STRAW: This is a make or break moment for Williams

Automorbit, Sport – 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.

WILLIAMS POINTS

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.

While that period did yield Maldonado (and modern-day Williams’s) day of days, winning the Spanish Grand Prix from pole position on merit after prevailing in a battle with Fernando Alonso (albeit with the assistance of Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren being excluded from qualifying), mostly it was a period of frustration.

There was also technical instability. Sam Michael, selected as Patrick Head’s successor as technical director, led that side of the team until he left after a dismal start to 2011, with Mark Gillan, Mike Coughlan and then Symonds having leadership roles. But perhaps the biggest mistake was the appointment of Paddy Lowe as chief technical officer, who started his new job in March 2017.

His CV was glittering, having played a key role in successes with Mercedes and McLaren – as well as being integral to the Williams active ride program during the team’s pomp – but things went badly wrong during his tenure. This culminated in the 2019 car not being ready to run at the start of testing and his departure. Subsequent restructures mean the team no longer has an outright technical director, although it has looked around for one, and this could be an area Dorilton chooses to splash the cash. But technical directors aren’t easy to find and usually take time to bring in, so this could also take time – if, indeed, it is deemed necessary.

While the financial problems were a key reason Williams struggled, the technical weakness has also hurt it. In recent years, it has had a budget plenty healthy enough to have been a solid performer in the midfield, but failed to extract the most from the resource it had. This weakness was exacerbated by the fact it was competing with teams that had similar budgets, but leaned on bigger teams through technical partnerships.

But other than its engine supply, Williams remained fiercely independent. While it designs and manufactures its own gearbox, suspension and all of the other non-listed parts it could buy in, rivals such as AlphaTauri, Alfa Romeo, Haas and Racing Point don’t have to. Frustration at this approach played a part in losing Stroll and the family backing – perhaps in some alternate universe, Williams is now preparing for a future as the Aston Martin team instead of Racing Point?

What is key now is that the aerodynamic weakness is tackled head-on. The team has attempted to do this in recent years, but the progress hasn’t been stellar. While this year’s car is a big step forward, reaching Q2 on five occasions, it’s still the weakest chassis. As other teams have mastered the fine art not just of finding downforce, but of ensuring it is consistent and using systems that impact the aero platform when lock is applied, Williams has fallen far behind. The aerodynamic game has changed, and Williams has not kept up.

In fact, you can argue that this was a trend that had started even when Williams was winning its most recent world championship in 1997. Adrian Newey had designed the Williams-Renault FW19 but then left to join McLaren, which was a big mistake for the team. Newey himself suggests this happened because he didn’t feel he was regarded as an integral part of the team’s decision making, but keeping hold of the pre-eminent aerodynamic mind of modern F1 might have changed everything.

During the BMW years, Williams was a race winner but never managed the title. While the tire controversy of 2003 played a part in that, it produced a line of solid but unspectacular cars aero-wise with a great engine. There was even an attempt to bring Newey back once this had been realized, but it came to nothing.

While it might seem ridiculous to cast back over two decades for the first signs of this decline, it’s correct to do so. Then, Williams was an F1 colossus, but for myriad reasons F1 changed in a way that left it behind. And for that the blame lies both with successive regimes at Williams, and F1 itself for treating some of its competitors so badly. Had Williams still been among the haves rather than sliding into the ranks of the have-nots when the creeping financial inequality – which, it must be remembered, pays the big teams vastly more simply for existing regardless of what they achieve – it might have been different.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Williams has failed to get itself onto a financial and technical even keel at any point over the past decade and a half. That inevitably leads to shorter-term thinking and a more hand-to-mouth existence that slowly corrodes the core strength of the team. You can’t point to any one thing and blame it, but it’s clear now that the many Williams revivals were always exceptions to the trend, and weren’t underpinned by the strengths needed to sustain that success.

Now, it is over to Dorilton Capital to change that. The timing is certainly right. The new Concorde Agreement and the cost cap prove that. Williams will also benefit from the sliding scale of aerodynamic testing that limits windtunnel and CFD work but gives more of it to the teams who are at the back.

What now needs to happen is for Dorilton Capital to look long term, invest in the right places and ensure that the team can spend the coming years undoing the damage of the past couple of decades. It’s going to take time – there will be no magic bullets – but the potential is there and, finally, the wider conditions are right. After all, this is still a team with decent facilities and some high-quality people on which to build. Some progress has been made in the recovery already, but the key is that Dorilton chooses the right path, puts the right people in place and spends in the right places to set the team up for the years to come.

This cannot be allowed to be another false dawn for Williams. If it is, it could lead to the sun setting for good on one of the greatest names in grand prix history.

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