It’s fair to say the past two years have been humbling for Paddy Lowe. Off the back of huge success at Mercedes, a move to Williams – just after it had slipped to fifth after consecutive third places in the constructors’ championship – was meant to be his chance to move the famous name closer to the front of the grid.
Instead, Williams could not be further from the front. Tenth in the standings with just seven points to its name in 2018, things clearly haven’t gone to plan.
Lowe knew he was entering a very different environment from Mercedes when he headed to Grove, but the chief technical officer didn’t fully appreciate the scale of the challenge that was facing him at the team with which he started his Formula 1 career.
“Particularly where we are, it’s been an incredibly tough season for the team – both traveling and non-traveling – and for the drivers and the competition in general,” Lowe admits.
“It’s a difficult sport in which to recover quickly, and I think one of the processes of discovering around where we are is that the more we’ve dug into issues, the more trends we’ve discovered that lead to other issues, and the more deep-rooted some of these problems have exposed themselves to be.
“That reaches a point where overall we’ve concluded it was a really great year for Williams because whilst we’ve been competing in the middle ground for a decade or more without actually showing any signs of real race-winning capability – at least in a sustained manner; we had the one race win in 2012, and 2014 was a strong season – but the actual foundations of the team have not been positioned and grown to create a winning capability.
“So what this season has underlined to every woman and man in the business is that there’s a lot of work to do, and that change is needed at all levels to both catch up and then overtake what others are doing to compete. That’s the process we’re now starting.”
The obvious differences in 2019 will be an all-new driver line-up of Robert Kubica and George Russell, as well as the absence of Rob Smedley. But a driver change will yield little with a poor car, and Lowe says fresh faces shouldn’t be seen as immediate fixes.
“There were never any quick wins,” he says. “All of us, at some point or other, imagined there might be a quick win here or there. The more you dug into it, the more it was clear there weren’t any. It’s a wide-ranging program that’s needed.”
Lowe started work back at Williams early in the 2017 season, and so had little influence on the car that had been delivered under new aerodynamic regulations. Even with such a change and with converging power unit performance, the FW40 was again good enough for fifth place overall and a podium in Azerbaijan, but the gap to Force India had grown significantly.
So 2018 was to be the year Lowe’s impact could be more keenly felt. The FW41 would be a departure from the previous design, and the targeted gains were ambitious. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but at the time, Lowe said he wanted a clear jump in performance from one year to the next.
“We are trying to achieve an element of step change and not just a progression,” he said when launching the FW41. “We were two seconds or so per lap slower than the frontrunners last year, and that’s something we would like to close up considerably, so we are looking for a step change, and I hope we’ve delivered a strong element of that in this car.
“One of the things we can gauge ourselves on is on absolute performance. I think we’d really like to see a lap-time gain relative to the guys that were taking pole positions last year. So that’s how we will measure ourselves.”
The second part of those comments will ring true whatever the season, but the first very much constituted a missed target. Lowe says now that the disappointing on-track offering is simply a reflection of the team’s wider failings away from races.
“There’s always a temptation to just look at the product – which is the car – but the car is only the outcome, or the output, of an organization,” he says. “An organization consists of a capability involving technology, staff etc. Those are the things which generate a car, and that’s where you’ve got to start.”
With the task of trying to understand the team’s failings off-track and starting the process of addressing them having become one of Lowe’s priorities this year, the relentlessness of the season brings relief that the racing part is over.
“To be honest it doesn’t matter where you come in Formula 1 these days, it’s such a long season – 21 races – it’s an endurance test,” he says. “And I think this [year] has been the worst of all, with the triple header in the summer followed by a double header. So, one weekend free out of six weekends. The way that felt to me was that it was so intense that my brain stopped recording memories of it!
“So I’ve no idea what happened for two months, because it was just a blur, there’s just too much in too little time. And I know a lot of other people feel like that, so I do understand that they won’t repeat that. Probably even the fans were completely over-fatigued by that in the height of summer.”
Williams fans certainly will have been after the intense run of races Lowe referenced yielded a best result of 12th place for Lance Stroll at Silverstone, and even that result came on a weekend when aerodynamic weakness caused the rear wings to stall after DRS use and both drivers suffered high-speed spins in qualifying; a problem that ultimately necessitated a change of wing and pit lane starts. All a far cry from Lowe’s hop[es back when the car was launched…
The pre-season optimism isn’t just an opportunity to highlight how far off its own targets Williams was this year, but they’re quotes I put to Lowe himself. And as focus turns to 2019, he admits that when talking about the team learning from its mistakes, he counts himself firmly among it.
“I’ve learned my own lessons along the way in 18 months,” he insists. “I’ve been fortunate throughout my career to work for a team that was at, or near, the front of the grid. You race from there with a certain perspective and from a certain context.
“One of the mistakes I made was coming in with that mindset and thinking there were a few particular things we could do that would put us in a much better place. But it’s a much, much bigger project.
“So I think whilst we’re making some really positive changes – and everybody is very enthusiastic about those by the way, it’s not about imposition, it’s about actually working with everybody through a process of transformation and everybody’s got to come along with it, and they are – we’re not going to raise any expectations as to what the deliver from that should be in the short term.
“We intend to be better next year, but I’m not going to put any numbers on that.”