Williams – the team relaunched by Frank Williams in 1977 after his original team was bought out by Walter Wolf–is no longer under the ownership of the Williams family.
On the eve of the Italian Grand Prix and shortly after the announcement that Dorilton Capital had purchased the team, Sir Frank’s daughter Claire announced that she would be standing down from her role as deputy team principal and that she and her father (who was still technically team principal) would henceforth play no further role in the company. Commercial director Mike O’Driscoll announced his retirement a few days later.
Between the back-of-the-grid book-ends of 1977 and 2020 lies one of the most dazzling sequences of victories and glory in the sport’s history. Days in the 1980s and 1990s when legends were created, when Frank and his partner Patrick Head ruled the roost in a way very few others have matched. The 1992 combination of the WilliamsFW14B and Nigel Mansell still stands as one of the most dominant of all time. This was the machine that in Mansell’s hands was 2.7sec (two point seven seconds!) faster than the next fastest car at Silverstone. Nine Constructors’ World Championships, seven drivers’ titles over a 17-year glory run. Images of Jones, FW07, Mansell, barn door rear wing, heat haze rising from the super-boosted turbo Honda in the back of the FW11, Keke, Piquet, Prost, Hill, Villeneuve, Montoya…
But time exacts its inevitable toll. There was no technical succession plan. When Head extracted himself from the coalface fora well-earned semi-retirement, the pieces were not in place at a time of rapid change in the sport. The team flailed its way gently downwards until reaching ground zero.
It’s not entirely clear yet whose is the money behind the purchase of the team for £136 million (including debts and the heritage collection), ostensibly by Dorilton, an American private investment company. But joining Dorilton’s Matthew Savage and Darren Fultz on the board of Williams is James Matthews, the 1994 British FormulaRenault champion (in a Manor Racing car) who subsequently made his fortune in private equity trading. He is the son of 70s touring car racer Dave Matthews. Whether Matthews Jr is the impetus behind the purchase or just the facilitator/advisor to a third party is an intriguing question. All will doubtless become clear in time.
“The next, and most crucial question, is what the vision of the new owner?”
Meantime, the team gets to live another life, and retains its name and heritage and its base at Grove, Oxfordshire. Williams’ MD Simon Roberts – recruited from McLaren in May – steps up to the role of acting team principal but there are imminent senior appointments. The next – and most crucial – question is what the vision of the new owner is. Transforming a failing F1 team and taking it back to its glory days is a longer-term job now than when Ron Dennis did it at McLaren, such is the different scale of things, but it surely can still be achieved with the right vision and financial commitment.
The planned simplification of F1 for 2022, and the technical re-set that represents, should coincide well with the rebuilding of the team. But it needs solid technical foundations in place before then. There is much about Williams still rooted in the’90s in a world that has moved on in terms of the way things are done on the factory floor. These shortfalls are just symptomatic of the fundamental lack of empowered technical leadership, the sort that Head used to provide. It’s a mammoth task to change this proud, manufacturing-led company into something sharp and responsive enough to compete with the much more modal model represented by Racing Point, which is now the blueprint for a non-manufacturer team.
Because of the way F1 has evolved, there are very few technical people with the overall grasp of the whole picture, who can pull it all together and manage it while providing inspiration and leadership to those around him. It would require someone of the highest calibre recruited not as an employee but a partner, empowered to make the necessary changes in a joint vision with the owners.
I can think of only one such person, someone who is currently taking a break. But he is that most rare of things: an engineer with great people skills, down to earth, incredibly clever, a brilliant communicator, who has overseen and inspired a group of hundreds of highly competitive individuals and got them all pointing the same way, buying into his vision, understanding his philosophy. He’s also deeply competitive and understands that the game is to build the fastest car possible and that everything else– how the factory is structured, what the commercial tie-ups are – is subservient to that. He’s highly in demand, has probably turned down a multiple million pound offer from Ferrari and is doubtless being tempted by all sorts of lucrative offers elsewhere.
His name is Andy Cowell, the former boss of Mercedes HPP in Brixworth. He’s way more than just an engine man. If Williams could recruit and empower him, the team could have a hope of becoming worthy once more of its incredible heritage.
Follow Mark on Twitter @SportmphMark