Toto Wolff has sold his final remaining shares in the Williams Formula 1 team to US entrepreneur Brad Hollinger, meaning that the Austrian now has no stake in the Grove-based team.
Wolff invested in Williams in 2009 and led them into the first flotation of an F1 team in 2011; 20 per cent of Williams’ stock was sold when former technical director and co-founder Sir Patrick Head wanted to make his exit and offload some of his shares. Head retains a nine per cent stake in the team, while Sir Frank Williams owns 52 per cent and control of the business.
However, once Mercedes appointed Wolff as CEO of the F1 team and director of its Motor Sport division in 2013, he moved to sell down his shareholding to Hollinger, who made his fortune in private hospitals in the USA, via his Vibra Healthcare business.
Hollinger now has 15 per cent of Williams’ stock, with 20 per cent listed on the Frankfurt Exchange. The remaining four per cent is in an employee trust scheme.
The sale to Hollinger has happened in three phases, each of around five per cent of Williams’ stock, with Wolff retaining under five per cent after the second sale.
There was a school of thought at the time that below five per cent was potentially a level at which he could remain involved without any ongoing conflict of interests. However, the decision has now been made to exit Williams completely.
In Wolff’s debt
Williams will continue to be powered by Mercedes engines, which has been the basis of their revival since 2014. The team now regularly competes against the Silver Arrows and Ferrari at the front of the F1 grid.
Speaking as the sale was announced, Wolff said: “I’m surprised at how emotional I am about this day, to be cutting my business ties to Sir Frank and the team at Williams. Having entered the team from a purely investment perspective, I found myself in a more active role, helping to restructure this great independent team.
“I learned some lessons the hard way but they were all valuable for learning the industry.”
During a conference call attended by JAonF1, Williams’ CEO, Mike O’Driscoll, explained the team’s gratitude to Wolff regarding the original investment and assistance he gave to the British squad.
He said: “I first got to know Toto when I joined Williams late in 2011 as a non-executive director and it was certainly a turbulent period.
[Throughout] 2011 to 2012 was a difficult period for Williams and Toto did a magnificent job in demonstrating his commercial and sporting ability as he worked with Claire [Williams] and the rest of the team here at Williams to fashion the future for us and I think we’ll always be in his debt and we’ll always [remain] friends.”
Growing F1 in the USA
Hollinger spoke of his desire to see F1 make a stronger impression in the USA and believes the arrival of an American team in Haas F1 will accelerate that interest.
He said: “I believe that Formula 1 is entering into a transformative era where intense focus is on enhancing the spectator and fan experience through new contact mediums and viewer engagement options.
“Furthermore, the addition of an American team on the grid with Haas, will accelerate Formula 1’s penetration in the US market that is significant to most multinational firms and certainly [is] rich with potential viewerships.”
Hollinger believes that there is a large amount of unreached potential for F1 in the USA and explained that adding a race set on the east or west coast of America near New York or Los Angeles would greatly increase interest among the US audiences.
He said “[Formula 1 has] huge growth opportunities internationally, but even more so in the United States. When you think of the success of Formula 1 without a meaningful penetration in the US, I think that pretends well.
“There is huge untapped opportunity in the United States. Certainly last year with the hurricane hitting Austin did not help but I am confident that things will get sorted out with the state of Texas and the race will go on.
“Obviously having a US team on the grid will create more exposure in the United States and [Haas F1] is one of the giant leaps forward in the United States with respect to Formula 1.
“I also believe that if we could have a race and schedule a race either on the east coast or west coast with the huge population bases surrounding New York, [which] they contemplated years ago, or out west around the LA Basin area would be a huge shot in the arm for the sport.
“I am hopeful that leadership in Formula 1 will be an even more concerted effort to penetrate the US market.”
Hollinger also explained that he would not be taking a managerial role at Williams alongside his greater investment at this stage, but did not role out taking a position in the future to help the team gain traction in the US market.
He said: “The board of directors will decide what appropriate role, if any, I would play. My interest is largely in ensuring the organisation has the financial wherewithal to execute its strategy and business plans, which I think are exceptional and right on point.
“To the extent that they have any interest in me advising or assisting with them in any role, I am happy to do that, but we have not had [any] meaningful conversations about that.
“I think they have a world class organisation now, and a very strong management team and board of directors. I’m happy to participate in any way that they would see fit. Certainly as we all look to penetrate the United States further, I would hope that I would be drawn upon to help with that as well.”
O’Driscoll added that in the future Williams, “would welcome [Hollinger’s] further involvement.”
One other wealthy figure that is now in Williams’ orbit is Lawrence Stroll, the Canadian billionaire founder of the Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors brands. He is a passionate motor sport enthusiast and is preparing his son Lance to become an F1 driver. Lance is currently racing in FIA F3 and is signed up to Williams as a development driver.
This relationship is as much about the development of Stroll as it is about him developing the car. The rules say that there is no restriction on testing of two year old F1 cars and as that now makes the 2014 hybrid turbo cars eligible for testing, there is an extensive plan in place for Stroll to do thousands of kilometres of testing before making an F1 debut, as drivers like Jacques Villeneuve and Lewis Hamilton were able to do.
Stroll does not want his son to be swimming among the ‘pay drivers’ in the smaller teams and thus the Williams deal makes complete sense. But having kicked the tyres on buying Toro Rosso, Sauber and other teams, one wonders whether part of the Stroll plan around Williams involves buying into the team to a lesser – or greater – extent.
Williams’ deputy team principal, Claire Williams, denied that the team had spoken to Lawrence Stroll about any future investment in the squad.
She said: “That is not a conversation that we are having with the Strolls.”
What do you make of Wolff selling his remaining stake in the Williams team? Do you expect to see the team making a clear effort to attract interest in F1 in the USA from now on? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below or head over to the JAonF1 Facebook page for more discussion.