Think ‘grandee’ teams, and it’s a brief list, running to just three of over 100 entities that attempted to make a fist of F1 since the inception of the world championship in 1950: Ferrari, McLaren and Williams. Not only do their pedigrees stretch back to the fifties, sixties and seventies respectively, but, crucially, they remained true to the visions of their founders – whose names they still bear – and still race under their original registrations.
Little recalled is that at the turn of the millennium Tyrrell was where Williams sat last year, with a going-concern sale and wholesale revamp being its only hope of survival.
For the rest, most are relative whippersnappers, having been established during the eighties or nineties. All have acquired new identities save Haas, founded in 2016. Remarkably, five outfits – Super Aguri, Manor, HRT, 1 Malaysia (‘Lotus’) and USF1 – were granted entrants licences during the noughties, yet all are gone. Thus, there are no millennial survivors – a mortality rate that exceeds that of cheetahs in the wild.
Consider: just three of the 100 survive under their original names; only 10% have survived in any guise, and then only through transactions that involved identity changes, usually for commercial reasons. Had Gene Haas not risked hard-earned cash five years ago the youngest team on the current grid would be Red Bull – formed as Stewart in 1997, sold to Jaguar in 2000 and moved to the drinks company for a song five years later.
These statistics illustrate the magnitude of the task facing Jost Capito, appointed CEO of Williams last month by Dorilton Capital, who acquired the team from the Williams family (and a bunch of assorted minority shareholders) last August after it began a gradual downward spiral.
Capito’s task – daunting on account of its magnitude yet enviable given the potential of restoring this once-formidable team to glory – is not only to ensure the continuity of F1’s third-oldest and second most successful team by constructors titles won (Ferrari has 16, Williams nine) but simultaneously preserve the hard-won Williams heritage and deliver solid returns on investment for its fund owners.
Capito’s passion for motorsport, both as competitor and manager, is undisputed. Aged 62, he was headed for retirement from Volkswagen Group in three or so years when he took a call from Williams chairman Matthew Savage enquiring whether he may be interested in having a chat about filling the top vacancy in Grove, the picturesque Oxfordshire village in which Williams is situated.
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It is no secret that F1 is unfinished business for Capito. Appointed McLaren Racing CEO by Ron Dennis in 2016, he took up his role in September.
Then Dennis and the company’s majority shareholders had a fall-out of cataclysmic proportions. They appointed their own man, Zak Brown, leaving Dennis’s recruit out in the cold. Capito returned to VW as head of its ‘R’ Division, from where he joined Williams
Why did two of F1’s three oldest teams recruit the same man to lead their rebuilding processes? His CV provides the key: having started his career as engineer with BMW’s ‘M’ Division in 1984, Capito then joined Porsche as head of its one-make championships (where our paths first crossed) including F1’s Porsche Supercup support series.
This brought him into close contact with race director Charlie Whiting and then-F1 tsar Bernie Ecclestone, while providing invaluable backroom experience and putting him about in F1.
“I was race director for Supercup and spent a lot of the time with the stewards in race control, where teams normally don’t have access,” he explains. “I learned a lot about safety, about how the whole Formula 1 behind-the-scenes organisation works. This was hugely beneficial and led to a job directly in Formula 1.”
In 1996 he joined Sauber Petronas Engineering as executive committee member; a year later he was chief operating officer of the F1 operation. A spell with Ford followed, culminating in overall responsibility for motorsport (primarily F1 and rally) and the Blue Oval’s global performance vehicle programme. Then VW recruited him to head its motorsport programme, to wit WRC with the Polo. A run of four manufacturer titles from 2013 to 2016 tells its own story.
Significantly, Capito has widespread experience as a racer on two wheels and four. He completed the Dakar rally in both disciplines, winning the truck division with a Mercedes Unimog U1300 in 1985. Thus, Capito draws on a unique mix of personal competition and corporate politics, thoroughly blended with a proven technical background.
There is another (unspoken) factor: Capito, F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali, Renault boss Luca de Meo, and McLaren’s ex-Porsche team principal Andreas Seidl are ex-VW Group executives who mixed and mingled in high places.
Networks are essential in F1 – look no further than the Fiat-Ferrari cabal, of which FIA president Jean Todt, F1 managing director Ross Brawn and others are members, with Domenicali and De Meo being crossovers.
Capito is adamant Dorilton are in for long haul with Williams, adding pointedly that he would not have signed had he held any fears to the contrary. After all, why jeopardise a hard-earned reputation as winning motorsport manager at this late-ish stage in life by accepting this enormous challenge merely to tick off another box?
“I have to say Dorilton are very good owners,” he says during the first face-to-face interview granted since his appointment. “I wouldn’t have joined had I not had a very good feeling and the ability to build a very good relationship with them. They are in for the long term, they support the team, see where [it is] coming from.
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“I don’t believe that just putting money in and going to the limit of the cost cap would make the team much better. You have to build on it.
“You’ve seen many times that companies invest a lot, but just putting money in does not really improve [the team]. You have to invest wisely – we have the chance to improve our budget, but we will do it step by step, and do it wisely.
“The new Formula 1 will be an efficiency race, because [the team] that keeps fixed costs down the most will have the most resources to put into the performance of the car, into technology and all that.”
What critical areas did Capito identify during initial discussions and since sliding his feet under the desk of his open-plan office? What are the short-, medium- and long-term objectives he agreed with Dorilton?
“You have to improve on the technical side, you have to improve everywhere,” he says. “You have to do the full analysis, you have to look at the structure, you have to look at processes and also how the various areas work with each other to ensure proper communication lines.”
As a fellow German speaker I identify with the liberal use of ‘you’ during the interview – in this context it is third-party reference to the responsible person, and it is essential to read it accordingly.
“That’s the first priority. We have the capability in the team, you have to make it work together and steer it in the right direction.”
It is no secret that the Williams of old had under-invested in its facilities. Is it possible to build a faster car with ageing equipment? Under the new-for-2021 budget cap capital expenditure is capped at $45m per year to the end of 2024, reducing thereafter, which works against teams in rebuilding mode.
Capito reveals Dorilton has already invested heavily in their equipment. “A lot of new machines came in at the end of last year, so the machine park is absolutely up to date,” he says. “Also, 3D printers, all installed last year so they are not under the budget cap matrix. From that point of view we are in a much better position than we have been last year.”
What about the composites area, said to be based largely on noughties facilities and technologies?
“This is one of the areas you have to improve, it’s one that is really obvious. But there are other areas that are as important as the composite area that have to be modernised,”
The wind tunnel is ‘fantastic”, he says, but adds “you have to look into the operating systems that also have to be modernised, and also the links to CFD and wind tunnel. You have to look at all the operations, the software and programmes [to ensure that] everything works together to get the correlations.”
Given that Williams has operated at well under budget cap levels and Dorilton is willing to provide funding, what plans does Capito have on the human resource front?
“It’s too early for me to answer that because I first have to get a really good view on that,” he says. “I’m in [place] for six weeks now and arrived in the UK beginning of March in the UK, then five days in quarantine then [last] Friday was the launch.
“I had lots of discussions when I worked remotely the first four weeks, but it is much too early. It’s too complex to just say ‘we add manpower’; we have to see what capacities we have, and where to put the budget wisely.”
Although facial gestures are difficult to interpret through masks, I detect a slight smile as he speaks, so there could be some heavy-weight appointments waiting in the wings.
F1 teams exist to sell performance, particularly independent operations – the higher performance, the better sponsorship income, merchandising turnover and prize money. What plans are there on this front?
“We believe that it is not only about performance,” he says with the benefit of having built the ‘R’ brand. “There is no doubt it matters. But it also matters what the brand is, what the brand value would be, and why and where you position your brand.
“If you position the brand right and work on the brand, then you become attractive. With the [heritage] we have and the new owners, there are people who want to join this journey. It’s quite a good success story if you join somebody who is fighting back, then getting results. That’s what I believe in.”
Williams recently announced an agreement with Mercedes for gearboxes from 2022, effectively making the team a full Mercedes powertrain customer rather than only an engine buyer. Given that Williams previously took great pride in manufacturing a full car save for the power unit, what led to this change in philosophy?
“We will do what makes sense for us,” Capito responds. “When you look at the engine, the gearbox, I’m absolutely convinced it makes sense to [purchase] this as one unit, because it is one unit. It’s called ‘engine, gearbox’ individually, but if you combine it, it’s a powertrain.
“With the electronics and all the parameters and sensors, they rely on each other so much that I think it is very difficult to do one of these independently from the other parts of the power chain.”
Finally, what chance of Williams entering into an alliance with another team, either as hardware supplier – as it previously considered – or as customer as Haas is to Ferrari?
“At the moment we have to solve our issues and have to get ourselves back [up the grid] and therefore I will give full attention and focus on really getting the team back to where it belongs. If we are on the way [up] and this is all working and running properly, then I think you can think about other options, but not now.”
That Williams can draw on considerable paddock goodwill is a given. But a considerable challenge still lies ahead for Capito as he sets about the task of rebuilding F1’s third most senior team. Does he have any regrets at this admittedly early stage about accepting?
“I think if you are a motorsport guy who has followed Formula 1 for nearly 60 years and was once a boy who could never have dreamed of running a Formula 1 team, let alone Williams, there was no question when I got this offer that I would take it over the retirement I had planned for the end of this year.”
If that suggests that Jost Capito is simply a ‘super fanboy’ handed his boyhood dream it overlooks the CV of an achiever who has proven his skills in a variety of world class motorsport disciplines as individual competitor, engineer and manager. It is doubtful whether Dorilton could have chosen a better man for the task of restoring the Williams heritage. Sir Frank undoubtedly approves.
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