McLaren’s turnaround from the depths of its mid-to-late-2010s form to being the next-best team behind Mercedes and Ferrari seems an ambitious target to set Formula 1’s current ‘worst team’ Williams.
Though their respective plights are rather different, in scale as much as in specifics, there is a broad similarity between two once-great, independent dynamos falling into midfield obscurity and left vulnerable to being made obsolete by F1’s modern era of powerful manufacturer teams and closely-aligned customers.
McLaren never fell as far as Williams but its quickfire descent and recovery, peaking with third in the constructors’ championship last year, is a tempting benchmark for Williams in its new Dorilton Capital-owned era. It is also a realistic one.
“They’re a great racing team,” said McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown when asked last year by The Race if Williams could replicate McLaren’s rise.
“They’re going to need to invest a lot of money. They are behind in revenue from finishing 10th in the championship and don’t appear to have much sponsorship.
“I think they have the people, the know-how, the skill. They just need the resources, which they’ve lacked. So, it’ll take some time.”
The last 12 months of family-owned Williams were, typically of its recent era, turbulent.
After a miserable 2019 season, competitively the worst in its history, Williams split with its title sponsor ROKiT early in 2020 before a race had even started. It began to search for a new primary backer, which didn’t arrive last year. And it may not in 2021, though a lot of work is going on to bring in a range of partners in the short-term and long-term.
Williams’s financial decline until the point of sale was significant. Its revenue fell by £24m from 2018 (£131.7m) to 2019 (£107.5m) as a result of its poor on-track performance and it had to resort to selling the Williams Advanced Engineering business at the end of 2019.
But Williams also refinanced its debt in early 2020, which helped fund the team in an uncertain environment, and was completing and acting on an internal review and restructuring designed to identify and reinforce the weakest links in the change.
These final acts from the family laid the foundations for a better future. And the first shoots of recovery were evident in the step made with the 2020 car. However, as Brown pointed out, propulsion into the heart of the midfield fight, let alone anything grander, was never likely to happen without fresh investment.
So, can Williams do what McLaren has done?
“I think there’s no reason why they can’t,” said Brown.
“But they’ll need to continue to invest in the team because it looks to me like they don’t have the same level of revenue coming in that we had.
“Formula 1 takes money to go fast so they just need to continue to get the chequebook out.”
It’ll take a lot more than owner investment to turn Williams into a top team again. But it’s a vital first step and that’s exactly what Dorilton has done.
Williams Grand Prix Enginering gained £42.5m in capital in early September, which was to settle loans from a company owned by Michael Latifi (father of Williams race driver Nicholas) and also HSBC. Presently, only one final HSBC loan remains unsettled.
There has also been a significant amount of financial activity since then: three installments declared across the last two months adding up to another £40m of capital injection.
Williams will not disclose what that is for, but it has been known that a key target has been updating or replacing its technical infrastructure at Grove. Undertaking that work will yield benefits now Williams has begun its work for the 2022 technical regulations in earnest.
Money isn’t everything in F1, but it unlocks a great deal of opportunities. When Williams recorded its 2019 financial results, having posted a second consecutive 10th place finish to cap an “extraordinarily disappointing couple of years, the team noted that “it is essential that Williams maximises the return on its assets, be they financial or human, to allow us to break this cycle”.
Of course, Williams did not break its disappointing cycle of results in 2020. It may not even do it in 2021. Because this is not a quick fix and Dorilton is not throwing money at the problem and expecting instant gratification. Appointments like Jost Capito as CEO and even 2009 world champion Jenson Button as a senior advisor show how Dorilton’s viewing Williams’s recovery as a multi-dimensional challenge.
The work Williams has completed, and is still in the process of completing, over the last year and especially since Dorilton came in has been to underline the quality of its human and technical resources and give them a financial shot in the arm where required.
Sooner rather than later those financial boosts will need to come from an enhanced portfolio of partners rather than investor injections. Williams is known to be working extremely hard to bring those partners in, although securing a fresh title sponsor is no longer an urgent necessity.
Williams pointed out last year that despite the on-track decline, the loss of ROKiT before a race had even run in 2020, and the impact the COVID-19 pandemic would have on immediate revenues as well, it had still found itself in a position to avoid massive losses and secure the financing to protect its short-term interest.
And shortly after its financial declarations, Williams would prove to be an attractive enough proposition to be sold – to investors who are now pumping in serious cash.
That transforms Williams’s financial outlook and its medium and long-term future, which blends very nicely with a clear on-track upwards curve in 2020.
It is not in an identical position to McLaren. McLaren’s fall and rise in recent years has been condensed into a shorter timeframe with less violent extremes.
But McLaren does stand as an example of how a wounded giant, even an independent one in a pre-budget cap era, can pick itself up again.
There is no reason to believe Williams is incapable of doing the same thing.