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My take on the change of ownership at Williams

August 27, 2020

So it’s now been half a dozen days since Williams Racing was sold to New York investment firm Dorilton Capital for a reported £130 million, and we’ve all had a little while to let it sink in, to reflect, and to consider its implications.

The Williams Formula 1 team, founded in 1977 by Sir Frank Williams and Sir Patrick Head, has remained in the Williams family’s control since day 1, and to see Sir Frank – who’s become such an integral part of the DNA of Formula 1 in the last 40+ years – finally sever ties with the team he worked so tirelessly to build is quite tough.

Formula 1 (itself now US owned) – for so long dominated by and its direction dictated by British involvement – no longer has a British controlled Formula 1 team for the first time in its history.

I know, I know, I sound like a ‘little islander’ and Formula 1 is a global sport yada yada, but as a British F1 fan the more involvement ‘my country’ has in ‘my sport’ the better (for me!), and I’m sure you’d say the same about whatever demographic you align yourself with.

But even putting that to one side, it’s a definite marker in a shift in Formula 1 from something that’s captivated me for 30+ years, to something quite different – exactly what remains to be seen.

Of some consolation is the fact that Williams, once a mighty force, has seemed – for a few years – to be really struggling, not just on the track, but strategically, financially and operationally too.

This led to a number of high profile departures, countless internal reviews and continuous restructuring, none of which seemed to get to the crux of why Williams went from front runners to backmarkers in a handful of years.

The Formula 1 of 2020 is very different place to that of 2003 when Williams were last really in the mix for the World Championship, and the team’s modus operandi seemed not to keep pace with the fundamental changes that have swung so much in favour of manufacturers with a £300m+ a year budget since.

Your fiercely independent, family owned and run F1 constructor doesn’t seem to be able to compete nowadays, irrespective of how well it’s managed.

And so, to move forward – in every sense of the word – it seemed inevitable that someone with deep pockets was going to have to wade in, and that Williams’ DNA would be compromised as a result.

Following Williams’ announcing they were open to a sale, it looked certain that Michael Latifi – the guy who’s almost single handedly funded Williams’ 2020 campaign via sponsorship, loans & funding for son Nicholas’ Williams drive – was in POLE POSITION (top F1 punnage!) to take over.

Other likely candidates were Dmitry Mazepin whose son Nikita is en-route to F1, and Sylvan Adams – Canadian/Israeli backer of Roy Nissany, keen on promoting Israel on a worldwide stage.

And so it was with some mirth that we all received the news that Williams have been taken over by Dorilton Capital – little known (at least outside the investment world) investment company with few ties to F1.

Thankfully, both Williams and DC moved quickly to assuage any fears that Williams would be renamed and relocated, seeming to value Williams’ vast heritage over some desire to quickly imprint a new identity on the team.

Looking at DC’s other investments it would also seem that they’re quite hands off, simply providing the required resources for the existing concern to become successful, in order to give them a return on their investment.

But while that all sounds rosy, some uncertainty exists as to who actually owns Williams.

As this excellent article in Autoweek states, Dorilton Capital Management LLC represents the interests of a single ultra-high-net-worth, and importantly un-named, family. So we don’t really know who now owns Williams, although presumably the Williams family do, and they’re happy about it.

Conspiracy theorists will no doubt look at an involved party – BCE Ltd. – and immediately think of one Bernard Charles Ecclestone, helping out his old pal Frank and dipping a toe back in F1. But that could be a red herring.

In conclusion, Williams’ debt has been cleared. The Williams name is retained, and its HQ will remain at Grove. There is to be no wholesale management clearout. The team now (in theory) has a big pot of money it can dip into if a lack of finance is holding it back. And with a long-awaited levelling of the F1 playing field due in 2022, this puts the team in a great position going forward.

In exchange, we’ve most likely given Williams’ staunch independence. The team may become a B-Team, or something completely different altogether (ie not Williams). And there is still the risk that the investors’ motives aren’t pure and that they’re either in it for a short term thrill, or that they intend to strip whatever they can from the business before letting it go to the wall.

Whether it’s a good move or not will be only revealed in the fullness of time.

It might well be a leap into the unknown, but – following ROKiT’s withdrawal earlier in the year leading to Williams using their historic car collection as leverage in securing a £50m loan to plug the sponsorship/COVID-19 hole in its funding – the alternative may very well have been administration, a fire sale and, like so many that have gone before it: Marussia/Manor, Lotus/Caterham, MRT & Force India to name but a few, a slow death.

It’s just a shame Williams – the old Williams – couldn’t have made it to the beginning of the new era when all sorts of new financial, sporting and technical regulations may have made all the difference.

But time waits for no man.


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