It wasn’t supposed to go like this.
At the end of 2017, there was optimism around Williams. Lance Stroll brought significant funding, but had also provided some standout results in his rookie season that suggested he could be a solid long-term prospect. Felipe Massa was on the way out, but Robert Kubica was hotly-tipped to replace him and there was a feel-good factor around the team.
With Paddy Lowe set to make his influence truly felt with the 2018 car – having joined just before the first race of last season – reasons to expect a recovery from the comprehensive beating the team took from Force India in last year’s battle for fourth in the constructors’ championship were starting to stack up.
And then, from the outside, it all started to unravel.
Sergey Sirotkin entered the frame as a candidate for the second race seat. Yes, there was further backing involved, but his performance relative to Kubica’s in the Abu Dhabi test was enough to secure the Russian the drive alongside Stroll.
Immediately, Williams was on the back foot. Fans had been clamoring for Kubica to get the seat and complete the most remarkable of comebacks. An official role as test and reserve driver was still a massive achievement for the Pole, but that wasn’t a story being told.
The focus was now on the inexperience of the driver line-up and how Williams would consequently struggle to match its midfield competitors. So the last thing the team could afford to do was launch a poor car.
Lowe was confident, saying he was looking for a step change with the 2018 car compared to its predecessor. But pre-season testing quickly highlighted a troublesome car that was lacking in a number of areas. At the same time as Renault and McLaren making progress, the likes of Haas and Toro Rosso had made bigger steps forward than expected, and Williams slumped straight to the back of the midfield.
So it didn’t take long for the criticism to really ramp up. With two drivers bringing significant money but little in the way of experience, the team was accused of taking the wrong approach.
Well, it did, but at this stage it’s not really about the drivers.
Sirotkin and Stroll didn’t design this car, and the choice of which driver to pick back in January did not have a major influence on the chassis that was run just over a month later in Barcelona. A new aerodynamic concept was already in the final stages before its first track appearance, and it ultimately wasn’t going to deliver the desired performance. But the team has been heading in the wrong direction for some time.
In 2014, the team adopted a smart aerodynamic philosophy to maximize the advantage of the Mercedes power unit and duly secured back-to-back third places in the constructors’ championship. Its only real comparison was Force India, and the gap between the two closed in 2015 before the latter beat Williams to fourth in 2016. With power unit convergence and the aerodynamic changes coming into effect last year, another distant fifth followed. To be brutally frank, it was punching above its weight.
Williams is an iconic name and a hugely popular team, but it is clearly small in modern day Formula 1. And in many senses, it has failed to accept that. I’ve criticized McLaren over the past few months for setting such high targets with a level of confidence that bordered on arrogance and has so far come back to haunt it. While not to the same extent, Williams talks about its past, its history and its heritage and how it wants to close the gap to the front, without openly saying that right now it is, at best, the seventh-biggest team.
Nobody will argue that Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault and McLaren are bigger operations. But Toro Rosso’s status as the Honda works team has also vastly improved its capabilities and resources – which, don’t forget, are still tied to Red Bull.
Courtesy of its Ferrari partnership, Haas is an anomaly. So for Williams, on a resource level the only fights it can realistically look forward to are with Force India and Sauber. And that’s exactly where it is. Sauber is clearly the team’s most direct competitor right now, and Force India hasn’t hit the ground running despite its hugely impressive performance last year.
The main weakness of the drivers is clearly going to be their difficulty in developing the car, with Stroll only having one year of F1 experience under his belt and Sirotkin just three races to date, but first the Williams technical team needs to demonstrate its own ability to turn the situation around.
Lowe is clearly vastly experienced, but he does not have a magic wand with which to produce the perfect car. If he did, would he really have been allowed to leave by Mercedes in favor of James Allison?
It is understood that in China there were clear steps taken to implement changes back at the Williams factory and try to build some forward momentum. If you’re being clinical, the seven teams with better resources are doing a good enough job of utilizing those, and while the same can’t be said at Grove, it is still just two points behind Sauber and one behind Force India.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. The last ten seasons have seen Williams finish: eighth, seventh, sixth, ninth, eighth, ninth, third, third, fifth and fifth. That leaves its mean average position as sixth (with some generous rounding down to the nearest spot).
Past glories can be used to romanticize the team for recruitment and marketing purposes, but Williams has to face up to the harsh reality of its position. Here in Baku last year, Stroll delivered the only non-Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull podium of the season, but a solitary point would constitute a success this year.
What Williams needs right now is patience. Patience in its inexperienced driver line-up, patience in its attempts to improve the car, and patience from those overseeing the accounts when the constructors’ earnings dip further this year.
Stroll appears suffocated under the weight of expectation that comes from being the slightly more senior driver, not to mention his father’s presence. At Daytona earlier this year he was happy, relaxed and enjoying racing with friends. And he performed well. As an F1 driver he is representing a team where its history seems to be casting a shadow over what counts as a realistic achievement.
As a rookie, Sirotkin still has much to learn, and he too could benefit from being told that sometimes a 15th place is a solid result if that is all the car is good for.
Williams should take the pressure off. Let the inexperienced drivers make mistakes that they can learn from. Even let the designers and engineers do the same. There’s no magic bullet to be found courtesy of new regulations for a number of years, so now is the time to free the shackles and accept that this is a season where P8 looks as good as it can get.
Given the tools at its disposal – in terms of the current car, finances, facilities, technical partnerships and driver experience – compared to the rest of the grid, that would be a good return.
It might not be the result Williams wants as a former championship-winning outfit, but in its current guise, it has to face the painful reality that it’s simply at that level right now.