The Tuscan Grand Prix was highly significant, and not only for being (officially) Ferrari’s 1,000th grand prix start or the first Formula 1 race hosted by the (Ferrari-owned) Mugello circuit situated to the east of Florence: It marked the first grand prix since 1977 that Sir Frank Williams was not officially in charge as team principal of his eponymous outfit.
Williams is under new management. Following Dorilton Capital’s takeover of the team, Simon Roberts has been installed as acting team principal.
True, Sir Frank was absent during his recovery from the 1986 car accident which also confined him to a wheelchair, while in recent years daughter Claire officially deputised at races. But all this came to an end after the Italian Grand Prix when the family stepped down from pit wall in the wake of the sale of Williams Grand Prix Engineering Limited to US-based investment company Dorilton Capital.
The transaction was previously analysed in depth here, when the word was that Dorilton intended retaining the management team for the foreseeable future – as verified by our sources – but CEO Mike O’Driscoll, Claire and CFO Doug Lafferty, who formally leaves this month, decided their futures lay elsewhere, particularly as the former is close to retirement age and Claire has a young family.
Thus, it came to pass that Simon Roberts, who was appointed managing director in May this year, stepped up to the pit wall in Mugello as de facto team principal – making the British engineer the first non-Williams family member to fulfil the role, certainly since 1986. What a baptism it was, too, with the mass restart crash and George Russell coming agonisingly close to scoring his first F1 career points.
Although WGPE was effectively a subsidiary of Williams Grand Prix Holdings Limited – listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange – the sale was simple and clean as WGPE was reversed out of the holding company, which will be dissolved once all shareholder issues have been settled.
That, though, will happen well away from Williams headquarters in Grove, Oxfordshire, leaving Roberts (58), who cut his engineering teeth at diesel engine manufacturer Perkins before accepting executive positions at Austin Rover Group, Alstom (heavy engineering) and McLaren, to focus on operational and racing issues.
At the latter company – which seconded him to Force India as its chief operations officer for the 2009 season as part of a technology share deal – Roberts, who turned 58 on Monday, was COO before being recruited by Williams to the managing director role.
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Had he always wanted to work in F1, I ask as opener – Was it a passionate, long-held ambition for a fan, or the right career path for an engineer?
It would have been easy to trot out impressive platitudes about boyhood dreams, but Simon is brutally honest: “No, I never imagined as a schoolboy or in university that I’d ever work in Formula 1. I always wanted to work in the car industry, you know.
“You get this with doctors, you get people that say, ‘I always wanted to be a doctor’, and I always wanted to be an engineer. You know, when I was 14 year old, I was rebuilding the engine in my dad’s car, so that’s what I did.
“Then to get the opportunity to join McLaren in 2003 was pretty special. As you know, I’ve worked in the kind of back office at senior level, which has been great experience and it suits me, but now I’ve been thrust into the limelight, as you mentioned earlier.
“I’ve not got the experience that some of the other TPs [team principals] have got in terms of media and cameras, and all that kind of stuff, but I’ve got a depth of knowledge in the day-to-day operational form. The TPs have all got different strengths, we all bring something different to the party. So, I feel pretty comfortable, it’s a great place to be. So special.”
Speaking during Friday’s FIA press conference in Sochi, Roberts summarised his new challenge: “It’s [been] pretty busy, pretty hectic obviously. It’s a big step up, I’m very proud and honoured to be asked to do it, but there’s a lot to do in the factory.
“We’re trying to make sure we keep the management team stable with the new owners, so that’s really important for them and the rest of the team. So, me stepping up makes us able to do that. We’re now working with the new owners pretty much every day, looking at what we need to do to improve.”
His comments provide a perfect backdrop for the meat of our exclusive interview – his first with a mainline F1 outlet – scheduled prior to final practice on Saturday morning. Such occasions are often the bane of team bosses’ lives; answers at times reluctantly given and usually guardedly so. The interviews, though, come with the territory, and thus the subjects have long been exposed to some intense cross-examination.
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Simon’s background is, though, very much in process engineering and operational management – crucial stuff, obviously, but conducted well away from the frontline – and he was parachuted in to his latest role at short notice, so it would be no surprise were he to feel apprehensive and ill at ease under scrutiny.
However there are no such signs as our chat gets underway – conducted, inevitably, via Zoom. We begin by discussing the objectives Dorilton set him.
“They’re new to the sport,” he says, “so we’ve spent a lot of time with them, just helping them get into the business and understand what we’re about in the details.”
Obviously Dorilton undertook due diligence prior to completing the purchase but sniffing about a business and actually owning are two different worlds, and this where his experience as managing director comes in to play.
“The Dorilton guys are all really, really good to work with, genuinely nice people, really smart, and very open minded. We couldn’t wish for more. They have a long-term vision for the team, this isn’t a quick flip, put that in and move on.
Clearly, though, they are hard-nosed investors, and Roberts acknowledges, “There will be no free rides here. They’re not just sitting there with a big pot of cash to invest. They are going to invest on a long-term basis, but we have to justify every pound we spend.”
Williams historically had massive internal capability. Roberts calls it “vertically integrated”, put down to the “Frank and Patrick [Head, co-founder’s] legacy. When I look across the business, we’ve got relatively new machines. “In composites, we could spend a bit of money,” he says, but adds diplomatically, “that’s not what’s fundamentally wrong with the team.
“What we’re doing in the short-term is to ensure we’ve got the basics in place. Some of it’s a bit dull and a bit boring, but we need to make sure all foundations for the factory, for the team have the core infrastructure at the right level. Reliable, state-of-the-art, make it work. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
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Clearly the pending introductions in 2021 of financial regulations and more equitable prize distribution – and from 2022, streamlined parts categories – make F1 a more attractive proposition for Dorilton. But the flipside is that caps of $36 million over four years are placed on capital expenditure, in turn making investment rather more strategic than in recent years, when the likes of Mercedes spent what it took.
With Williams operating well within the $145m cost cap, the team could decide to recruit – facilitated by the likely retrenchment of experienced heads by other teams in the immediate area – but according to Roberts the team faces various options.
“We’ve got scope to expand people if we want to, but it’s not a given. We’ve got the ability to invest more, but given what is contained in the cost caps, we have to be careful. And we’ve got the ability to outsource more if we choose to within the cost cap.
“At the minute nothing is agreed; it’s all in play. That’s quite a nice place to be, really, and I have been in sensible conversations about it.”
While the cost cap is widely considered a positive step for smaller teams – and is a change the previously management strongly supported – could it not also act as a brake on their plans to expand, however long-term they may be?
“We haven’t got an end date, but I say two things: Yes, the cost cap is a double-edged sword, and to some extent the homologation requirements going into next year will also hold us back a little bit because there’s things I’d like to do [that] we just can’t do.”
By “homologation” he is referring to the need to roll-over chassis components for a season due to constraints imposed by Covid-19. Clearly these restrict development of what is currently one of the least effective chassis.
“We’re not moaning about that, because we like the concept of a high level of homologation, we like the cost levelling. Dorilton are very realistic; they’ve done a lot of research, they’ve looked at other people that bought teams over the last 10 to 12 years and looked at the timeline from point of acquisition, to competing for world championships, or winning races or whatever, and they recognise this is a journey.”
Dorilton’s shareholders have, he says, “that ambition – that is certainly no illusion [on Dorilton’s] part. This isn’t a ‘We just want to own a team, we’re going to have some fun’, this is to get us to be able to win races, and eventually compete for championships.
“[Dorilton] also know that because of where we come from, some of the bigger teams that have been spent a lot of money and have great facilities and lots of people and all that kind of stuff, [those teams] are not going to forget all of that. So they have got an advantage, it will take a few years for that to bleed away.
“There’s various crossover points for the bigger teams, learning how to operate at lower levels. We think in the long term, it will all level up. I think that sounds a case for them. Also, of course, the 200 million anti-dilution fund [revealed here] means that they couldn’t start a team [from scratch], or not viably. So I mean, the only option was to get in at the time that they did with this particular operation.”
Present in Mugello were Dorilton chairman Matthew Savage, an ex-patriate Briton, Stephanie Dattilo, the company’s (ex-Pirelli) Italo-American legal counsel and James Matthews, the 1994 European and British Formula Renault champion-turned investment fund manager trading for his own account via his Eden Rock Group.
“James is on the board [of WGPE], which is great. He and his team were advising Dorilton through the sale process, so yeah, it’s good to have him around and obviously as an ex-F3 racer he knows lots of people, so that’s good. You know, we’ve got common friends, but I’ve never [personally] come across James before.”
Communications within the team are “pretty normal”, says Roberts. Claire would write to me as [managing director] and say ‘These these are the issues, what do you think?’. We’d talk about them, it’s very much a multifaceted issue now, and you can’t just make decisions on the hoof.
“I don’t see a big deal with that, we’ve now got the new board. They’re all very approachable, some are based in New York so there’s a five-hour time delay, but they’re very accessible and with modern technology it’s not a big deal.”
Where once Williams was very much Mercedes’s preferred engine customer, the dynamic now favours Racing Point (Aston Martin from 2021), so could Roberts foresee Williams returning to, say, Renault given that the French company is seeking an engine partner after the defection of McLaren to Mercedes?
“It’s not something we’ve discussed with Dorilton yet,” says Roberts. “They’re aware of the pros and cons of partnership between teams. We are very close to Mercedes, obviously as [power unit] supplier; whether that gets extended, that’s the kind of the strategic conversations that we will have with the Dorilton guys. There’s no final decision on that.”
Finally, what are the chances of Williams entering into a technology-share partnership with another team, as per the Mercedes/Racing Point or Ferrari/Haas deals?
The answer is succinct: “We’re looking at all of it, but from a vision and ambition [perspective] Dorilton don’t want us to become a ‘B Team’”. That’s pretty clear, then.
Encouragingly for supporters of the team, Roberts sees continuity between old management and new.
“The important thing for us is, we’re not going to suddenly start shouting about big performance ‘stacks’. That’s the core ethos of the team, [that] is what Dorilton bought into, and they actually get it. There’s a really good fit between what Williams was, what Dorilton are, and what we are going to become.”
“The values of the two organisations are really close and similar,” he says. “There are a lot of synergies, which I was unaware of in the financial world in terms of competitiveness, because it wasn’t something I was used to.
“Talking to these guys, that’s why they get what we do. But you know, they’re not going to come and design the car for us, but they understand what it is we’re trying to do, and how it can help, so we’re going to be working away really hard in the background.
“We’ve just got to do the work. We’ve got the team to do it. We’ve got great facilities now, maybe slightly under-invested over the last 10 years, but they’re not broken. So, we can get the foundations in place, get everything running properly, and then what we need is just a little bit of success.
“It nearly happened the other day in Mugello, and something like that will go a long way. It rubs off on us all [at the track] and it rubs off on the guys and girls in the factory, and just motivates everyone a little bit.
“So, that’s what we’re about. No revolutions, no big shocks or changes planned, just doing it right with the right people, and building it up.”
On that basis, F1’s third-oldest team has a solid future.