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.
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.
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