Williams could be in troubles too deep to climb out of
Written By Juan Arroyo, Edited by Ishani Aziz
CEO Jost Capito and Technical Director FX Demaison announced on Tuesday that they would be stepping down from their roles at Williams. The Grove-based outfit has suffered yet another loss after a dismal 2022 season which saw it collect just eight points in total.
Williams was sold to the private investment firm Dorilton Capital in 2020, having suffered significant financial losses for multiple years running without a title sponsor to back the team. Frank and Claire Williams both stepped down from their roles to give way for new leadership, among which was Capito, who helped spearhead the project at the end of the year. Capito would then become chief executive and later replace the interim Simon Roberts as team principal.
The storied team came with debts upwards of £80 million and two consecutive last-place finishes in the constructors’ championship. Williams’ financial situation has never been a secret. Listed on the Frankfurter Stock Exchange in 2011, the team has burned through an extensive list of sponsors, partnerships and drivers in an attempt to dig itself out of its troubles.
As Williams gradually slipped down the standings each year, as did the prize money. The situation only worsened once the Covid-19 pandemic began, resulting in the title sponsor at the time, Rokit, to pull out of their multi-year deal prior to the 2020 season. This put additional strain on a team already struggling to stay on-par with other backmarkers. Twenty-five years on from their last championship win, the team has unfortunately continued its downward spiral.
That descent only began recently, as the Williams-Renault era of the 1990s had been a dominant period in the team’s history. Jacques Villeneuve famously won the 1997 title in the last Williams car designed by Adrian Newey, who left over a shareholding dispute. Renault, on the other hand, was looking to pull out of F1 completely within two years.
Following Renault and Newey’s exits, Williams switched engine suppliers. While the effect of their departures was contained by the Williams-BMW partnership of the early 2000s, the relationship between both factories turned sour by 2005, at which point BMW decided to cut ties early and buy out Sauber — an unfortunate ending to Williams’ last partnership with a manufacturer.
Even with title sponsors such as the likes of Martini and Rokit investing in the team in recent years, Williams’ budget has been nowhere near the size of the front-runners in Formula 1. Prior to the budget cap being implemented, Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari all spent around £400 million per year.
Unable to compete with such numbers, Williams has slowly slipped down the ladder. Their budget was closer to £120 million per year, a fraction of what is required to be at the top in Formula 1 nowadays. Dorilton’s acquisition of the team seemed to relieve some of the urgency for financial backing.
There seemed to be a glimmer of hope when Williams struck a deal with Mercedes prior to the 2014 engine rule changes, allowing them to run with the German power units the following season. Mercedes nailed the regulations and Williams temporarily jumped up to fourth under the new partnership. The team was still responsible for the rest of the car however, and massively underachieved in developing the aerodynamic side in the years that have followed since. When other teams caught up, Williams’ advantage inevitably disappeared. From 2017 onwards, Williams then finished last in the constructors four times.
Results improved last season as Williams finished eighth, thanks in no small part to George Russell’s second place in qualifying at Spa-Francorchamps. The budget cap was also introduced to keep teams closer in terms of investment. But car development so far has been inconsistent and Nicholas Latifi struggled to get a handle on the FW44 all throughout his stint with the team, leading them to drop the 27-year-old for 2023.
Meanwhile, Dorilton reportedly decided not to renew Jost Capito’s contract over the summer break. Whether they have a replacement lined up is unknown. If it’s not the case, Williams now finds itself in search of a new team principal and technical director just two months away from pre-season testing.
It would not be the first time the team finds itself in winter break struggles. Many can recall pre-season testing in 2019, when Williams missed multiple days of action in Barcelona having also missed their shakedown date and fire up deadline. Paddy Lowe, the team’s chief technical officer at the time, was placed on leave and departed three months later — the team scored a single point that season.
Despite solving its financial issues, Williams is yet to fill a void present since Adrian Newey’s exit in 1997. Numerous technical directors, designers and aerodynamicists have passed through the Oxfordshire factory since. A high turnover in personnel could be contributing to Williams’ lack of progress.
FX Demaison, the latest to leave the team, was recruited by Jost Capito himself. Dorilton might have seen this as a plausible reason to show both men the exit, but it would be unreasonable to fire Capito two years into a project he stated requires five at the very minimum.
Capito noted a significant restructuring of the team is required to make it work again — especially on the technical side, where there are still remnants of Paddy Lowe’s stint with Williams. Unless Dorilton had Capito’s exit planned from the start, Williams looks closer to square one than to any progress.
There are relatively few options to explore on the market as well. Williams will most likely opt for its current Sporting Director, Sven Smeets. The Belgian comes from a background of rallying where he served as team manager for Citroën Racing and Volkswagen in WRC. Smeets first worked with Jost Capito at Volkswagen, where the pair led the rally team to a number of championships. He left VW in 2021 and joined Williams in his current position, reuniting with his old boss.
Despite his successful resume, Smeets is likely to face the same obstacles as his predecessors should he take on the role. Williams has not found a consistent aerodynamic package or technical director to lead them in a successful direction in over twenty years. Without a key figure as such in place, the Grove outfit looks set to remain in the last ranks.
Williams’ trajectory thus far has no doubt harmed the nature of investment by Dorilton Capital. If the latter had perhaps internally revealed that they were looking to sell, there would be little reason for Capito and Demaison to remain at Williams, which could explain their sudden exit.
The Grove outfit finds itself in a position no other team wants to be in: last, and with no end in sight. Years of lackluster recruitment have built up to a vicious cycle of replacements within the management structure. It’s unlikely Williams will fold like others have in the past, but even climbing out of the midfield feels like it would require a miracle — one which doesn’t seem likely to be granted.