Matters of moment, October 2015

The Williams Formula 1 factory, on the last afternoon of term before the enforced summer shutdown. The place is buzzing with activity as the crew works against the clock to complete job lists before everyone must leave the premises. Breaking the curfew would bring strong censure and damaging penalties, but how is it enforced? There’s no sign of blue-shirted FIA officials hovering in doorways. Aside from electronic means to measure email activity, it seems the ban is almost self-enforcing: the risk of discovery within the small, incestuous world of F1, and the subsequent repercussions, are too great to consider.

But elsewhere, it’s business as usual. August doesn’t mean a holiday for everyone at Williams because there’s more to the Oxfordshire HQ than a mere F1 team – literally. On arrival, I was thrown by the presence of an impressively large building where the car park used to be. The shutdown doesn’t count for the 160 employees of Williams Advanced Engineering who have found work here since July last year when David Cameron pulled the cord to open it.

In the foyer sits a sleek supercar, Jaguar’s stillborn hybrid-electric C-X75, WAE’s most high-profile project to date. In the workshop sit three more in identical burnt orange that star in the new James Bond adventure, Spectre. Tell-tale cracks in the body of one hint at suitably hard use.

The car was a useful project for Williams, despite Jaguar’s cold feet ahead of launch, because it offered the perfect showcase for technologies developed first on the race tracks of F1.

“The start of the commercialisation of this F1 ‘know-how’ was the Flywheel KERS programme, which was developed for F1 and subsequently banned,” says Aussie Craig Wilson, managing director of WAE. “The business saw there was potential in this technology, which was applied in sports car racing with Porsche and Audi. More significantly trials were also conducted with buses.”

The subsequent sale of the flywheel business to a company specialising in high-volume manufacture only highlighted the value of new avenues for Williams to explore – both in and out of motor sport.

“The board recognised it was a great way to level up the Group,” says Wilson. “F1 is an expensive business, as we all know, and certain regulations have been brought in that restrict the use of some of our capabilities and assets. For example, we have two windtunnels, only one of which we can now use, and for a limited amount of time. So do you have these assets sitting idle or do you try and do something else with them?”

WAE’s roots can be found in the Renault British Touring Car team of the 1990s and the Le Mans-winning BMW V12 LMR of 1999, and even deeper to the Metro 6R4 if you care to dig. All were built on a Williams backbone. As a formal entity, the company has only existed for three years, but it’s already profitable with up to 30 different projects on its books, covering four main sectors: automotive (including Nissan NISMO), motor sport (Formula E and others Wilson won’t name, but a Le Mans-winning manufacturer is said to be one), energy (more efficient supermarket refrigerators!) and most recently defence. Shortly after our visit Williams announced a £17m collaboration to design and manufacturer systems for the Scout Specialist Vehicle (tanks, to those of us without a military background).

It’s all a long way from Alan Jones and Keke Rosberg.

Even so, motor sport remains key, even in this expanding corner of the Williams empire. Formula E and its Williams-developed batteries is a project of particular pride to Wilson and his workforce.

“It’s been a big success,” he says. “They had been talking to Nissan, but they couldn’t match the performance requirements needed in the timeframe. We were approached with less than 12 months to do the whole programme, from nothing. The biggest risk was producing the battery for all the cars. If it didn’t work the whole championship would be dead. The most pleasing aspect for me is that we’ve had only one battery failure in the entire first season that affected a car in a race. With two cars per driver and four cars per team, that’s 440 starts.”

Limited battery range requires the mid-race car switch, an uncomfortable concession. But such technology takes time to develop – along with the obvious. “Money solves problems, like all things,” says Wilson. “[Cars lasting a full race] is four years away from where we are today, and there is a technical route map for this laid out by the FIA. But with more investment it would be quicker.”

As Formula E enters its second season, Wilson admits further motor sport projects could be on the horizon. Would he be open to a proper racing programme in the manner of the Renault BTCC and BMW sports car campaigns of the past?

“We might, yes,” he says. “We have got the capability. The company has done it before and it’s got greater resource now. Back then it was borrowing from F1 whereas now we’ve already got another business geared up for other projects. I’m not saying we’re beating doors down, but we can do it.”

Formula E has a full quota of teams right now, but the addition of a fully-fledged Williams entry would be quite a coup. “We would look at opportunities which would be the right fit for us, and Formula E is a great fit,” says Wilson.

There are risks for any business in motor sport, of course. Nissan’s disaster of an LMP1 project is a case in point. “They should be commended for doing something different – but it wasn’t a positive different… It just wasn’t,” shrugs Wilson. “You just can’t afford to do that at the level of a global brand, in my view. They thought they had struck on something that would be an easy win, but the result was plain to see. Had that been our concept and our idea I wouldn’t have been happy with its impact on our business.”

Biting off too much is an understandable concern for Wilson. Nevertheless, the message from Williams Advanced Engineering is clear: “Motor sport keeps you sharp and it’s still a big calling card. We’re definitely open for business.”

Speaking of expansion, our world of Motor Sport has grown significantly in the past month. Firstly, we have a wonderful accompaniment to our popular audio podcasts. Back in the 1970s, host Rob Widdows earned his chops with a motor racing show known as Track Torque, broadcast on Portsmouth’s Radio Victory. Pulling in favours from friends, Rob interviewed many great names and built up something of a cult following. Happily, he kept the tapes – which we have now digitised.

The first show, featuring an interview recorded with Lord Hesketh in 1979 and a 10-minute chat with F1 newbie Nelson Piquet, is available to download now from our website. At just £1.99, it’s great value – and there’s much more to follow.

Then there’s our second launch of the month – and yes, we’ve come up with another great way for you to lose hours of your day. The Motor Sport Database features results and statistics on world motor racing through the ages, from F1 and far beyond. Compiled by our very own ‘Stato’ Peter Higham, the Database goes beyond other resources available elsewhere, with expertly written profiles to go with the numbers and a nifty F1 driver comparison feature, too. Combined with the archive reports from 91 years of Motor Sport, it offers a new source of motor racing info that we believe is second to none.

Check it out at the address below.

But be warned: don’t start looking if you have anywhere else to be for the rest of the day.