Oh Williams, what went wrong? Williams, the team that pioneered active suspension. Williams, the 3rd most successful team to ever compete in F1. Williams, the team that has conquered in every of F1 since the 80s. Williams, the team that has fielded seats for the likes Nigel Mansell, Nelson Piquet, Ayrton Senna, Damon Hill, and Juan Pablo Montoya…THAT Williams is dead last on the grid.
If there was ever a reason for the F1 ring leaders to realize their sport is in a crisis mode, it should be that a team that has won 7 Driver’s titles, 9 Constructor’s titles, 114 races, and 128 poles, is at the bottom of the grid. Their collapse has been stunning, especially since in 2014 and 15, Williams landed 3rd in the Constructor’s Championship. Williams had been declining for a number of years before of course (scoring a measly 9 points in 2013 to finish 9th in 2013), but the 2014 rules change, coupled with a shiny new title sponsor in Martini Racing and the signing of Felipe Massa, seemed to breathe new life into the team. Williams lost three things in quick succession that have really put them in the hole: the first was technical director Paddy Lowe to Mercedes. Williams was then able to get him back in exchange for releasing Valtteri Bottas from his contract early so Mercedes could get a last-minute replacement for the retiring Nico Rosberg. Felipe Massa finally had enough of William’s driver seat games and retired for good last year. This leaves a double pay driver lineup to handle on-track duties. And while Paddy Lowe is back doing his thing, designing a unique and interesting FW41, the car is not working and Williams is unsure as to why. Williams did make a small improvement in China, but they are a long way from scoring points on a regular basis and being the only team to have a big fat goose egg in the Constructor's points is not a good look. Force India will almost certainly improve and start scoring regularly, and Sauber is starting to look decent, especially as Charles Lecerec comes into his own. Williams needs to move up the roster quick if they want to escape last place hell.
Then there’s the financial aspect. Williams is stretching itself mighty thin to end up at the bottom of the heap. A few years ago, Williams was branching out into the consumer technical world, just like McLaren did with its own Technology and road car groups. Unfortunately, Williams’ expansion isn’t working as well as McLaren’s. Williams was forced to close its Technology HQ in Qatar, as well as sell its Hybrid Power division in 2014. The Martini Racing sponsorship helps immensely, but that ends after 2018. Martini has decided to look outside Formula 1 for its branding interests. This puts Williams in a very undesirable position: no major sponsor, no strong business interests to support the racing team, and the worst possible championship payout. It has the potential to be a death spiral unless Williams can figure out its car and attract a sponsor.
So what will it take to get out of the hole? That’s hard to say, but having at least one experienced driver would help. Take nothing away from the efforts of Lance Stroll and Sirgey Sirotkin, but Williams needs a real ringer. One of Massa’s greatest strengths was his technical feedback: he was a master at translating the car’s actions to the engineers so they could improve the car. I don’t think either Stroll or Sirotkin really possess this ability. Neither have the experience (in F1 or racing in general) to really pull off the kind of development work Williams needs. Robert Kubica is Williams’ test driver and at one point had the feel and feedback to develop a car. But his current abilities are still a bit of an unknown. Sure, his tests with Renault were very positive, but he also spent the years between F1 stints crashing a lot of rally cars. Is his feedback still what it once was? Even if it is, as a test driver, his in-car time is very limited and Williams must balance Kubica’s time with their two young race driver’s track time. In fact, Kubica hasn’t driven the car since pre-season testing, leaving Williams to solely rely on Sirotkin and Stroll for feedback. It is clear why Williams has taken on the two young drivers: both bring substantial sponsorship to the team. Williams is unfortunately going to have to bite the bullet and make a major investment in a driver who can pull the team up the standings. Who that driver is, is the multi-million dollar question. Williams has the resources to build a top-tier Formula 1 car. But, at least one major ingredient is missing from the team, and until they find it, they are going to continue to struggle. Whether or not they find it before the damage becomes permanent and the team collapses is going to be key. Formula 1 absolutely cannot afford to have one of its most recognizable teams fall into bankruptcy. Everyone wonders aloud what would happen to F1 if Ferrari quit, but I think it would be much more devastating if Williams collapsed. A team quitting because of sour grapes with the FIA or the sport isn’t great news, but having one of your most storied teams go bankrupt sends a sign that your sport is in trouble.
The next race is in Azerbaijan at the Baku street circuit. We’ve only seen two races in Baku and they were polar opposites. In 2016, the race was so dull I couldn’t tell you a single thing about it. The race in 2017 was one of the wildest F1 races we’ve seen in years. I want to think after China and Bahrain (which were both rather good F1 races), we will get another thriller in Baku, but it could just as easily be another snoozer. It’s going to be interesting to see who is quickest. Baku’s long straight prioritizes power, but the multitude of tight, high downforce corners favors good grip. It’s a crapshoot as to who will be quickest. We’ll find out in 2 weeks when the fourth round of the 2018 Formula 1 World Championship is run in Azerbaijan. See you then!