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NOVEMBER 20, 2009

Toto Wolff buys into Williams F1

Frank Williams and Patrick Head have announced that they have sold a minority interest in Williams Grand Prix Engineering Limited to an investment company led by Austrian investor Toto Wolff.

Wolff will also join the Williams board of directors.

Simple story.

But is it? Who is Wolff and why would Williams be interested in him? The partners have been offered lots of money in the past for shares and they have never given them away. They even lost Adrian Newey because he wanted shares they were not willing to give. So we need to find a reason for the deal.

The 37-year-old Austrian is a hobby racer. He started young enough in Formula Ford in Austrla but was not good enough to go far. He moved to GTs and rallying, both classic routes for men with some talent and plenty of money. He holds the current lap record of the old Nordschleife with a lap of 7m03secs in a Porsche 997 RSR. In business he has been very successful, initially with investments in Internet and technology companies but more recently with strategic investments in medium-sized industrial enterprises with potential to grow. The important connection is with a company called HWA AG, which Wolff is believed to control almost half of, perhaps more. He is also involved with another firm called BRR Rallye Racing, which provides parts for rally teams and is a partner in the Aces Management Group, which is involved with Mika Hakkinen and Didier Coton and manages the careers of some young drivers.

Two years ago, when Wolff bought into HWA there started to be rumours that the company would like to be involved in Formula 1. To explain: HWA was set up by Hans-Werner Aufrecht (hence the company name HWA). Aufrecht was the founder in 1967 of AMG, which was established to tune Mercedes-Benz machinery for higher performance. As the Stuttgart company became more interested in the sport and in performance road cars so AMG expanded and in the end Aufrecht was bought out and AMG became a Mercedes division and brand. HWA took over the Mercedes-AMG entries in the DTM. It later expanded to be the provider of the Mercedes-Benz Formula 3 engines, which of late are being to referred to as Mercedes-HWA engines. When Wolff bought into HWA there were the first rumours that the company would like to be in Formula 1 as a secondary Mercedes-Benz team. His aim was to expand the company. HWA currently employs 224 employees and has not only static engine test rigs but also transient dynos. There was also talk of engine deals in America.

The decision to do a deal with Wolff would seem to indicate that Williams is involved in some kind of engine project, perhaps initially a badging deal with Cosworth. It is a good time to be getting into that area of the sport as there are plenty of people and intellectual property floating about, particularly in Germany, where BMW and Toyota have both stopped their F1 projects in recent months, providing a good opportunity for new engine companies to enter the sport if they have money available. Eiether that or Williams is after a Mercedes-Benz engine supply deal in 2011 and this seems a good way to get it. But that is giving away a lot to become a customer

It is not clear who now owns what at Williams as the company has allotted two shares to nominee directors. The altered articles of association of the company, however, suggest that other shares may have changed hands as well as there is reference to family members and family trusts. There are also likely to be different classes of shares in the business, which suggests that while some of the shareholders will own parts of the company, they may not have voting rights.