Williams will begin the 2009 season with high hopes that this year's radical rule changes will allow them to erase the memories of the disappointing past seasons to fight near the top.
Although cautious about their prospects, the team are aware this year is a big chance and they are looking to grab.
Speaking at the annual media lunch on Thursday, Frank Williams and Adam Parr spoke about the upcoming season and the future.
Q. How buoyant are you feeling about the year?
Frank Williams: The cars are quite different so there is a chance for everybody to make up ground if they were behind. So you might see a few surprises in the first few tests, but it won't be anything dramatic. Although there might be a bit of movement up and down the grid.
Q. Are you optimistic?
FW: Cautiously. It's difficult because we haven't seen what everybody else has done yet.
Q. Have you ever been optimistic before the start of a season?
FW: You know I haven't...
Q. You mentioned Red Bull over lunch, do you think they'll be in good shape?
FW: There have been some very substantial changes aerodynamically, and Adrian (Newey) is renowned for his aerodynamic ability. He may well get it right. Hopefully it will continue to break down... that's a very selfish view of course. And I think (Sebastian) Vettel is going to get better and better and better.
Q. Do you rate Vettel very highly?
FW: I don't think he's magic. In the same car Nico (Rosberg) would certainly give him a run for his money for sure. But he is very good. Same for Nico though, if Nico had a McLaren he'd be running at the front all the time.
Q. Nico has said he needs to be in a top car by 2010 and that the team must produce a good car for him. How concerned are you that you might lose him?
FW: It's something obviously we've thought about.
Q. Do you think you can produce a car that will make him stay?
FW: We want to. He'll soon tell us if we have or haven't.
Q. People watching BBC news last night would believe F1 was now in dire straits financially. You don't believe that's the case, can you expand on that?
FW: Talk about the BBC, which stands for something I can't possibly mention here without causing offence... It expressed in such a way that it felt like doom and gloom and that RBS were going to pull out as you mentioned, but it's obvious RBS have had major problems and it was obvious that they were going to stop as soon as their contractual obligations allowed them to do so. It so happens in our case that that's two more years to go. But I felt it was presented in such a way that it was the end of the world for Williams, and for Formula One money generally, which is totally, totally untrue and incorrect.
Q. Is the current situation any worse for F1 than it has been in the past?
FW: It's hard work, but even in rich times - if there are such things as rich times - you have to work hard for all of the deal because there's never enough money.
Q. Looking at Williams's past sponsorship deals, you've managed to pull deals out of places people wouldn't have expected. Do you think there are new avenues to explore?
FW: Most of the names on all the cars, the important, big-paying names, are quite well known to all of you. But there's probably 100 to 150 companies (in F1), and how many big companies are there around the world? Thousands, millions.
Q. What kind of leap would it take to bring big brands like McDonald's and Coca Cola into F1?
FW: Bad taste... Shouldn't say that, should I?
Adam Parr: For a brand like Coca Cola or McDonald's it would probably take a FOTA proposal. They would want complete domination of the sport, they wouldn't just want one team.
Q. Do you think the age of financial sector companies is passing?
FW: I think it's just the ebb and flow of commerce. They'll be back eventually. We've still got a lot to offer if you're an international company.
Q. Is FOTA thinking of co-ordinated sponsorship efforts for all teams?
AP: I think you need to be at the press conference on 5th March.
Q. In the past sometimes the teams were almost in competition with Bernie for track signage, in these sort of times isn't a more structured approach the only way?
AP: Most trackside sponsors are with a team. Not all, but most of them. When we are pitching for sponsorship and people are looking at trackside sponsorship by itself, as an alternative we actually have quite a strong case. I've seen this with one of our recent partners, but when you've got trackside sponsorship and circuit signage, that's all you see. But no-one's actually looking at it. They're looking at the car. The most powerful thing is both, because one just gives you blanket exposure, and the other identifies you with a team.
Circuit signage doesn't bring you any so-called brand value. It doesn't tell you what kind of a company it is, it just tells you their name. Whereas being with a Formula One team, the most powerful thing we have to offer is that Formula One doesn't just give you exposure, it says something about your company and your brand. I actually think there's a natural synergy between us and Bernie. But apart from anything else, for legal reasons I don't think we could sit down between us and sew it all up. That would probably land us - well, Frank - in prison.
FW: I wouldn't rely on Adam to get me out.
AP: No, I wouldn't.
Q. To what extent does your business plan rely on the cost cutting over the next few years?
AP: It's not based on massive cost cutting. As the rules change, we will adapt what we do to take advantage of that. You've got to remember that what's been done so far, the biggest cut has been in engines, and we don't make engines. We've been very lucky that we've enjoyed the benefit of that without taking any pain. Other areas that have been looked at, like the gearbox, we already have a programme that's a lot smaller than other teams' - although I think we're quite proud of our technology in that area.
I think the answer is that we'll just methodically match our costs to the rules. The other side of that is that we have an opportunity. Other teams are coming towards us now. It would be crazy for us to slash our resources because we're already at a lower level and we do a pretty good job at that level of resources. So I think stability is important for us, and it will be incremental not massive.
Q. You said yesterday that you had gone into debt in recent years but planned to pay it off. Could you explain what you meant by that?
AP: What I meant by that was that because of the spending by our competitors... our accounts have been examined pretty publicly, but if you look at the last two or three years you'll see that we were spending beyond our means. It was the right thing to do, because if we hadn't done that, we just wouldn't have been able to stay in the game.
Now, when I look at the budget for this year and next year, that's not the situation. We are operating within our means and as I said yesterday, we will be paying off debt this year and paying off debt next year. I think that's a very much more satisfactory position to be in, but it's indicative of the fact that Formula One is changing, because if nothing had changed in the outside world and our competitors had had no pressure on them, then we would have had to carry on in an unsustainable way.
FW: Further back, if you'd taken the trouble to go back and look at years and years of figures, you'd have found that the last two years we lost quite a bit of money, but for the previous five, six, seven years we were in profit. The previous year we made 29 million net of tax, but it was an unusual year. The year before that was seven, so it was a calculated risk to take some debt on, and the bank were very, very happy to help us, and they're very comfortable as I speak.
Q. This season marks 30 years since Williams's first F1 win, and five years since the last win...
FW: That's what matters...
Q. When you do win again, what will your feeling be?
FW: Once we get one, we'll just keep it rolling. That's how it is here.
Q. Is there a mountain to climb to get to that next win?
FW: I would think for most teams on the grid every race is a mountain. I don't mean that as a cheap show of words. It is very, very competitive. Which is what you what, what we all want. Most teams take nothing for granted.
Q. Do you feel you're closer to the top this year?
FW: We've been at the top quite a few times, and every day of being at the top is just as worrying, if not more so, as being where we presently exist.
Q. What's your reaction to your old friend Peter Windsor setting up a team?
FW: Good luck, it's great news, fantastic.
Q. Do you think it's the right time?
FW: All times are full of opportunities. Theoretically it's a hard time, but maybe it's a window of opportunity that people just never considered, and maybe that's what he's done, or is doing, or is about to do.
Q. Do you think an 11th or 12th team should get the full share of revenues as soon as they start up?
FW: Answer him calmly, please Adam... Negative. Prize money is one thing, but certainly for the constructors' money or manufacturers' money, no. You've got to earn it.
Q. Do the teams have control over that, or is it something Bernie decides?
AP: No, it's a contractual issue.
Q. Do you think the money is out there for a new team to come into the sport?
FW: I think if you started now, you'd need a lot of money to capitalise the car, a lot of money to run it, you'd need a lot of sponsorship money on the basis of being uncompetitive for one or two years probably, and having half the money not available to you for two years probably.
Q. The whole USF1 idea sounds like pie in the sky to me...
FW: I've no comment at all. I wish Peter well.
Q. Would you ever take money from a tobacco sponsor again?
AP: Frank, I think, was the first person to give up smoking at the end of '99...
FW: On the car that is...
AP: But what is quite interesting about our commercial model, which was only really created in 2000, was that we have some very good blue chip companies, and quite a few of them. AT&T, RBS, Thompson, Reuters, Phillips, these are world class companies and they work together well, they fit together well. The money they spend activating the partnership benefits everybody, and it's coherent. If you suddenly break out and you do a sponsorship - however lucrative - that just completely doesn't fit with that, then you jeopardise the whole thing.
One thing I would say we have learned, and hopefully will prove true in the next few years, is that we've got a pretty good model going into a deep recession. It's not our habit to speak of anyone else and I'm not, but if you are dependent on one or two big sponsors and one of them leaves, then you've got a pretty big problem on your hands, and that's a situation that some teams are facing today. Our model is much more diversified. We've probably got twenty different sponsors plus Bernie's money, and this diversity helps at a time like this.
Q. RBS is getting a pretty bad press, is there any problem or negative aspect for Williams being associated with that?
FW: Most people we deal with run very large, respectable, businesses, on a vast scale compared to this business, for instance. They have a very broad view about business matters and they're all mature enough to think it is an RBS problem and certainly not specific to Williams as long as we do manage to replace them in due course, which is two more years still.
AP: The other thing is that most of our sponsors and most of their audience is not in the UK. In the UK RBS is receiving quite a lot of intense media interest and speculation, but I suspect that in any other country in the world, it would not have nearly the same resonance. In some countries it probably still carries a very strong image. None of our partners has raised a question about it.
Q. Could they have pulled out without any warning, or are they contractually obliged to fulfil this commitment to you?
FW: It's not actually a binding agreement, they could stop any time they want, as long as they keep paying...
AP: I think it's important to say that they have a contract and it is binding, but I don't think they have ever sought to dishonour the contract in spirit or in letter.
FW: That's very true. They never shook the cage. It's a good contract, good people.
Q. Are you concerned that in general terms sports sponsorship is getting a bit of a bashing in the media?
AP: It's quite odd isn't it, because for the average person, their sport is one of the most important things in their life. And if everyone shoved off - if all the sponsors of all the football teams and all the Abramovichs - just said 'that's it, I'm out', I would've thought people would lose a lot in the pleasure they get from things. I think it's quite an odd attitude to have.
Q. But is it becoming an issue?
AP: Getting people to come into Formula One as a sponsor is very challenging. It's always been very challenging because it's not the amount of money, but that the image of the sport and the nature of what we do is that it's always a board-level decision. You've got to have the chief executive, the CFO, the head of marketing and probably the majority of the board with you to do it.
It wouldn't matter if it was £5, it would be the same problem, because Formula One is such an intense kind of image. I don't think it's more difficult today than it was 12 months ago or 24 months ago, in my job of bringing in revenues for this team. We've got as many good conversations going on today as we had 12 months ago or two years ago, and those people are just as engaged and I think just as likely to come on board. But it's difficult.
Q. Has the Formula Two deal helped the budget for F1, or is it separate?
AP: I think it could help in the longer term. I don't think it's going to make a big impact this year. But Jonathan Palmer is a very astute businessman and I think it's got real potential. We're not commercially participating in this initial series, but we own the design for the car and we have the right to participate in joint ventures with him in future series. So we hope it will go well. He's launching it on Monday at Brands Hatch.
Q. Looking ahead at the direction Formula One is going, what would you estimate to be a viable staffing level in the next five to ten years?
FW: It depends how much you want to win. 500, 200, 700...
Q. Honda were at 700-plus and are potentially making lots of people redundant. What would you say is a bare minimum to run at a decent level?
AP: With the rules as they are today, I would say 500 people roughly. It's in that order. The thing is, as Frank said, if you want to win, then you will spend every available cent, and the most important thing is the people, so that's where it goes. If Honda have 200 people next year or whatever, and we have 500, it will just be because that's what they've got available and what we've got available. But you would never deliberately have fewer people than you need to be competitive.
Q. One of the points that's been raised during the talk about USF1 is that there's no race in North America at the moment. Have the teams made any inroads on this issue?
FW: It is an important thing to all the teams. It is a disappointment that there is no race in North America. We've pressured Bernie to please resolve that. But I think his problem as a promoter is that he sees no good enough, by his standard, race track and he's probably right. There certainly isn't one that is ready to race on. There are some good layouts in America and some really demanding circuits, but the safety features don't compare to our standards or what is required by the FIA or the GPDA.
Q. So would you say we're still some way off going back there?
FW: My private opinion is that we're a little way off, but Bernie is brilliant at surprises. Something in Europe may have to go, and we hope it's not Silverstone or its replacement.
AP: I think it's one of Bernie's higher priorities to get a race back in America.
Q. Do you think it's a possibility for 2010?
AP: I think he's trying.
FW: He's under pressure.
Q. Frank, you said you were cautiously optimistic about this year, what performance level would you be satisfied with?
FW: I think at the end of the year we look back and find ourselves in... we'd love to be a winner or in the top three all the time... but to be very close to the top three would be a big step for year one. By no means impossible, it depends how good we've been this winter. We might get lucky with the car.
Q. A big step towards the top three isn't going to be enough to convince Nico to stay on though is it?
FW: He's in the building somewhere, you should ask him. I've no idea.
Q. Have you had much contact with Nick Fry since the Honda announcement in December?
FW: Not yet. I've only seen Nick in meetings. I haven't heard anything for months except at meetings.
AP: I bumped into his lovely partner in Blenheim, when I was walking with my children, but you probably weren't interested in that. Is that the kind of thing you were after...?
Q. What's your gut feeling, will Honda survive?
FW: They're a bunch of racers who I admire very much, so yeah, they might make it. But I don't know the facts, I must say I'm just guessing.
Q. Are you expecting someone from Honda to be at the FOTA press conference?
AP: Yeah, I think Ross (Brawn) will be there. I agree with Frank, I think they'll make it. The fact that they're still talking is quite instrumental. If the Honda parent company wasn't faced with any serious opportunity then I think they'd have just called it a day wouldn't they? The fact that we're four weeks away from the beginning of the season and they're still making kit must mean that Honda takes the proposals that are available very seriously.
Q. You've had dealings with Honda in the past - they're not the sort of manufacturer who would hesitate to just chop it and say goodbye are they?
FW: I think that is their technique, yeah. Goodbye means goodbye, shut the door. At least you know where you stand.
AP: When you look at what's happening in the car industry worldwide, closing an F1 team - or just pulling out rather - is not really the most traumatising thing they have to do.
Q. Do you have concerns about a possible drivers' strike over the superlicences?
FW: No, I don't have concerns. Haven't thought about it really.
Q. Are you guys surprised by how strong the unity is in FOTA still?
FW: I'm not surprised, no.
AP: I think it's kind of grown in the last six to nine months and it seems to be functioning very well.
Q. Surely the test will be when the economy finally begins to recover and when vested interests take precedence again? We're led to believe that in meetings four or five years ago no two people could agree about anything. There's an amount of 'needs must' about it isn't there?
AP: Perhaps the gang of people is just more reasonable.
Q. Can you name names?
AP: It was all before my time really... FOTA meetings function very, very well. The technical ones, the sporting group, the commercial meetings - they work like the normal world. I would have to say, with no disrespect to Frank, that some of the team principals' meetings that I sat in on before, which Bernie chaired, were a little bit less... But it is different because FOTA is a group of people who have broadly similar interests.
Q. Does it function like a board of directors for Formula One?
AP: I think it's like a meeting of the shop stewards. No, I'm joking. It's not really a board of directors, it's more like a group of people who quite clearly have common interests, getting together to try and make sense of everything, and are beginning to make sense.
Q. As a team, do you have any sympathy for the drivers' plight over the superlicences?
FW: I don't worry about it myself. I don't need to. It's best between them and the FIA.
Q. Are your drivers signed up?
FW: We've always paid our drivers' licence fee. We've always done that even ten, twenty years ago.
AP: We don't take money off them, we just pay the fees, full stop. They're paid.
Q. Do you then have an issue if they join the protest?
AP: No, I think they're their own men aren't they. They do what they think is right, and we don't interfere with that.