Parallel timelines

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Oris and Williams – Independent players make perfect partners

At the British Grand Prix on June 30, the Williams team will celebrate its 600th Grand Prix — and Oris has been part of the tale for more than 10 years. The Swiss company has already achieved a few landmarks of its own, too, having notched up more than 100 years in the timepiece industry. Formula 1 clearly works as a means to spread the word. But why? And more specifically, why did it choose Williams as a partner?

“F1 is one of the few really global sports,” says Oris vice-president Rolf Studer. “It can enhance our name on a truly global level, plus there are lots of connections between watch making and F1: timing obviously, but also precision, engineering, research and development, the innovative use of materials and a quest for excellence.”

In a roundabout way, Williams owes Audi sports car driver Allan McNish a debt of gratitude for pulling Oris into motor racing. It was the astute Scot who approached the company to develop a relationship and he became a brand ambassador in 2002, the year in which he raced for Toyota in F1. The deal with Williams followed a year later and, 11 seasons on, the relationship between watchmaker and F1 team is still going strong.

“The spirit is very much the same between Williams and Oris,” says Studer. “The team has a long-standing patron in Frank Williams, much like our own Ulrich W Herzog [the company CEO].”

In 1982, as Williams was winning its second world championship with Keke Rosberg, Herzog and Rolf Portmann led a company buy-out following some tough years for Oris in the watch business. The advent of quartz in the 1970s had made watches easier and cheaper to produce, and leading brands felt the lasting effects. Now under its newly independent status, Oris set out to become a world leader in affordable mechanical watches.

There are echoes in Williams’ F1 history. When Oris became a sponsor in 2003, the team’s partnership with BMW was already beginning to fracture. Williams had challenged Ferrari and McLaren for world titles, and won races with Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher. But Frank Williams and Patrick Head were simply too independently minded to allow the German car giant to take too strong a role in running their team. With the benefit of hindsight, it was inevitable that BMW would eventually go its own way. Since 2005, Williams has limited its manufacturer involvement to customer engine deals. In that time Honda, Toyota, Renault (as a full factory team) and BMW itself have all pulled out of the sport, which goes some way to justifying the team’s decisions. Williams has survived.

“It is an independent racing team, while we are one of the few independent watchmakers in Switzerland,” says Studer. “We are not part of a bigger group, just as Williams isn’t associated with a manufacturer. There is also an absence of corporate flannel in both companies! It is a partnership from the heart.”

Oris has other associations, such as its involvement in jazz music. It also supports deep sea divers such as record breaker Carlos Coste and the Swiss air racing team. But its F1 relationship has the most practical value. “We work with Williams on the use of materials, such as titanium for our casings, carbon fibre because of its strength and lightness, and rubber for our straps,” says Studer. “We face similar challenges in a completely different field.

“Of course we would like Williams to be winning. They share with us their plans to improve performance and we believe in them. But as the length of our relationship shows, we are loyal to them. This is not a one-year approach. And many of our customers are to us too, owning more than one of our watches.”

At Silverstone, Oris will launch a pair of special, collectible watches, each limited to a run of 600 pieces. These will be a fitting tribute to a partnership between like-minded companies — one that has already lasted for more than a decade and appears to have plenty more life left in it yet.

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