LONG READ: Can Williams escape the back of the grid in 2020?
Painful. That’s one way to describe Williams’ 2019 campaign, the second most successful constructor in the history of Formula 1 suffering the ignominy of trudging around at the back of the field with a car that was simply not quick enough to join the party. Does 2020 offer any hope?
You could argue their plight couldn’t get any worse. Last year yielded just one point. They parted ways with Technical Director Paddy Lowe, who’d arrived full of promise from world champions Mercedes. They missed the first two days of pre-season testing – and never recovered.
But there were shoots of hope. A restructure and cultural change was under way, the technical team reshuffled, relying on the strength and depth within. That helped get the development plan back on track, and the updates brought to the car from mid-season – and consistently after that – did what they were supposed to.
Make no mistake, Williams are still at the bottom of the pile – and a turnaround will not be quick. But it was these small steps that give Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams strength to believe the good days will return.
It was a really difficult year, but probably not as difficult as 2018
“It’s difficult for the naked eye to see, but we know what we are putting in and we are seeing the rewards of it,” she says, as we chat over breakfast. “It was a really difficult year, but probably not as difficult as 2018. I say that because we’ve done so much work to transform the business – and the hard work isn’t paying off yet.”
With the team locked to the back of the grid, you could understand why some staff may have wanted to hand their notice in and look for pastures new. But that hasn’t really happened at Williams. Sure, there have been a few moves – like every company – but the vast majority of the outfit, both race team and factory staff, have stuck around.
“They understand the journey we are on, and they are rolling up their sleeves and doing their part to get us back to what we want to get to,” says Williams. “They are fighting like they are going for P1. It’s great to see.”
Earlier this week, Williams announced two new signings to strengthen the design office with David Worner joining from Red Bull and Jonathan Carter from Renault. But they remain without a Chief Technical Officer. While Williams is full of praise for the work her senior technical team – Doug McKiernan, Adam Carter and Dave Robson – are doing, she concedes CTO is still a role they would ideally like to fill.
“I do think the CTO role probably needs to be filled at some point, but it has to be the right person,” she says. “We’re not going to rush into it. We have some clear criteria for that person. They have got to add a huge amount over and above the senior technical management team. We haven’t found them yet.”
Arriving carless at pre-season testing last year really hurt Williams. The pain still lingers. It’s why they are so keen to avoid that happening again, putting in contingencies to deal with problems that inevitably crop up when a new car comes together. The early signs are good, the car passing all the crash tests at the first time of asking. The focus now is to keep to their production deadlines – but so far, so good.
Williams are a fiercely independent team, proud of their status as a constructor, but their desire to make as much of the car themselves as they can – rather than take non-listed parts like Haas do from Ferrari – has been to their detriment in recent years as rivals’ resources swelled. So ahead of this season, they have made some concessions on this stance.
“We have to be realistic, based on the technical regulations – and the complexity of those – and the budget we have got as well,” says Williams. “We have been looking at what we should be outsourcing rather than making everything ourselves as there are some things which are nonsensical to make yourself when there are people out there who are dedicated to doing that one part.
“We have gone through that process and we will be outsourcing a handful, a small proportion of parts, but keep the bulk within the manufacturing team we have in house. One thing we don’t want to do is lose the capability, particularly around certain parts like gearboxes. That needs to remain in house. We won’t be suddenly switching to a Haas model, but there are certain things that it makes sense financially and from a time efficiency perspective to outsource.”
I believe we can get back to where we want to get back to
Two successive 10th place finishes in the constructors’ championship means a reduced share of the revenue received from the commercial rights holder. They have lost sponsors over the winter, including Rexona. But they have softened the blow with a bigger financial injection from title sponsor Rokit, including a wider partnership with their drinks brand Bogarts, extended sponsors like Sofina and signed new brands such as Royal Bank of Canada and Lavazza, the latter trio of companies all having links to their new driver Nicholas Latifi. “I believe we will have a similar budget to what we had last year,” says Williams.
There’s some stability in the driver line-up, with George Russell staying for his second season. Latifi has been promoted from reserve to a race seat replacing Robert Kubica. Williams rate Russell very highly, the Briton a shining light in a difficult 2019 campaign, and while his debut was tough, it’s clear his motivation remains high and he’s getting better all the time – traits Williams desperately need as they look to rebuild.
“George is one of those drivers who gets into his car and just gives it everything he has got,” says Williams. “We saw that weekend in and weekend out, in qualifying and the race. I’m sure it’s been incredibly frustrating for him but I do believe that when a driver is put in a position – particularly someone like George who probably has a long career in F1 – it will only be character building for them. I think he learned a lot last year. Sometimes it’s better not to have such an easy ride in your first year.”
In Latifi, they have the Formula 2 runner-up who has impressed the team with his work ethic when taking the wheel in six Friday practice sessions last year. “Nicholas is cut from the same cloth as George in some ways," says Williams. "He has a great family around him, has been through challenging times, has racing experience and the maturity to deal with what comes his way.”
Another trying year is likely, given the stability in the regulations and the team’s modest budget will hamper them making big gains. But they’ve been here before, suffering a similarly fallow period between 2011-2013 (excluding the 2012 Spanish GP win) as they finished ninth, eighth and ninth in the constructors' championship respectively, before rebounding to two successive third-place finishes, followed by two fifth places.
Admittedly, they are in worse shape now than back in 2011. But this is a team with an illustrious history that has Sir Frank Williams’ tenacious, never-say-die approach burning through its core. “I believe we can get back to where we want to get back to as long as we put the effort in, and we’ve got resilience to do so,” says Williams.
It may take some time, and it might not work out – but it won’t be for want of trying….