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EXPLAINED: Why Williams had to bench Sargeant in Australia – and the big impact it has on the rest of their 2024

F1 Correspondent & Presenter

Lawrence Barretto
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MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 23: Logan Sargeant of United States and Williams looks on in the

James Vowles described having to tell Logan Sargeant that he had to give up his Williams race car and hand it over to team mate Alex Albon for the remainder of the Australian Grand Prix weekend as “the hardest decision I’ve had to make”. But why did he have to make the call in the first place? Let us explain…

Albon’s crash in FP1 started the domino effect

In the first practice session of the weekend, Albon lost control of his Williams at Turn 7, triggering an impact that caused significant damage. On getting the car back to the garage, the team realised they couldn’t get him back out for FP2.

READ MORE: Albon to take over Sargeant’s car for remainder of Australia GP weekend after FP1 shunt

Team Principal Vowles said the team had discovered the gearbox was cracked in two, the engine mounts were completely bent and the Mercedes power unit was “done, fundamentally”.

On top of that, the front-right corner of the chassis, where the suspension goes in, was “torn apart”. He added: “I can put my finger into the chassis, which you shouldn’t be able to do.” The level of repair required couldn’t happen at the track.

Why Williams didn’t have a spare chassis in Australia

When a driver damages a chassis beyond repair during an event, the team usually builds up the third ‘spare’ chassis with spare parts to get them back up and running for the remainder of the weekend.

However, Williams did not have a spare chassis in Melbourne. This is unusual but not unheard of at this stage of the year, with the push to get new cars ready for the season start often seeing teams having to make calls as to where they spend resources – spare chassis, spare parts, upgrades etc. Sources say at least one team other than Williams doesn’t have a spare chassis in Australia this year.

2024 Australian GP FP1: Albon crash brings out the red flags in first practice

Why didn’t Williams have a spare chassis? “When I started in February last year, the plan was to have three chassis at round one [for 2024],” said Vowles. “As we went through large changes in the organisation, adding performance and technology changes on the back end and process, we started to push out, fundamentally, certain elements of things.

“There’s a finite amount of resource and as we were going through an inefficient structure and making transformation at the same time, we started to cause problems. Those problems before could have translated to adding metal components or adding last year’s rear wings.

READ MORE: ‘Consummate professional’ Sargeant calls giving up car to Albon in Australia ‘the hardest moment in my career

“In this particular case, the third chassis started to get delayed and delayed and delayed, and I think one of the things I have been transparent about is we were very late with these cars. Very, very late. We pushed everything to the absolute limit.

“The fallout of that is we didn’t have a spare chassis. Now even then it was intended to be coming here at round three, but it got delayed and delayed again as other items got pushed back as a result.”

Williams boss James Vowles explains his decision to hand Sargeant’s car to Albon in Melbourne

Williams had to choose to stick or twist

Vowles was then faced with that very tricky decision – keep Albon, the driver who scored 27 of the team’s 28 points last year, on the sidelines or face telling Sargeant that he needed to step aside for the good of the team.

READ MORE: Williams boss Vowles labels Albon/Sargeant chassis swap situation in Melbourne ‘unacceptable in modern day F1’

It was a business decision. The emotion was taken out of it. Vowles knew what he had to do. The top five teams – Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Aston Martin – are so strong, they usually lock out the points-paying positions. That means every time a point is possible, it’s even more valuable than usual. We saw Haas take advantage of Lance Stroll’s accident in Jeddah to snatch a point that puts them P6 in the championship.

Vowles knew Melbourne could be critical for them, a huge opportunity to score. So he called the board, and spoke to them. Then he spoke to the sponsors. And naturally, the legal team were involved, too. “Before you make a decision like this you need to make sure that you're legally covered in every regard without question,” he said. ”There are always within contracts, as you would imagine, provisions for it.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 22: Logan Sargeant of United States driving the (2) Williams FW46

Sargeant was asked to hand over his car

Then he had the toughest conversation of all. “I asked him [Sargeant] to come see me yesterday and I took him through exactly that. I took him through where he’s been, where he was in FP2, where we need to be, the probability of scoring points this weekend and then asked him that, for the team – because this is ultimately one of the weirdest sports in the world but one of the reasons why I enjoy it, is it’s a team sport but with two drivers fighting against each other. For the team, this is what we need to be doing this weekend.”

READ MORE: Vowles insists he still ‘believes’ in Sargeant as he reveals American’s reaction after handing car to Albon

As you’d expect, Sargeant was took the news pretty hard on Friday – but he didn’t hide away, and spent all day at the track on Saturday. He’s expected to be in the garage again on Sunday for the race before turning his attention to Japan.

Albon, meanwhile, did an impressive job to secure P12 on the grid for Sunday’s race, putting him within striking distance of the points – a feat he accepts will be a struggle given he hasn’t done any long runs with the car at the track.

‘I did feel the pressure’ admits Albon after being handed Sargeant’s car in Melbourne

“It’s a different feeling, a weird feeling, if I’m honest,” he said. “It’s one thing making a mistake and the pressure of trying to deliver a performance in qualifying, but it’s another feeling when you’ve been given responsibility, and I take that responsibility, it’s not lost on me, so yeah it’s tough. “But at the same time the only thing you can do is focus on your job, put it all behind you and treat the weekend like a normal weekend. We’re obviously a session down [having missed FP2] but generally that’s all I can really do, and so far we’ve done a good job, and just got to keep it going, and the ultimate kind of payback to Logan would be some points.”

Williams face a battle to be ready for Japan

Albon’s stricken car was set to leave Australia on Saturday, with it arriving back at the team’s factory in Grove at 2am on Monday morning. Crews are already planned to be on shift to start working on getting it fixed. They have near enough a week to get the job done, in what is a hard deadline because of the need to send it to Japan to get there in time for the race. Vowles reckons that’s “a sufficient amount of time”.

READ MORE: ‘We’re here to start fighting for proper positions’ – Vowles reveals ‘sacrifice’ Williams have made to improve performance

He added: “Until they see it in person it will be very difficult [to assess] how significant the damage is. They’re doing things by photos that we’ve done here, but there’s four or five mitigation plans in place for it.”

But what does this mean for the rest of the season? Teams are operating on a budget cap – and working to deadlines to deliver an upgrade plan for the remainder of the year (Williams were due to bring a new front wing to Suzuka). Vowles concedes the accident will have a big impact, including a further delay on a spare chassis.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 22: Alex Albon of Thailand and Williams F1 crashes out during FP1

If Albon's chassis can be fixed at the team's Grove HQ, Williams will still be up against it to get the car to Japan

“You don’t plan to [not have a spare chassis],” said Vowles. “It’s simply unacceptable not to have two of your cars out on track, next to each other, fighting. The reason why it’s come about though is that we are on the back foot with everything. We are simply, as we try and move through process and system and transformation, something’s been pushed out the back, and in this case it’s the third chassis.

READ MORE: Ricciardo says Q1 elimination on home soil ‘hasn’t sunk in’ as RB team mate Tsunoda makes Q3 in Melbourne

“So that also means we have updates and other items planned but I’m having to divert the entire workforce in getting this chassis in a good state, without losing the momentum we have on the third chassis and on updates, something will give, there’s no doubt about it.”

The spare chassis is expected to be ready for the Chinese Grand Prix, the race that follows Japan – but it remains unclear how the upgrade plan will be affected.

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