Pre-season testing can often throw up the potential for a crisis. When a car is not performing or proves unreliable, questions start being asked. And quickly.
It’s partly due to the way so much is hidden from view and kept secret, with teams trying not to show their hands. With a lack of knowledge of the whole picture, a situation can look worse than it actually is. Or it can look better…
Over the past few seasons it’s been McLaren that has faced a tough situation in Barcelona, not only with Honda but then with Renault installation issues a year ago.
This time, Williams is well and truly in the spotlight, and already was before the car had even been seen.
At the team’s 2019 livery launch a little over a week ago, there was no mention of a date the car itself would be unveiled. Then came confirmation the FW42 would not run during a filming day planned for Saturday, before the far more concerning announcement on the eve of testing that day one would not feature Williams.
That was a bad enough situation to be in, but even the approach of underpromising and overdelivering failed as Monday’s missed running was soon pushed back to include Tuesday and most of Wednesday.
It smacks of a situation that is not being well managed, given the constant drip of delay after delay, bad news after bad news. Either there was a genuine lack of knowledge of when the car would be ready, or someone was not telling the full story internally. Regardless, those are worrying messages.
As a result, it didn’t take long for the knives to be sharpened within the team, and Paddy Lowe’s name was one that kept cropping up.
Williams knew a delay was likely a number of weeks ago, but warnings didn’t turn into action to fix the situation. Whether that really is Lowe’s doing or not, his record so far is not a good one.
Since joining from Mercedes, Lowe had no real impact on the 2017 car that finished fifth in the constructors’ championship, but last year certainly featured his input. It would be foolish to suggest Lowe could have everything he wanted in place after less than 12 months, but the FW41 was a real step backwards.
In an interview I did with him in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year, Lowe acknowledged his failings in thinking he could have a more immediate impact at Grove, expecting there to be quick fixes he could implement following his time with the dominant team of the V6 turbo era.
With those lessons learned, the FW42 was supposed to be the car on which Lowe really stamped his authority. But so far all that’s happened is the car missing more than 25% of testing and being significantly delayed on his watch. He is the chief technical officer, after all.
Williams was clearly relieved to see the car running on track on Wednesday afternoon, and despite the massive task ahead of the team to make up for lost time, the on-track focus is probably a welcome distraction for Lowe too, after some of the rhetoric that came from deputy team principal Claire Williams when only one installation lap had been completed.
“We’re not just disappointed; it’s embarrassing not bringing a race car to a circuit when everyone else has managed to do that, particularly a team like ours that has managed to bring a race car to testing for the past 40-odd years,” Williams said.
Inevitably, she was pushed on Lowe and the unrest coming from within the team. Tellingly, when asked if the chief technical officer’s position was in doubt, Williams did not put up much of a defense.
“I’ve read a lot of speculation about his position. Right now all I am focused on and the team should be focused on is making sure the car is in the right place.”
Hardly something that will help Lowe sleep at night.
It must be said that Lowe has yet to have a right to reply, but there was originally a media session scheduled for the CTO that was delayed by a week as the car hadn’t run properly. Clearly there were plenty of questions to be answered, so if that was a change made at Lowe’s request he passed up on the opportunity to provide the defense that his boss didn’t.
While the car’s delay is one thing, fears that it will also prove slow have been voiced as well. Given Lowe’s track record at McLaren and then Mercedes, it would be somewhat of a surprise if he has got things so wrong at Williams twice in a row, and at the very least a more stable and drivable car will be an improvement on last year. A stable base to develop is the least that is required.
The problem is, while many questions remain unanswered, Williams clearly does not have a stable base to work from in terms of the team itself.
If the car does turn out to be off the pace, the current competitiveness of the grid — where the other nine teams are probably all currently harboring ambitions of being in Q3 in Melbourne — means any Williams failings will come into ever-sharper focus. This is not an era where there is a Caterham, Marussia or Hispania — with the greatest respect to those teams — to soften the blow and keep the more established outfits off the back row.
Making sure the car is competitive is already a major headache — and not one any team wants to be dealing with in February — but addressing the reasons for a situation that threatens to further damage the team’s reputation is an even bigger issue.