In F1, the days of the gentleman racer are long gone. Multinational corporations operate the leading teams like Mercedes and Red Bull with budgets the size of small countries.
This is a common theme across sport, with football a good case in point. Many of Europe’s top teams have benefited from investments by wealthy individuals and investment companies who have grasped the power of sport as a strategic investment and even a geopolitical tool.
This is a good thing in my book. We should be flattered that major players in the political and financial worlds view sport as a means of achieving their objectives.
But how does a family-run team like Williams, the last true privateer in F1, stay relevant in today’s increasingly complex sporting landscape? I’d like to think that our experience over the past few years is a good case study in trying to balance the need to stay true to your roots, with the need to remain successful in a sport that takes no prisoners.
Williams is known for being family-run, independent and for placing integrity at the heart of what we do. There seems to be growing public unease about big business, so this is a USP that we want to retain – it endears us to fans and strikes a chord with partners. Having said that, we have had to find new ways to generate revenue, as we operate on less than half the budget of our rivals.
So what was the plan? For a start, we brought in people with significant FTSE 100 experience to sit on our board. They know what it takes to succeed in a modern, globalised, corporate world and their guidance has been vital. In 2011, we floated on the stock market to bring greater corporate governance to the way we operate – we were the first F1 team to do so.
Sponsorship is the lifeblood of many teams. The days of brands simply paying for a logo are long gone. Teams in all sports are having to work harder than ever for sponsorship dollars. It’s a challenge we relish. We are becoming more creative and utilising all of the assets that make F1 unique. An increasing number of our partnerships include some sort of technology or knowledge sharing, as well as the more traditional marketing elements you would expect. Companies know F1 is a strong platform for increasing their visibility, but they’re also realising that they can learn from how we operate. This can be the technology we use, the processes we employ to make our cars or how we get the most out of our people.
— WILLIAMS RACING (@WilliamsRacing) March 1, 2016
Perhaps most boldly of all, we have diversified. F1 teams are filled with brilliant minds who are great problem-solvers. But for so long we have kept our innovations to ourselves. This is why we created Williams Advanced Engineering in 2010, to take our know-how and tech into other industries, with a particular focus on sustainability. For example, we have used our aerodynamics expertise to create ‘front wings’ that clip to refrigerated supermarket shelves and channel cold air towards the produce and away from the aisle. Supermarket fridges are massive energy wasters and trials with the likes of Sainsbury’s are showing energy savings of as much as 25 per cent.
The extra revenues this new business provides will stabilise Williams during periods when companies are cutting their marketing spend. This diversification also has brand benefits. F1 can sometimes seem detached from the real world, but we can now truthfully say that its technology is having a positive impact on everyday lives.
During this period of transformation we have always been attuned to the need to keep family as a central pillar. It’s a careful balancing act – we want to retain our DNA, but also generate consistent revenues that will allow us to compete in a sport where costs have escalated.
We’re not yet where we want to be – winning our 17th F1 World Championship is the goal. But over the past two years we have enjoyed a significant turnaround in our on-track results and not bankrupted ourselves in the process. I feel Williams is starting to fortify its place in the modern sporting world and is showing that by embracing change the small independent still has a significant role to play – and that’s not just bringing up the rear.