On Friday, Williams Grand Prix Engineering announced a bunch of bad news. It lost a bunch of money in 2019. It just parted ways with its title sponsor ROKiT. And the Formula One racing team that has existed since Sir Frank Williams started it back in 1966 is for sale, either in part, or in its entirety. The team has had some ridiculous highs, but last year was the lowest of the low. Can the team rebound? Is it even worth it to try? The team deserves better than this.
Things have not been going the direction Williams Grand Prix Engineering have wanted them to go for quite some time. Frank Williams’ team was once on top of the world, venerated as among the best in the sport. Over a fourteen season span (from 1980 to 1997), the Oxfordshire-based team won more than half of the constructor championships, and came runner up thrice more. Williams won its first championship back in 1980 on a budget of about two million pounds sterling, or just shy of 8 million pounds in today’s money. That’s a far cry from the 9-figure budgets required today.
Once a shining beacon of how to dominate F1, the team has won just a pair of grands prix in the last 17 years, one with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2004 and a fluke rainy Spanish Grand Prix with Pastor Maldonado in 2012. There was a nice upswing for the team at the start of the new V6 Turbo era when it got Mercedes powerplants. With the massive power advantage from Merc, Williams managed to haul itself up to best of the rest behind Mercedes and Red Bull in 2014 and 2015, netting third in the championship each time.
Fans like me thought the 2014-15 surge might be a signal of the revival of the once and future champions, but the car got worse in 2016 and has trended downward since. Last year Williams only managed to earn a single points paying finish with Robert Kubica coming home 10th at the German Grand Prix. The team still shares a powerplant with Mercedes, the team that has won the previous six world championships in a row, but even that engine advantage isn’t enough to haul its terrible chassis and lackluster drivers up into the points paying positions anymore. And the sport’s over-the-top expense is to blame.
In recent weeks all of the F1 teams agreed to reduce the 2021 budget cap for each team down to $145 million. Teams don’t currently disclose their budgets, but rumors in the paddock suggest the top teams Mercedes, Ferrari, and possibly Red Bull are spending on the order of half a billion dollars per season in recent years. I recall hearing that Toyota spent that same budget to come 6th in the 2007 championship. Compare that to Williams’ 2019 budget, allegedly $132 million, and you’ll begin to see why the team can’t keep up.
So that brings us to today. On Friday Williams announced a bunch of bad news. First on the docket, Williams Grand Prix Engineering suffered a fiscal year loss of around $16 million in 2019, after taking into account sponsorships, race prize money, and its share of the television revenue. And of course the team also announced that it’s 2018 profit was around the same number. Team revenue also declined to £160.2m in 2019 from £176.5m in 2018. Not good.
Next on Williams’ grand list of bad news? The team announced it would be separating from its title sponsor ROKiT with immediate effect. Williams will unveil a new ROKiT-less livery in the coming days. The split was said to be amicable, but it’s likely that the telecom company is hurting financially just as bad as everyone else is, and couldn’t afford the budget anymore. The deal was extended last July, and was expected to run through the end of the 2023 season, but alas, no more.
And the biggest bad news? Williams is for sale. Maybe. Kinda. The group board is launching a new effort to secure new capital for the business by selling some, most, or all of the company outright. While it has not announced any potential suitors, Williams has commenced a “formal sale process” in order to facilitate these discussions.
“There can be no certainty that an offer will be made,” the board said in a statement. “nor as to the terms on which any offer will be made. The WGPH board reserves the right to alter or terminate the process at any time and if it does so it will make an announcement as appropriate. The WGPH board also reserves the right to reject any approach or terminate discussions with any interested party at any time.”
As the third most successful Formula One team of all time, it is a disgrace that the growing cost to participate has forced Williams into an also-ran position. F1 is too expensive, even at the new reduced budget (which Williams can’t meet at their current level). What was once a sport dominated by privateer teams with much smaller budgets has become the play thing of giant multinational corporations. Williams ran an entire championship-winning season in 1980 for its proposed weekly budget in 2021.
Manufacturers (and Red Bull), with the help of one-time F1 boss Mr. Bernard Ecclestone, have taken the sport in a direction that is continually proving untenable. Since I started watching in 2000 I’ve seen the departure, trade, or dissolution of Jordan, Jaguar, Benetton, Prost, Sauber, Arrows, Minardi, BAR Honda, Toyota, Super Aguri, Spyker, Honda, Renault, Force India, Brawn, HRT, Virgin Racing, Lotus Racing, Marussia, Team Lotus, Caterham, and Manor Racing. How long until Williams joins them on the scrap heap of F1's dollar-driven madness?
F1 is too high tech and hoity-toity for its own good. I hope that the new budget caps and wind tunnel rules will help amend that, but I fear that it will not.