There is a lovely story kicking around at the moment that suggests that Ross Brawn is going to buy Toto Wolff’s shares in Williams F1 and thus become a partner in the Grove team. This would be very convenient for all concerned: it would allow Wolff to have the management he wants at Mercedes GP Petronas and would give Brawn a neat way out of the team and then a new challenge for the future.
He would be in the same sort of position as that enjoyed by Patrick Head, who ran the technical side of Williams from 1977 until 2004, when he handed over to Sam Michael. Ironically, the 2004 season was the last in which the team won a race before Pastor Maldonado’s surprising victory in Spain in 2012.
The problem with the story is that Brawn would need to find – and then be willing to part with – no less than £24 million, if he wants to buy Wolff’s shares at the current market rate. Wolff is not going to sell cheap because he needs the money to buy shares in the Mercedes operation.
Brawn is a very wealthy man, but no one makes a £24 million investment unless they are certain that it will be a good idea. Such a transaction would buy him just 16.3 per cent of the team, while Sir Frank Williams would remain the dominant shareholder with more than 50 per cent of the equity.
When I heard the rumours, I asked Wolff if he has been making any progress with a sale. He said that he had no intention of selling the shares to anyone, unless the buyer came with significant sponsorship for the team.
Williams himself is pretty coy on the subject but says the idea of Brawn buying shares is “news to me”.
Fictional though the story may be, it is really not a bad idea for the team, but no one would expect an engineer to use his own money to buy into Williams. Engineers don't do that. They trade their expertise for shares, or they find that rarest of commodities, 'other people's money', and achieve their goals using that.
There is one possible scenario in which such a deal might come true. Williams could buy the shares back from Wolff and then use them to attract a top engineering name, such as Brawn or perhaps even Adrian Newey. In most share deals, the existing owners get the first call on the shares if their partner wishes to sell, and that is probably true of Williams and Wolff.
Both Brawn and Newey have been Williams men before – Brawn between 1978 and 1985 and Newey from 1991 to 1997. Adrian left the team because Williams and Head refused to give him a share in the team, despite the fact that he was largely responsible for the fabulous success that the team enjoyed with Renault during his years there. Today, Williams looks back at that decision as being one of the worst he has ever made.
Could it happen? Williams is 71 and lives for racing. He wants to see his team back at the front of the grid, but times are hard and the big teams are hoovering up all the engineering talent. Brawn is 58 but still has time left in the sport if he chooses to continue, rather than switching to a quieter life and going fishing. Newey is just 54. He is a man who has enjoyed world championship success with Williams, McLaren and Red Bull Racing. Money is irrelevant, except as a means of keeping score. If he had the desire to go to Ferrari or Mercedes, Adrian could write his own cheque.
Rebuilding Williams would certainly be a challenge and perhaps, having done the job for Red Bull, he doesn't have the energy to do it again. But when you stop and think about it, could there be a better way to sign off in F1 than by taking the team that made you famous and taking it back to the front? It would be the perfect ending for an astonishing career.