Why the once mighty Williams F1 team is up for sale
Friday’s news that the Williams Group is conducting a strategic review that could lead to a complete sale has sadly come as no surprise, given the company’s difficult financial situation.
The Formula 1 team has taken a big hit over the past few years as it has tried to balance its income against ever increasing expenditure. The former has inevitably been impacted by the poor performance on track, one that has seen it tumble from third place in the World Championship as recently as 2015, to last position finishes in both 2018 and 2019.
It’s a hard reality of F1 that results equate to income. Once you are not performing on track it sets up a vicious circle as you struggle to find the funding with which to improve your competitive position.
Frank Williams originally shared ownership of the business with Patrick Head, and he has always resisted selling the team as a complete entity.
He’s not been short of offers over the years, but it was the family business, and he had no intention of letting go – although eventually Head decided it was time to sell.
Toto Wolff acquired a stake in 2009, and after the Austrian transferred his attention to Mercedes that was subsequently bought by American businessman Brad Hollinger, who remains a significant shareholder, with around 17%.
In 2011 Williams began the process of going public on the Frankfurt stock exchange with 20% of the company initially made available, utilising some shares owned by Sir Frank, but with the majority from co-founder Head’s original stake.
In December 2019 there was a major restructuring and influx of cash when the successful Advanced Engineering division was sold, with the Williams Group retaining only a minority interest.
Claire Williams, Deputy Team Principal, Williams Racing
Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images
Williams is not the only F1 team currently open to fresh investment, or even new owners. However, as a listed company it has extra legal responsibilities, and especially the requirement for transparency on financial matters.
Hence Friday’s statement – which in effect put the team up for sale as a going concern in a very public and highly unusual way.
It noted: “Options being considered include, but are not limited to, raising new capital for the business, a divestment of a minority stake in WGPH, or a divestment of a majority stake in WGPH including a potential sale of the whole company.
“Whilst no decisions have been made regarding the optimal outcome yet, to facilitate discussions with interested parties, the company announces the commencement of a ‘formal sale process’,”
It added: “Any interested party participating in the formal sale process will be required to enter into a non-disclosure agreement with WGPH on terms satisfactory to the WGPH board.
“The company then intends to provide such interested parties with certain information on the business, following which interested parties will be invited to submit their proposals.”
The news came in parallel with the Williams financial results for 2019. After a solid 2018 there was a downturn, with Group revenue falling from £176.5m to £160.2m – and that still included the figures for the Advanced Engineering division.
The specific numbers for the racing team were poor, with revenue crashing from £130.7m to £95.4m – a huge year-on-year discrepancy, even allowing for on track results impacting F1 payments.
Perhaps the most telling revelation from CEO Mike O’Driscoll was that team has “also served notice to terminate its relationship with its title partner, ROKiT, and major sponsor, ROK Drinks.”
Announced in February last year, the ROKiT deal appeared to be a dream ticket. In late 2018 Williams had lost a deal with Rich Energy to Haas at the last minute, and then ROKiT appeared from nowhere.
The numbers were big, and boss Jonathan Kendrick – a former Goodyear tyre man who had even worked with Williams in 1978 – appeared to be the ideal partner. He was a larger-than-life, old school enthusiast who wasn’t worried about poor short-term results on track. The deal was later extended to 2023, suggesting that all was well. Clearly things didn’t go to plan, as the termination notice indicated.
Mechanics wheel Nicholas Latifi, Williams FW43 back into the garage
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
That situation hasn’t happened overnight, so it must have been playing out behind the scenes over the past few months. In other words the team knew that it was likely to end its arrangement with its title partner and biggest sponsor – just as COVID-19 kicked in and race after race began to be postponed or cancelled, with an immediate impact on its F1 prize fund income. It was a perfect storm.
Last month the company negotiated a substantial loan from Michael Latifi, father of driver Nicholas, to help it navigate that storm.
The fact that over 100 historic Williams F1 cars were listed as collateral – together with buildings and plant – was somehow symbolic of the struggles that this once mighty team has been facing of late.
Latifi is very sympathetic partner who obviously has good reasons to see the organisation stay healthy. As deputy team principal Claire Williams told Motorsport.com: “The loan package provides us with the resources that we need moving forward.”
It’s interesting to note the timing of today’s announcement. Over the past five years the company’s annual results have been posted on April 27th, 11th, 5th, 20th and 5th.
This year those numbers came many weeks later than that, giving the company breathing space to consider its future options, finalise the Latifi loan, and gain clarity on the ROKiT situation.
With handy timing this week also brought formal confirmation of the lower F1 cost cap and other measures that create a brighter future for all teams, allowing Williams to present some positives along with the bad news.
It’s significant that CEO O’Driscoll formally acknowledged the rule changes in today’s statement: “We are confident that Liberty Media’s long-term vision and plans, including a first-ever cost-cap for the sport, will deliver a more level playing field for 2021 and beyond, on which all teams can compete more fairly.”
Remember too that teams have to sign a new Concorde Agreement in the coming months, committing them to a further five years in the sport. It’s logical to be assessing all future options before doing so.
This downside is that thanks to COVID-19 this not a good time to be selling anything, never mind a motor racing team. And to be in a position where you have made it public that you need to do something is perhaps not the strongest hand with which to start negotiations.
In addition wealthy people who might have been interested in owning an F1 team may not be quite as wealthy now as they were a few months ago, and are facing the same uncertainties as everyone else.
There are still potential buyers out there. However at a time when other teams are potentially up for grabs – and by definition they are all further up the grid – Williams is unlikely to be the first option for those with money to spend. It’s simply a reflection of the recent track performance, and the ongoing level of income both from existing sponsorship deals and the F1 prize fund.
However, with the right backing Williams still has much to offer, and the fact that an organisation with such history is potentially available as a complete entity for the first time will have a lot of appeal. It has a well-equipped facility, with a lot of a good and experienced people.
Any investor also knows that new cost cap regulations mean that less well financed teams can now at least aspire to closing the gap – and that the big players cannot just carry on spending their way to success. In addition the new Concorde Agreement will allow for a fairer distribution of income from 2021 onwards.
Hopefully the right buyer or investor, someone with the commitment and vision to take Williams up the grid once more, is out there. It could be that serious talks are already taking place, even if the door has now been formally opened for any interested parties to have a look.
Latifi Sr is one obvious candidate. However there’s a big difference between a loan and investing – and the Canadian already made a huge commitment when he bought 10% of McLaren.
Williams is clearly in a difficult situation, but this is not a fire sale just a step ahead of the arrival of an administrator. It’s a controlled attempt to see what the options are out there, and it’s being done on time, given that Claire insists that a full budget is in place for this season.
“I don't believe that it's desperation,” she said. “I think that it's the right and prudent thing to do. And Williams, as a family, have always put our F1 team first.
“And I feel very much that seeking inward investment at this juncture is absolutely in line with that philosophy that we've always had to protect our team's future, to protect the people that work for us.”
Riccardo Patrese, Williams FW14B Renault, leads Nigel Mansell, Williams FW14B Renault
Photo by: Motorsport Images
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