Simon Roberts exclusive interview

‘New Williams owners aren’t just here to have fun, they want to win championships’

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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.

George Russell, Williams, Mugello, 2020
Russell nearly bagged a point at the first race for the new owners
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?

Andreas Seidl, Syril Abiteboul, Simon Roberts, Sochi, 2020
Roberts (right) is new to the media-facing side of the job
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.

James Matthews, Matthew Savage, Simon Roberts, Stephanie Dattilo, Williams, Mugello, 2020
Dorilton management joined the team at Mugello
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.

Roberts' pre-Williams F1 career was with McLaren...
Roberts’ pre-Williams F1 career was with McLaren…
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.

...with a brief secondment to Force India
…with a brief secondment to Force India
“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.”

George Russell, Williams, Spa-Francorchamps, 2020
The new owners aren’t interested in the ‘B team’ model
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.

Jacques Villeneuve, Heinz-Harald Frentzen, Williams, Melbourne, 1997
Williams’ last title was 23 years ago
“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.

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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19 comments on “‘New Williams owners aren’t just here to have fun, they want to win championships’”

  1. Well, good luck to them and all the other smaller teams, for that matter.

    I know you don’t want to hear it, but what makes Mugello Ferrari’s 1000th Grand Prix OFFICIALLY? The 1952 Indy 500 was not a Grand Prix, for instance (-:

    1. @gpfacts there is a difference between an event held to Formula 1 regulations and a race which held Grand Prix status – a Formula 1 event also counted as a Grand Prix, but that did not mean that all Grand Prix had to be Formula 1 events.

      Back in the 1950s, the Indianapolis 500 was designated as a race which counted towards the World Drivers Championship by the FIA. Although the Indianapolis 500 operated to a different set of regulations, the FIA designated that race as having Grand Prix championship status at the time and, therefore, the race does count as an official Grand Prix.

      If you go back to the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, you will find a host of races which were called Grand Prix events, even though they were not part of the FIA Formula 1 Championship. Whilst a number of those races were held to Formula 1 regulations, not all of them were – you did have events such as the non-championship Questor Grand Prix, which had a mixed field of Formula 1 and Formula 5000 cars competing against each other.

      1. I would say that the Indy 500 events were world championship rounds, but not Grands Prix. But let’s say you are right…in which case the 1000th mark for the Mugello race would be even more off target, because Ferrari attended a number of pre-1950 and non-championship Grands Prix. Mugello was 1000th world championship race (not Grand Prix) with a Ferrari car in it…once we assume that D50 was a Ferrari and not Lancia.

        1. Indy 500s were not, are not now, and have never been Grands Prix, although they have had Grande Épreuve status and sometimes machinery built to Grand Prix regulations has been eligible for them. The confusion is between World Championship races, World Championship Grands Prix, and World Championship F1 Grands Prix. The latter two things are not the same thing either, given that the 1952 and 1953 World Championships were run to F2 regulations (except the Indy 500 in both years, obviously).

  2. How novel an idea ?
    Doesn’t every single person involved in racing at this level want to have fun and win championships?
    We will see how serious they are once we see regular decent Qualifying results but the only point of racing at this level is acquisition of points towards winning the driver and team championships. When we see the regular scoring at every race and watch them climb in the overall standings will we then understand where “NewWilliams“ actually is. Will they ever get to where they once were facing such a difficult task. It just might not happen. It certainly Is a challenge. The best deal NewWliiams has, is George Russel. Build your team around him at this point. Like Vettle at Racing Point. He comes to That team to do the very thing Russel is doing with the new Bosses, that is to build and developed a better machine.
    The foundation for where all future success comes from.

  3. Yeah, right……

    Anyway… 1st, they have to ditch Mercedes and sign with any other engine supplier, most obvious choice being Honda. There’re very few chances they can fight and win against Mercedes while having a Mercedes engine in the back of their car.

    1. How on earth do you reach to that conclusion?

      1. Why would Williams become Honda engine users? They would become a new customer and come behind Red Bull & Alpha Tauri in the pecking order and has been proved before, Honda will ditch their commitments without notice.

        The Mercedes team are the result of the Honda abandonment of their team in 2008, which subsequently became Brawn GP.

        If Ron Dennis had not pushed for Mercedes to supply engines to Brawn, the 2009 season would have had different driver and constructor championship winners

        1. A spot of deja vu. Today’s announcement that Honda are departing at the end of 2021 is confirmation of a Honda commitment or otherwise.

  4. I still believe that Dorilton is just a facade owner. There is someone with lots of money behind this acquisition. Dorilton business model does not jive with acquiring a failing F1 team, where the chances of a profitable return are so unlikely.

    1. Why unlikely? You don’t have to be a winning team in F1 to be profitable?

    2. Before the recent agreements on budget cap and ‘franchise model’ approach, I would’ve agreed with you 100%. But for the first time in however long I can remember, I think there’s a genuine chance an F1 team can be commercially viable and actually turn a (likely marginal and hard-won) profit. Plus the article linking Dorilton with racing connections gives me some hope. As F1 fans, however, we learn never to get our hopes up too much.

    3. Well, Dorilton themselves have hardly been unmasked. Hands up who knows who the management team of any given privately owned company is? No, me neither. It’s treated like a pantomime because it’s F1. Some guy on Forbes thought it was a Hong Kong billionaire, but he also reprinted an April Fool (that F1 will be all-electric next year) as part of his case.

      Looking back at Williams’ success, I’ve come to think that it’s remarkable that they won the ’96 & ’97 Championships given the Italian prosecutions & sense of loss over Senna’s death.

  5. Reading every other team now want to be a champion. Something changed, your own engine is nolonger needed? Mercedes will roll over? Or will Hamilton retire and gap will be suficient?

    Perhaps George will gain an additional 2s per lap with some driver coach?

    1. George is a contracted Mercedes driver with a 3 year contract with Williams. In last year’s Mercedes on a test day he was about 1 tenth slower than Lewis Hamilton in the same car. No ned for a driver coach.

  6. Dump the homebrew gearbox and buy the Mercedes one.
    Let the areo department take a stroll every day. Copying the Mercedes is not allowed, so instead they need to carefully measure and draw inspiration from it. Emulate, mimic, align, sympatise, harmonize, concur; any benignly masked theft will do.

  7. Good article as usual.

    Roberts seems like a very reasonable guy who is under no illusions as to the task that lays ahead.

    The cost will help the smaller teams to a certain extent, but I am not sure how much difference it will have on the pecking order in the short term. As Roberts says in the interview, its a double edged sword in some respects.

    I will be surprised if Williams shy away from going down the out sourcing route. I wouldn’t be surprised if they go back to Renault, as I believe it will serve both parties well.

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