Sir Frank Williams has long enjoyed a strong relationship with the Middle East, that bond could be about to blossom further, says Gary Meenaghan.
Arab investment drove Williams team
When the 1980 Formula One season ended at Watkins Glen in upstate New York, Sir Frank Williams's eponymous team, the newly crowned constructors' champions, celebrated by unfurling two flags in their pit garage: those of Great Britain and Saudi Arabia.
It was a momentous occasion for motorsport in the Arab world, but also a sweet success for the team principal, who had earlier struggled to maintain the team's presence on track alongside high-profile manufacturers such as Ferrari.
Three years previous to his team's first championship, Williams had travelled to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to persuade the country's national airline, Saudia, to invest in his embryonic racing marque.
It was no surprise that the former travelling salesman, 35 at the time, negotiated determinedly and flew home happy.
By the turn of the decade, with a pair of cars covered in several Saudi sponsors, Williams watched his rebranded team win six of the calendar's 14 races, helped Alan Jones, his Australian driver, secure the world championship and witnessed his team finish with more points than ever before - almost double that of the team in second-place.
"I went to Saudi Arabia for the first time in late 1977 to try and secure sponsorship," the team owner, who turns 70 in April, said yesterday on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. "It took a while, but I got a deal with Saudia, which appeared on the cars in '78. That was very important for us."
Williams said he was "lucky" to reach an agreement - through a third party - with Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, whose father was then the crown prince.
Unlike modern times, when carriers such as Etihad and Qantas sponsor grand prix racing, airlines three decades ago were not keen to associate with a sport that made as much news for accidents as achievements.
Once Saudia were on board, Williams said, his relationship with the kingdom snowballed.
"It was very new, but it was also very exciting," he said of his early trips to the Middle East. "The Saudis had a lot of money arriving because they were increasing the oil prices and there was a lot of independent wealth. The downside was they didn't really understand what Formula One was, so it took quite a while to educate them.
"But the younger groups of princes picked up the baton pretty enthusiastically, while, at the same time, I was quite successful with Saudia, and when you had Saudia on the cars, it was a badge of authority and appropriateness."
In the early 1970s Williams had resorted to operating his team's business out of a telephone box after the office line was disconnected for outstanding bills. He knew only too well the importance of tapping into the Middle East market if his team was going to have any chance of competing for championships.
In a bid to secure further sponsorship from Albilad, one of the kingdom's wealthiest companies, he whitewashed one of his cars, had the Albilad emblem embossed on its side and parked it at the entrance to the Dorchester Hotel, where a Saudi investor was residing. Soon after, Williams had another sponsor to complement Saudia and a promise that more companies would be advised to get involved, also.
"It's never easy to obtain substantial sponsorship from any one company," Williams said. "But if you are well prepared with a good marketing team and a good story, they will generally look at it keenly, at least, if not buy it."
When asked about his guerrilla sales pitch, he continued: "It was just an obvious thing to do. Your customer wants to see the car he is going to buy, so to speak. We did the same at Riyadh to clinch a further deal and it worked again there. They want to see what they are buying because Formula One was totally alien to them in those years."
With several sponsors on the 24 racing cars coming from across the Middle East and the Formula One calendar now featuring two grands prix - Abu Dhabi and Bahrain - motorsport is no longer an unknown quantity in the region. Qatar hosts a round of MotoGP, and Saudi Arabia has built a state-of-the-art racing circuit in Riyadh.
Following their successful season in 1980, Williams went on to win eight further world championships in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet the last time they stood atop the podium was in October 2004, when Juan Pablo Montoya won the Brazilian Grand Prix.
Williams, in a bid to turn his team's fortunes - and having seen his racing marque benefit once from Gulf-based backing - is now focusing his attentions on Qatar.
In 2009, a few days before the UAE's inaugural race at Yas Marina Circuit, Williams announced an agreement to open a technology centre in the capital at the sprawling Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP). Last month, the team announced the advanced simulator technology being developed at the centre is being used to train government-owned taxi drivers.
"[The QSTP] is an enormous place with many world-class companies there - and now titchy little Williams is in there as well," he said. "We develop our simulators for racing drivers and taxi drivers and anybody; it's fundamentally the same technology.
"It is very useful from a practical point of view to help sell Formula One," he added. "Obviously, it's a good financial-aid scheme, but inside that science and technology park is some very good brainpower to help push the development along and, mathematically, it all adds up and makes sense."
Williams, who said he has not visited Prince Mohammed for 10 years, will continue his charm offensive of Qatari investors next week when he appears at the Aspire 4 Sport Congress alongside Damon Hill.
"I've not been to Saudi for two or three years," he said. "I'm a Doha man now."
In a recent press release, Williams called Doha "quite literally our second home". Yesterday, he elaborated. "Basically, since Doha is so important to the Williams programme, if they say 'Can I bring along my dog and bone', I'll go and find a dog and bone and take it along," he said.
Rumours are growing that an announcement regarding a sponsorship deal with QNB, formerly known as Qatar National Bank, is imminent. Such a deal, it is said, will result in Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 Finnish world champion, returning to Formula One after a two-year hiatus. Williams, though, insisted nothing will be announced while he is in Qatar next week. "At this time, it is all just rumours," he said of the investment. "It's just wishful thinking - myself included."
Toro Rosso, the Italy-based sister team of current constructors' champions Red Bull Racing, have long been linked with a takeover from Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments. Three of the team's sponsors are owned by the UAE company and a story was published in Italy in August claiming that the team was set to relocate to Yas Island.
With more races being held outside of Europe, such a scenario is feasible, albeit difficult, Williams said. "It could be made to work. The race mechanics in Italy are just as good as the race mechanics in Sweden or England or anywhere else and I'm sure the mechanics in the Middle East could be trained to that same level, if they wanted to be.
"But the engines and all the specialist skills - aluminium welding, wind-tunnel knowledge - are made in Europe. And most of the engineers in Formula One are British; they might not want to move their families - lock, stock and barrel - to the Middle East or anywhere else, so it's hard."
Yet even without a Formula One team basing itself in Abu Dhabi, Williams is confident the future of motorsport in the Arab world is bright. And from a man who has been travelling to the region for more than three decades, such a viewpoint is positive news for local motorsport.