ANALYSIS: Progress behind the scenes and an exciting driver pairing – why the future looks bright for Williams
Williams headed across the pond to New York City to reveal a striking blue livery they hope will adorn a car that can help them take another step towards returning to the front of the grid in the coming years.
Last year was Williams’ best campaign since 2017, the British team making the most of a car that they didn’t upgrade beyond the eighth race in Canada to finish a superb seventh in the constructors’ championship.
It was the first season with a new face at the helm, James Vowles stepping up into the role of Team Principal in January, having led on strategy at eight-time world champions Mercedes, and the first of a new chapter for a team that needs rebuilding from the bottom up.
What Vowles found when he first saw Williams was an operation that had very talented people who were working with infrastructure that was creaking after decades of under investment – and thus an overhaul was required.
He knew that this would take time. It’s why every time he speaks about the team’s ambitions, he talks of medium to long-term projects as he knows that it will take years to upgrade software and hardware, update facilities and embed new processes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see the change.
“The change that needs to take place isn’t going to be one of 12 months, or 24 months or even 36 months,” Vowles tells me when we chat exclusively. “Finding out where we are strong, where we are not strong, digging out the bits that aren’t strong – which for much of it, it’ll be infrastructure that is 20 years old – takes time.”
But he adds: “If I look back at where we were 12 months ago, it’s an enormous change in such a short space of time. Change exists in terms of people; we had Pat [Fry, Chief Technical Officer] join, but we have a number of great names coming from other teams. They see the vision of where we are and where we are going towards and are wanting to be part of it.”
As Vowles joined just a few weeks before last season got under way, he couldn’t have any influence on the 2023 challenger. This year, he says “there’s a little bit of my DNA in this car” but that “it’s not the work of one individual but the work of nearly 1,000 people working together”.
Those working on the commercial side have been delivering too, with Williams growing their portfolio, which now includes a multi-year deal with Japanese manufacturing company Komatsu. I’m told this is one of the biggest commercial deals the team has ever signed, which shows there’s real belief in the progress of the project.
Upgrading the car and the development process
So what have Williams got this year? Well we won’t see that until pre-season testing (unless they release some images from their shakedown that happens a few days before) as in New York, the team opted to keep the design under wraps and only reveal the livery.
Alex Albon, who will pilot a Williams for a third successive season, says it feels more like an all-rounder after he drove it in a simulator. That’s a step change from last year, when the 2023 machine was known as a ‘slippery’ machine, as it was very good on the straights and at home on fast, low downforce tracks.
“I don’t think we will be quite the straight-line car we were, but time will tell,” Albon tells me. “I think we’ve got a bit more of an all-round car, which is something that we have been working on from last year. We had peaks, like Canada, Silverstone, Monza – these high-speed tracks. Hopefully we’ll be a bit more competitive this year.”
Vowles agrees with that appraisal and says the team have moved to make the car less peaky and more predictable. “When Alex is talking about that, certainly in world of simulation, we have made good steps that bring performance to the table,” he says. “Things you’re working on throughout this period, one of them is clearly adding downforce – it’s your bread and butter.
“But a lot of low hanging fruit in our car from last year came in two different forms. One was a tricky balance. You saw that with Alex, and he’s an incredible driver! Logan was doing his upmost. He’s still a strong driver but you’re fighting the limit of the balance of the car. You can see how many times both were on the brink of it – and got it wrong. That’s down to us, not down to them.
“We had a car that was awfully peaky to drive, awfully difficult to drive. A slight change of wind direction completely changed the characteristics of the car. You follow a car and suddenly it’s a different beast to what you were driving just one lap prior to that. That’s on us to make a car that is more useable. That’s change number one.
“Change number two, we have a car that last year worked really well at a subset of circuits. It’s obvious which ones they were. Take downforce off car, go for a lower wing level and Williams start to shine as a result. Now our direction of travel is that we should have a car that works across all circuit ranges, because you don’t score points at one or two races; you have to score points at 24 of them in order to be competitive. Those two changes don’t sound like a lot, but it’s a large philosophy change of what we’re doing internally.”
Williams took a punt and decided to stop developing their car early last year. It meant their last upgrade came at race eight in Canada, with all resources then diverted to the 2024 challenger. This also allowed the drivers to get in the simulator and drive the following year’s car earlier than usual. Albon says he was driving it in the sim in May.
This additional resource and time has allowed Williams the space to change the way they go about creating a car and developing it – something Albon hopes will help them eradicate some of the weaknesses that have stunted the team’s recent progress.
“The way we have developed this car is quite different to the previous four or five years Williams have developed,” says Albon. “We’re hoping this will combat some of the routine weaknesses we’ve had in the car. So there’s a lot more optimism, as I think there is a genuine feeling we are combating an issue.
“We’ve thrown everything at it. It might take us a bit more time to understand the car and understand how to balance it. It’s a different philosophy generally. There will be a lot of learning to be done, especially during testing and first few races – but hopefully it won take us too long.”
Williams excited about driver partnership
In Alex Albon, Williams have one of the most talked about, highly-rated and in-demand drivers on the grid, so impressive was his performance in 2023 when he scored 27 of the team’s 28 points – making his contribution fundamental not only to the learning and understanding they gained from the car, but also the final finishing position in the constructors’ championship of P7.
“When I look at the Alex – the Alex I knew in 2015/2016, the Alex I knew at the start of last year and the Alex that finished the year, they are not the same three characters, they are a development of each other and that development hasn’t stopped yet,” says Vowles. “He was able to do incredibly mature and experienced and championship level drives.
“We put immense pressure on his shoulders; we stacked up nearly half the field behind him at some points and yet he absorbed all of it without a single mistake – and that’s a sign of the development he took. What’s more, he developed his own performance over the course of the year. That’s just the individual journey Alex took last year and he’s not done yet. He’s a confident, incredible athlete who will push himself beyond what we saw.”
In Logan Sargeant, Williams have a driver who fought for his future after struggling for much of the year, but was given a second chance for this season and has, according to Vowles, already shown signs of grabbing it with both hands.
“I asked him to speak in front of everyone the other day and that was not the same Logan who was here even at the end of the year,” says Vowles. “It was a strong, confident young man who was presenting: here’s who I am, here’s what I’ve done, here’s what I’ve changed, and here’s why I know I will perform. I love that. That’s what I needed out of him, I needed that step change.
“Yes, he had uncertainty, in many ways created purposely because I want him to fight with every ounce of his being for being here. He needs to want this and need this and change everything – and he is. His winter training has been exemplary, he’s hungry for success and he knows that unlike last year, he’s not coming as a rookie, he’s coming as one of 20 drivers who deserve their place.
“He needs to perform immediately, from the outset. He hasn’t driven a car across this winter period – nor has anyone aside from the odd bit of Pirelli testing – and that’s a large deficit he has to overcome. Drivers don’t talk about this enough. They don’t just get in the car and perform miracles. It takes time to get back to the same skill level they were before. He knows that has to be done almost immediately with just a few kilometres of testing.”
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Progress behind the scenes more important than on-track results
Since Vowles took over, he has repeatedly said that Williams’ focus in the short-term isn’t results at each weekend but rather consistent progress with the foundations and development of the operation as a whole – and that mantra continues into this season.
“I’m not overly interested in where we finish in any one particular race, or where the car is,” he says. “What I’m interested in is the technologies we are developing, that we are bringing to the table, not just in the engineering side, but within commercial and within the entire organisation. Everything should be a step up on what you did before.
“Every time you look back on just one month, it should feel like a leap – because that is how we move forward as an organisation.
“The world will look at the car and it is commercially a very different proposition to what it was 12 months ago. The world will look at the car and say ‘interesting, that’s a development of where you were and a clear direction of travel’. That’s the judication by which we work on things. But what is important is not the now, but it’s the direction of things.”
But what does that mean in terms of performance this year? Albon says they are hoping to be “a genuine midfield contender” and that is he “hoping for less of these survival races, where we are just holding onto positions”. The gap to next-best Alpine at the end of last year was 92 points. The target then, is to slash that gap and start nipping at the heels of those in front.
Given the way Williams have made gains over the last 12 months, should they continue in this way, they have every chance of doing just that – and taking one step closer to fighting for silverware once more.