strength at the start of the hybrid era, finishing third in the championship in both 2014 and ’15, this form couldn’t be sustained. Then, the strength of the Mercedes engine helped to paper over some of the cracks of its aero weaknesses. These have subsequently been laid bare, and multiplied by the ongoing struggles to get on top of its design and aero testing processes.
The financial stresses showed during that period when Pat Symonds, recruited as chief technical officer in mid-2013 and who oversaw this period of revival, left when his contract expired at the end of 2016. Among his frustrations was the lack of the reinvestment of the spoils of success that had been expected.
As the team slid down the order, finishing fifth in ’16 and ’17, the financial problems became ever more clear and the points started to dry up. It’s a startling slump that turned a team that was a podium regular in 2014 into one that was lucky to score a single point last year.
2014 – 320 (3rd)
2015 – 257 (3rd)
2016 – 138 (5th)
2017 – 83 (5th)
2018 – 7 (10th)
2019 – 1 (10th)
In the background, Williams ducked and dived to do what it could to balance the books. Its Martini title sponsorship deal ran for five years from 2014, but was a cheap deal considering its prominence. ROKiT succeeded it in ’19, but that deal ended suddenly in May this year in a move announced at the same time as Williams revealed the strategic review that led to its sale.
This was necessitated by Williams having played all of its financial cards. In late 2019, it sold a majority stake in Williams Advanced Engineering, its technology and engineering services business, for a cash injection. In 2020, it restructured a single HSBC loan into two smaller loans, but this was effectively the limit of its credit. Already on the edge, these bad seasons pushed Williams over it. With a £13m ($17m) loss posted for 2019 thanks to the loss of prize money due to its dismal performances, there was nowhere else to turn other than seek outside investment.
This was a huge step for a team that has always been fiercely independent, to the point where it created financial hardship for itself when it parted company with engine partner BMW rather than being willing to sell. BMW instead bought a majority stake in the Sauber team in 2005, leaving Williams not only without a works engine deal but also losing title sponsor HP as a result.
That led to a period of financial retrenchment for Williams, initially running Cosworth engines, then customer Toyotas with the option either of paying full whack or running the Japanese manufacturer’s protege Kazuki Nakajima. It had to opt for the latter, showing how far the team had slid since the days when it was willing to lose a Honda supply by refusing to run Satoru Nakajima.
The post-BMW period was one of instability. Engine supply changes were regular, a return to Cosworth in 2010 followed by a switch to Renault in 2012, while pay drivers became a regular feature. Having given Nico Hulkenberg his F1 debut in 2010, the team dropped him in favor of Pastor Maldonado and his PDVSA millions, while subsequently drivers such as Bruno Senna, Lance Stroll, Sergey Sirotkin, Robert Kubica and Nicholas Latifi have also come with backing.