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Williams looking at bigger picture
Posted By: James Allen  |  23 Nov 2009   |  7:43 pm GMT  |  45 comments

I’ve been thinking about Williams selling a minority shareholding in the team to Austrian motorsport investor Toto Wolff. The deal was announced at the end of last week.

Picture 30
It is yet another example, in this early part of the off season, of a structural change in the fabric of F1 teams. We have had Mercedes ending its arrangement with McLaren and buying 75% of Brawn and McLaren setting itself up as a “British Ferrari”.

Williams was set up very much like Brawn; an independent team with a private shareholder structure. Teams of this size are very well placed for the new era of F1. Then there is the Qadback deal to purchase the BMW Sauber team, which hasn’t gone through yet because the team has not been granted Toyota’s vacant slot on the grid.

It’s ironic that Williams has sold to a man called Wolff, as back in 1975 he sold his first F1 racing team to Walter Wolf, a Canadian millionaire oil man who wanted to go racing. That deal didn’t work out too well for Williams and led to him setting up Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

Williams does not want to reveal the extent of the shareholding Wolff will get, but it will appear on their next tax return in around six months time, so we will find out then. But they have resisted many offers to sell equity in the company so this is a significant move.

Williams did reveal that the sale of the shareholding followed along the lines of the split which existed between him and Patrick Head. Williams held 70% of the shares and Head the remaining 30% – so they have both reduced their holding proportionately.

Sir Frank was keen to point out that the move in no way indicated a change of strategy for the team’s management, but was simply about releasing a bit of cash for equity for himself and his long time partner.
“Nothing changes. I will continue with my role, ” said Williams. “Patrick and I are here every day and we will continue to be so. I have no desire at this time in my life to want to stop work.

“The sale is entirely for private motives. I’m 67, I’m not going to live forever. I want to take care of one or two private needs. Patrick and I have never taken a penny out of the business in four decades and it’s time I paid a few bills!”

Williams suggested that the money would be used to pay off his mortgage, but it will be interesting to see how much of it goes back into the business. When BMW left the team in 2005 Williams sold his private plane and helicopter and ploughed that money back into the team. In that time Williams was fighting hard to keep up with the spending arms race led by the manufacturers. Now, although there is no budget cap, there is a resource restriction agreement to keep costs under control.

Williams did acknowledge that he was not getting any younger. At 67 he is the world’s oldest surviving quadraplegic and his care is expensive. I had lunch with him in Abu Dhabi and a long chat in Suzuka and on both occasions he was on great form, energetic and funny, the mischievous twinkle in his eye. He didn’t look like he was about to retire.

There have been some interesting moves around Williams lately, with the sudden decision to go with Cosworth engines after a long negotiation with Renault. There has been some speculation that there is a bigger picture at work with the Cosworth move perhaps linked in some way to Williams and a third party, perhaps bringing a new manufacturer into the sport when the engine formula changes in 2013.

Wolff is the kind of character who might position Williams for the future and then broker it on, given his investments in high tech businesses like HWA in Germany, and his wider connections in the automotive field. There are suggestions that Audi might look at F1 when the new engine formula comes into play.

Who knows, it might be just a simple deal to take on a young, energetic shareholder, but given that it hasn’t happened before with Williams F1 and Frank is talking about securing the company’s future, there is a strong chance that there is more to it than that. Williams admires intellect above all else,

“He’s a very clever young man, ” says Williams of Wolff. “He has one or two investments about which he’s very tight-lipped. It’s also a method of ensuring that everyone who supports this team, namely our partners and workforce are taken care of. The present owners are taking steps to ensure that this all continues. As will inevitably happen, I’m going to get too old to do this one day. So I’d rather not rush into something at the last minute.”

Along with moves like the joint venture in Qatar to develop their composite flywheel technology for commercial use on buses and trains, Williams is very much looking to the future.

* Be sure to get your entries in to the Top Five Drivers competition. The competition will close and I will be posting the results at midnight UK time tonight.

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45 Comments
  1. I like the Williams team – I like the attitude (that we see on tv) of Frank and Patrick. I remember a documentary a few years ago where (either Frank or Partick) they said they are an engineering company and the drivers are just employees.
    It would truly be fantastic to see them get a few more podiums next year and who knows with Rubens a possible win??

  2. lynnduffy says:

    He’s an inspirational figure. I’d have to admit that he doesn’t exactly come across as warm and fuzzy – some drivers seem to have indicated the same – but he’s a remarkable figure and a passionate racer. To have done what he’s done while restrained by such a serious condition is hugely admirable. It makes me feel bad for giving out about my persistent toothache!!

  3. Andrew says:

    Sir Frank Williams is not quadrapalegic.

    1. Dan says:

      He is, he can only move the top half of his arms, and feels nothing below the elbow…

  4. Eaun Taylor says:

    What is this new engine formula that will be introduced in 2013?

    1. James Allen says:

      Based on a fixed unit of fuel, rather than engine capacity. This will probably mean the return of turbos and KERS. I’ll do some post on it over the winter

  5. Mike from Medellin, Colombia says:

    Good on Frank. I remember when Eddie Jordan said that he felt sorry for FW and that he missed the boat by not selling in 2004/2005.

    1. S2K says:

      I think he did good not to sell then. For the sport at least. It will be one of the saddest day in Formula 1 when there will be no Williams cars on the grid. Old Papa Frank is just one of the last few remaining Mohicans in F1, a true racer.

    2. Segedunum says:

      Look what happened if he had have sold. BMW would have flushed it down the toilet and they would have folded.

  6. John MacMicking says:

    James, there is more to the Wolf connection.
    Wolf racing won it’s first race in 1975 with Jody Schekter at the wheel and a new young technician in the garage on loan from Frank Williams – Ross Brawn!

  7. Luke Potter says:

    James,

    I may be wrong but I find it extremely hard to believe that Sir Frank is the oldest surviving quadriplegic. A Google search turns up older quadriplegics than 67 on its first page. It’s a fair point though, I think I’d have sold up before 67 in his position.

    Best,

    Luke

    1. James Allen says:

      In the sense that he has been in that condition for longer than anyone else (23 years)

      1. Kirsty says:

        well this guy has been a quadriplegic for 25 years.

        http://www.geoffholt.com/

      2. Jon says:

        Sorry James, Sir Frank is neither the oldest Quadriplegic nor the oldest to live… I think in respect to the others you should make this right on your blog! I have been a fan of the team for twenty years and running so this comment is an injustice to the man at the top of the company. It makes F1 look like it lives in a certain bubble that most think it does… BUT I am trying to keep the faith…

  8. TOD says:

    As an outsider looking in, Frank and Patrick have been level headed people how seem to just like been part of the sport. They have built there company on solid engineering foundations and unlike some other team owners that have quit and taken the money, Frank and Patrick are in it because they love the sport.
    They have produce some great F1 car and a few rubbish ones as well, I hope the cosworth engine is up to the job next year. (What do you think James)
    P.S. Always liked the way Williams turned out There cars, good looking without being to flash

  9. Niko says:

    Reading between the lines, it seems that Sir Frank is preparing the team for when he’s not around or able to run the team. Not that this means he’s expecting to depart soon, just that he’s keeping his age in mind.

  10. Adam Greensall says:

    I think that this move by frank an patrick could potentially be in the long term future be the start of them winding down there f1 carreers. i know that frank has said that its not going to change the management at williams well for the time being at least, and at 67 he is doing very well to keep on working. but lets face it they cant go on forever an ever an they are not spring chickens. When they finally do decide to call it a day we could lose the name williams from f1 altogether which would be very sad as they have a great history in the sport winning many championships and flying the flag for GB

  11. Jonathan says:

    Is Frank really THE oldest surviving Quadraplegic? I find that amazing.

  12. Howard Hughes says:

    James,

    I often here the phrase lately – ‘McLaren setting itself up as a “British Ferrari”’…

    What does this even mean? They’ve hired Button – does this make McLaren a British Ferrari? If so – how?

    They’ve recently released the MP4-12C, but does this make them any more the British Ferrari than when they released the F1 in 1991?

    I’m sorry, but I genuinely don’t understand the term… what on Earth does it actually refer to?!

    1. James Allen says:

      All British sportscar, McLaren chassis and engine. The realisation of Ron Dennis’ long held dream.

      1. Jason C says:

        On that topic (and off the main one), James, I had a thought that once they’re making their own engines, in say 2012 or so, they will want to find at least one other team to sell a supply to. It’s probably too early to see movement on that front right now, but I suppose Force India is the most likely at the moment, given the links between the two. Completely off-topic, I know.

      2. Matt says:

        I think Williams should be the British Ferrari! Bruce McLaren was a kiwi after all

      3. Howard Hughes says:

        Thanks for that James – I see now that it’s the ‘own engine’ bit that does it… though I still reckon the closest Britain ever came to producing its own Ferrari was Lotus…

      4. Rudy Pyatt says:

        Though, in F1 terms, I think BRM was the last British team to make the whole car — engine, chassis, gearbox.

  13. tom says:

    Is Frank Williams a quadriplegic? I thought he had use of his arms?

    1. Mike from Medellin, Colombia says:

      No.

      1. Mike from Medellin, Colombia says:

        I mean, no – he doesn’t have the use of his arms. I found out embarrassingly several years ago when I asked Frank for his autograph and his nurse told me that he has is unable to use his arms.

      2. Ariel says:

        I’m afraid he just wasn’t in the mood. Otherwise, he uses wheelchair gloves just for fashion, and this pic captures a miracle floating paralyzed arm:
        http://www.formula1.com/photos/597×478/sutton/2007/d07esp1590.jpg

        And ee was using wheelchair gloves this year, for the FOTA meeting at Flavio’s boat in Montecarlo.

        If you look on Google, you’ll find lots of pictures where Frank Williams is shown using his arms to move his wheelchair.

  14. Steve P says:

    Frank and Patrick can afford to take credit in the fact that the much discussed transitory and opportunistic nature of manufacturers participation has been proven recently whilst Williams remains. Pay off the mortgages guys but please stay true to your true beliefs

  15. Elliot says:

    My question – what happened to Williams?

    From a 1990s full of championships and glory to nothing like that success this decade.

    Can they ever rediscover that form?

    Thoughts anyone?

  16. David Faria says:

    Good on them for looking to the future, they are an example of how to run an F1 team in my opinion. Hope they can get back to the front with resource restriction coming in, as they were before the really big money came along. Just a little worried about their potential to attract world class drivers.

  17. Ninad says:

    Brilliant article.
    Their drivers next year Rubens Barichello and Nico Hulkenberg will be best pairing they have had for a long time. They have not had guy of Rubens’s experience since possibly 2005/2006.

    If Cosworth engines work out well then they could even win a race.

    Remember Rosberg had pace to win at Singapore but was stuck behind Hamilton and then finally made pitlane exit error!!

  18. Ian Blackwell says:

    Very interesting stuff and good strategic planning by Sir Frank. The new engine formula is tricky for any team planning the future. 2013 is not terribly far away and if the new engine formula is as radical as promised manufacturers and teams would need to start planning ahead now. The Audi rumor makes a lot of sense. They have pretty much owned Le Mans for the last decade and have a history in the sport as Auto Union as well as some pretty advanced turbodiesel tech.

    One thing I do not understand is why Williams decided to go with Cosworth in the interim. Renault have a proven engine that was good enough to win 6 gps this year in the Red Bull. Surely Williams need to prove to everyone that they can still win. Why would Audi or any other prospective manufacturer go with a team that has not won a race in 12 years when it could be very easy to find teams with more recent success like McLaren or Red Bull that might be just as desperate to sign a manufacturer in 2013?

    1. Med says:

      James has previously alluded to the tie up with Cosworth leading to something more; perhaps they know something we don’t when it comes to Renault, after all, they cancelled their Toyota contract before it was announced they were pulling out, or perhaps they’re just not too confident they’ll be around for much longer.

      Audi could perhaps be interested in teaming up with Williams as a way to look into KERS, which Williams are now developing for commercial use – Williams’ last win was in 2004, which is slightly less than 12 years ago.

  19. Simon says:

    If anyone wants to learn more about how Frank works and thinks, it’s worth reading Maurice Hamiltons recent book on the team – after reading james’s obviously! It’s brilliant.

    1. James Allen says:

      Agreed, Maurice has done a great job on it.

      1. Dan says:

        As a ‘younger’ (still only 20, but with 18+ years of F1 fan-dom behind me!!) F1 Fan, I thoroughly enjoyed Maurice Hamilton’s book… a great read that gave light to some aspects of F1 I wasn’t aware of growing up in the 90′s onwards… Frank must wake up every day being immensely proud of what he has literally built up from nothing, into a pinnacle of both racing and high-technology… There’s not many F1 names greater than Sir Frank..

        I think Williams problems over the last decade or so was the advent of the spend-to-win era… If this is now truly over, AND Williams can keep a grasp on it’s fine engineering background, then they can at least hope to be a significant contender, if not a total frontrunner, and that’s probably about right for a company operating on it’s own against the likes of Mercedes, the huge McLaren group, Ferrari and FIAT and Mateschitz’s Red Bull millions…

    2. Renn Sport says:

      Thanks for the tip :)

  20. Kedar says:

    I think the Williams team were never the same after the 97 season. Albeit they managed a mini revival with the BMW’s. Just cant help the feeling that they are from a different era. Kinda reminds me of the teary farewell of Ken Tyrell and the great Tyrell ford team and all the history with Cosworth. But then in the late 90s all they did was fill up the Grid. Williams i am afraid are doing the same now.

    1. Med says:

      Fingers crossed, now that the spend to win era seems to be coming to an end, they could just get back up there; 98 and 99 were pretty much write offs since they lost their works engines and Adrian Newey and were waiting for BMW, but they were respectable. Well, ish – at, or near the front of the rest behind McLaren and Ferrari.

      2000, first year with BMW the same.

      2001 – better performance, but car too fragile.

      2002 – best of the rest, but unless your name was Ferrari there was no point showing up to the races

      2003 – slow start to the season, but ended up the fastest car on the grid – came close to winning both titles

      2004 – took the fastest car and turned it into a dog with a walrus face

      2005 – not sure; I missed that season

      2006 onwards, they start pretty quick but fall back through the season; perhaps now they should be on level peggings with dev spending, they might be able to keep up there.

      It just seems they’ve been there or thereabouts, just lacking that last little bit of oompf to go for it – they seem to have found more of it this year, so perhaps now the costs are coming down and they have development/set-up experience in Rubens coming over, they could improve over the coming seasons.

      It’d be a crying shame for them to go the way of Tyrell

  21. Rudy Pyatt says:

    A very interesting move, and good on Sir Frank and (should be?) Sir Patrick. They certainly deserve to get some profit out of all their work. It’s a very, very shrewd move for other reasons, not least the possible tie-up with Audi. But there are even greater implications to that.

    With the new smaller displacement engine proposals, there is congruence here. So much so, that I wonder whether or not there’s FIA coordination in the background. F2 uses turbo 4-cylinders, Audis in fact. More, Audi, Fiat, Volkswagen and several others are heavily involved in the new Indycar formula – interestingly enough, due to take effect about the same time as the new F1. And that’s going to be a turbo formula. See the last paragraph of this link:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IndyCar_Series

    Note the cost containment elements of the Indycar proposals; the continued use of fuel grade ethanol, already in use and putting Indycar ahead of F1 in terms of “right here, right now” “green” credentials; and the use of an equivalency formula to match injected V6 engines against turbocharged fours. (FYI, the NHRA has long matched supercharged against fuel injected non-supercharged racers in it’s Top Alcohol class).

    What I’m sensing here is a move toward the “World Formula” model that the CSI mooted for 1970, in that case an unsupercharged 4 litre limit for F1, USAC and sportscars. The proposal failed, ironically enough, because US racing at the time offered more technology, speed and money than F1 (not my opinion, but that of Denis Jenkinson; Motorsport reprinted his column on this a few years back and it stuck in my mind) and the Americans voted against it. Economic, marketing and environmental issues being what they are, it looks like it’ll happen this time.

    Williams has just taken a big, subtle step to get ahead of that game.

  22. Count me as another long-time Williams fan. I fervently hope the Cosworth engine is not an embarrassment in 2010.

    I was lucky to meet (however briefly) Sir Frank and Patrick Head at the first USGP at Indianapolis in 2000. Security was almost non-existent on Thursday afternoon. My brother and I, along with a couple of dozen other fans, were able to wander the infield at will, even walking on the back straight of the F1 circuit. We eventually ended up at the gate where team members exited the paddock to reach their rental cars. There we met and acquired autographs from a score of F1 drivers and other luminaries. It was a great day!

  23. Matt W says:

    Despite Williams having a reputation for ditching world champions in the 90s, it really has been too long since they were a genuine force.

    I really hope Frank and Patrick can bring them back to the front. Frank’s story alone is incredible.

  24. Mr G says:

    In today F1 the involvement of an outsider can be seen in 2 ways.
    First, the outsider will want something back from his investment
    Second, the outsider is only the facade of someone else.
    I have been following F1 for more than 20 years and that FW and PH never made a wrong move when it was time to expand or to diversify their interests.
    We need to understand that both of them were born to built cars and components, not to sell cars or to have an ego trip on the grid, ie Ferrari, Mercedes, Toyota and Flavio Briatore.
    Williams was born to assemble performance cars and F1 is the pinnacle of the motor sport.
    In recent years, because they are a medium size private company, they couldn’t afford unlimited budgets such as BAR, Mc Laren, Ferrari, Renault, answering to Elliot, and therefore they couldn’t challenge for titles and pole positions.
    But they are a sound company, the core business was and is racing but in recent years, about 10-15, they have develop their research team and therefore they appeal to a number of car related investors.
    The company has a solid foundation and it is priced at the right level and they have potential with their research team behind them and don’t forget that the main team has been with the company for few years, no loss of data there!!!!
    I believe that, if Audi is behind Toto Wolff, the Germans will be at the forefront of F1 in 5 years time.
    I hope my dear Ferrari will be able to compete against German precision.

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