After 43 years the independent Williams Formula 1 team has been sold to a US private investment firm. Motorsport Week takes a look at the development.
What led to Friday’s announcement?
As Formula 1’s costs rose through the 2000s Williams slipped out of title contention but until 2017 remained respectably in the midfield, finishing a high of third as recently as 2015.
But a disastrous car concept for 2018 plunged the team to the back of the field and matters worsened in 2019 when it was rooted to last position all season.
In December it sold a majority stake in its profitable Advanced Engineering arm and then in April took on loans, leveraged against assets including its heritage cars, from bank HSBC and businessman Michael Latifi, father of racer Nicholas.
Williams then split from title partner ROKiT and at the end of May published financial results – as per it being floated on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange – that showed a loss of £13m ($17m).
In a statement Williams Grand Prix Holdings confirmed that options included “raising new capital for the business, a divestment of a minority stake in WGPH, or a divestment of a majority stake in WGPH including a potential sale of the whole Company.”
To put simply – Williams realised it was running out of money.
What happened on Friday?
Williams has remained fiercely independent and family-owned since its foundation by Sir Frank Williams and Sir Patrick Head in 1977, but that road has reached its conclusion.
Williams has sold up to BCE Limited, a fund which is managed by Dorilton Capital Management LLC (Dorilton Capital), a private investment firm that operates out of New York.
It is a complete buyout of Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd, which consists of the Formula 1 business, the remaining minority stake in Advanced Engineering, as well as all other trading assets and liabilities, including the Group’s third-party indebtedness.
Under terms of the sale WGPE has been valued at €152m ($179m), a figure that will reduce to €112m ($132m) after the repayment of third-party indebtedness and transaction expenses, thought to relate to the aforementioned loan arrangement.
Will the Williams team name stay?
The Williams name has been present in Formula 1 since the late 1970s and Friday’s development will not change that.
Dorilton Capital has stressed that it “recognises and appreciates the importance of respecting and retaining Williams’ heritage and culture.”
For that reason the Williams name will be staying in Formula 1 – it has a value and a recognition, given that it is one of the championship’s oldest team, a winner of nine Constructors’ titles, and of 114 grands prix, even if recent years have been dismal.
The FW names given to the cars will remain and Dorilton has no intention of relocating the team from its current base in Grove, Oxfordshire.
Who will run the team?
Co-founder Sir Frank has long since stepped back from the direct day-to-day running of the team but his approval of the transaction, having owned a 52 per cent share, was crucial to the buyout.
Daughter Claire took on the role of Deputy Team Principal in 2013 and is in effect the leader of its Formula 1 operations.
No mention has been directly made but Dorilton Capital – which has ventures in industrial services, healthcare services and speciality manufacturer – does not appear to favour knee-jerk reactions.
“We partner with companies that are led by strong management teams and have a successful history and culture,” reads the company’s ethos. “We firmly believe in our companies continuing with the elements that have made them successful.”
On a driver front George Russell and Nicholas Latifi are contracted through 2021 while Williams has a long-term power unit deal with Mercedes that runs until 2025.
Is there now fresh hope?
Put simply, yes. Williams’ survival was in question and this provides the operation with a more stable footing moving forwards.
The announcement of the acquisition came just two days after all 10 Formula 1 teams signed up to the new Concorde Agreement, which will cover the 2021-25 seasons.
Williams made note of this in its announcement, pointing out that the new agreement “is set to transform the sport and will help address the historical challenges that Williams has faced as an independent constructor, by reducing the financial and on-track disparities between teams and creating a fairer, more competitive sport.”
Even so this is unlikely to be a short-term arrangement. The coronavirus-enforced delay to the regulations means Williams is poised to remain among the backmarkers in 2021. It could quite conceivably finish last for four seasons on the bounce.
Several Formula 1 teams have also cautioned that the impending budget cap of $145m – which will lower to $135m by 2023 – will take some years to take effect, given that only the leading teams operate on a significantly higher budget anyway.
But Dorilton have stressed that they are aware of the challenge ahead.
“We believe we are the ideal partner for the company due to our flexible and patient investment style, which will allow the team to focus on its objective of returning to the front of the grid,” said Dorilton Chairman Matthew Savage.
“We look forward to working with the Williams team in carrying out a detailed review of the business to determine in which areas new investment should be directed.”