Williams has been a Formula 1 customer team for a long time. It wants to be what new CEO Jost Capito calls an independent “A team” under the ownership of Dorilton Capital. But can that stretch further to, say, restoring Williams as a works team?
It would be the ultimate statement of intent for the new era under Dorilton Capital. But should it happen? And if so, when might it happen?
Williams has had customer status since splitting with BMW after the 2005 season, buying engines from Cosworth, Toyota, Cosworth again, Renault and – since 2014 – Mercedes.
It has won just one race in that time, the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, while the last of its titles were earned with its 1997 double back in its final year with works Renault engines.
Williams’s Mercedes move propelled it to its most successful seasons of the modern era, but off-track issues meant the team’s steady overall decline ultimately continued and it has now finished last in the constructors’ championships for three seasons in a row.
Despite its miserable recent record, Williams’s fortunes are improving. It made a significant step forward in competitiveness last season that was not reflected by the first point-less campaign of Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s existence, and the company was sold to Dorilton Capital late in the year.
The founding Williams family departed after the sale, stating it had faith the team was heading for a brighter tomorrow. But Williams’s meagre record as a customer team and the modern domination of the Mercedes works entry would suggest there is a fundamental limit to what it can achieve in its current form – even if it improves dramatically as hoped.
As one of F1’s only independent teams, a revitalised Williams would likely be one of the first points of contact for any new engine manufacturer F1 hopes to tempt in with new engine rules for 2025. It has already been touted as a potential Volkswagen Audi Group target should the company finally decide to enter F1.
Capito, the architect of Volkswagen’s World Rally Championship-dominating works effort of the mid-2010s who had a brief stint at the McLaren F1 team in 2016, is a Dorilton hire who started in his Williams chief executive role last month.
He sees any new manufacturer attraction as a secondary consequence of Williams’s plan to improve rather than an ambition, and says there is no desire to allow another company to buy into the team directly.
“It’s not our objective to improve to be the primary choice of a manufacturer coming in,” Capito says.
“I think that comes on its own. If we can improve the results, we will be more attractive for manufacturers coming in.
“But our clear objective is to stay an independent team, and not be bought by any other team, or by a manufacturer, because we see our future in the sport.
“Williams has always been independent and what we say is an ‘A team’ or a ‘B team’, for us, a ‘B team’ is a team that doesn’t have independent ownership, where it has some ownership from a manufacturer or from another Formula 1 team.
“On that definition we don’t want to be a ‘B team’, we want to be the ‘A team’. Because racing is our core business and should stay our core business, independent from a manufacturer who decides to be in or out. That would challenge our existence.”
Dorilton has invested more than £100million into Williams since buying it, and the team has struck an enhanced Mercedes partnership that will increase the components Williams purchases from its engine supplier as of 2022.
Despite the occasional rumour that Renault wants Williams to become a second team for the works Alpine entry, it seems unlikely that Williams would be stolen away from Mercedes. Especially with engines being frozen from next year. The strengthened technical partnership is unlikely to be broken to switch to a lesser manufacturer.
But in the long-term, if Williams wants to become a world championship-winning team again, does it not need to be a works team?
“It’s too early to do that,” says Capito. “If you have the engine of the team that wins the championship, you can still come second. And that’s quite a long way for us.
“We can do much better with the Mercedes engine than we are doing now, and that’s what we are focusing on. [Not] to say, ‘OK, we could be second but what do we have to win the championship?’.
“You can move a couple of steps up before you have to take a decision or serious thoughts about that.”
That doesn’t mean Williams isn’t keen on the idea, just that it would be a mistake to look to that option right now. Perhaps it’s a lesson Capito learned from his brief, doomed McLaren tenure – as he joined that operation while it was in the midst of its Honda misery.
That partnership was forged on Ron Dennis’s insistence that it was not possible to win world championships in the V6 turbo-hybrid era without being a works team. McLaren’s first year after Honda proved the blame didn’t lie solely in Japan.
Williams cannot afford to waste time in its revival with a similar mistake. So it’s entirely correct for Williams’s focus to be on itself rather than seeking to enhance other variables.
The enhanced Mercedes deal from 2022 is a departure from the family-era ethos of building everything but the engine. However, it reflects F1’s evolving business model.
Almost all of Williams’s midfield rivals have similar arrangements. Aston Martin buys as much from Mercedes as the rules permit, ditto Haas from Ferrari, AlphaTauri is Red Bull’s junior – sorry, sister – team, and Alfa Romeo wants a closer Ferrari alliance.
Only McLaren (also a Mercedes customer) and Alpine (Renault’s works team) have stood alongside Williams in resisting the appeal of buying F1’s non-listed parts from a bigger team. But in Williams’s new era, no shame is attached to change that philosophy.
“It’s again the definition, what is fully independent? You need an engine from somewhere!” Capito laughs.
“We have a good relationship with Mercedes and we have a contract that goes still a couple of years. We respect this contract because we are very happy with the relationship.
“I don’t see in the future that the teams will do their own engine so you always need an engine, and then you can discuss is a gearbox part of that? At the moment, it’s very high technology and the engines and the gearboxes are made together by the manufacturer, when we look at Mercedes for example, and that’s why we came to the conclusion it makes sense to have the whole powertrain from ’22.
“But we still see that as being independent. Independent is when you can choose the partners you want to work with.”
Don’t rule out that choice evolving to include a new engine in the future. If Williams has true ambitions of re-establishing its glory days then it must grow to the point it rivals the likes of McLaren as the best choice for any incoming manufacturer.
It would be a mistake for Williams to think that’s the way to fast-track its ascent. But the realistic, achievable progress the team expects to make in the next two or three seasons could include the “couple of steps” Capito says are required before a works engine deal becomes a serious prospect to consider.