INSIGHT: The long road ahead for Williams

INSIGHT: The long road ahead for Williams

Nothing has been talked about more in Formula 1 during the past 15 years, yet been so ethereal, as the ‘Williams revival’. While it remains one of the most successful teams in history, with a combined total of 16 drivers’ and constructors’ world championships and 114 victories, those triumphs have faded into increasingly distant memory. And yet, here we are in 2022 with many expecting the coming season to mark the next big step forward of the latest revival.

The ingredients are there for this to be more than the latest in a long line of false dawns. In August 2020, New York investment firm Dorilton Capital bought the struggling team, which had been put up for sale by the Williams family because it had run out of credit amid the squeeze of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This not only stabilized the struggling team financially, but led to new investment and a freshening-up of facilities. It also led to the leadership of Williams changing significantly, with team principal Frank Williams (largely an honorary title in his later years) and daughter Claire, who held the role of deputy team principal but was in day-to-day charge, departing. In their place came Jost Capito, architect of Volkswagen’s World Rally Championship supremacy from 2013-2016.

Capito then brought in Francois-Xavier Demaison (known as FX), another key element of VW’s WRC success, as technical director – a role that had been empty since Paddy Lowe’s departure on the eve of the 2019 season. This led to a shake-up of the technical team, with design director Doug McKiernan later departing and, most recently, Adam Carter leaving his position as engineering director.

It’s been a time of significant change at Williams, with results on track also improving. It climbed to the heady heights of eighth in the constructors’ championship in 2021, which is hardly remarkable given the team’s illustrious history, but followed three consecutive years of being rock bottom. Seventeen months into the new regime, progress is being made – off track too, with bold initiatives such as the undertaking to be climate positive by 2030. But the key has been to get the right management structure in place and more in line with the demands of a 21st century F1 team.

“As long as you are not winning, you are never happy,” says Capito. “In general, we can see progress in the team, working on the structure, the communication and the processes. That’s what made the team look better. With FX, we’ve got the right person to do that because he has deep experience of all these. He can establish the processes and co-operation between the various teams.

“The same with our sporting director, Sven Smeets, who came on board in November. The race team has never before been represented in management. So to get these structures right and implement the processes around that structure, that is where you make progress.”

This is all encouraging and, combined with the progress on-track last year, could be taken to mean big things should be expected in 2022. After all, major rule changes have historically created the conditions for the competitive order to be scrambled, and Williams itself leaped from near the back to near the front when the V6 turbo hybrid engine formula was introduced in 2014. That season, Williams had the second-fastest car on average behind only Mercedes, although wasn’t operationally sharp enough to make the most of it and pick up victories in the three races when Mercedes dropped the ball. But third in the constructors’ championship was a superb result, and seemed to represent a genuine revival. Instead, what followed was initially a gentle, then terrifyingly steep, decline.

This was partly down to the squad’s difficult financial situation, which was the consequence of being a privately-owned team in an era where the commercial agreements that bound the sport together overwhelmingly favored the large teams. But the team itself also fell short of the razor-sharp working practices and processes required in modern F1.

Now, the financial conditions are right. Not only does Williams have rock-solid ownership, but the introduction of the cost cap (the baseline figure for which drops by $5 million to $140m this year) and the more equitable Concorde Agreement of 2020 ensures all teams should be on firm foundations. So Williams is now financially on a more level playing field and should be able to produce a car worthy of its history, right?

But it’s not that simple. F1 teams today are so large and complex that taking a struggling team and getting it back to the front is akin to stopping, turning round, then building back up to speed a long-haul truck. On ice. This is going to take time, and 2022 has come far too early.

Designing, building and running a car to what Adrian Newey has described as the biggest rule changes in F1 in four decades is a huge test of every facet of a grand prix team. The scale of the challenge is enormous and represents a big task even for F1’s biggest teams, ones who have sharpened their processes to the nth degree over the past 15 years. During that time, Williams was often battling simply to stay financially viable, so regaining that lost ground will take time.

Given that such a big rule change has come far too early for Williams, it stands to reason that the cracks will show up in an organization that is still in the midst of change. This rules cycle, which is effectively going to last until the end of 2025, at which point F1 will switch to its next-generation engine formula, is one of rebuilding for Williams. This period might at last not be a false dawn, but it’s going to require patience to see it happening. It’s going to be a very lengthy sunrise. This is why Capito talks about five-10 year timescales rather than being foolish enough to expect an instant leap to the front.

But that doesn’t mean that Williams isn’t being ambitious. This year will only partly be measured by results on track, given how far the team still has to go to set itself up to be capable of taking on the bigger teams.

“To see progress in the team, to see progress in how we work and to see progress ,” is Capito’s summary of the team’s targets. “It’s very important that you have a high speed in developing the car, in getting parts onto the car, and that’s what we’re working on, to put the processes and communication in place that puts us in a position where we can be quick in developing and getting the car faster during the season.

“That’s why I think next year you can’t really (target) any result because you have no idea where you are. It’s just, how is the progress with the season compared to the other teams, independent of where you start. I think that is the measurement.”

This is going to be a big test of the team. The leading squads have spent years speeding up the process of getting new parts onto the car, which is not just a question of how fast you can design them and prove they will work, but also about production sharpness. At the start of the season in particular, especially for new rules, this is hugely important, as it can allow weeks, or more, of development to be on the car compared to lesser teams. It was only three years ago that Williams had a catastrophic winter and was late to testing and, even with changes since then, there will surely be a long way still to go.

Then there’s the question of the technical capacity. Williams has plenty of good-quality, highly skilled personnel, yet that hasn’t translated into producing a genuinely good chassis for a long time. Even in 2014-15, when Williams was third in the championship, the Mercedes engine played a disproportionate part in that success – and the team regressed after that.

It’s not simply a question of how many designers you have and how much windtunnel and CFD capacity you have – and it should be noted that F1’s recently-introduced sliding scale handicap means that Williams has, along with Haas, had more of that than any other team – but how you use it. F1 teams have what might be called institutional knowledge built up over many years that is in every part of the process.

The leading teams are not only at the front because they are the biggest, but because of what they have learned, and Williams will have a long way to catch up in terms of its mastery of the underlying science of making a competitive F1 car. You have to go all the way back to the days of Newey for the last time Williams was genuinely at the cutting edge on chassis design and aerodynamics, and he left a quarter of a century ago.

The current situation of Williams is reflected in its current driver line-up. It didn’t exactly have first pick of the available drivers and, with the well-funded and solid Nicholas Latifi staying on for another year, it has rolled the dice on Alex Albon. He’s only on a one-year deal with Williams, and retains his underlying Red Bull affiliation, but Albon was exactly the right move for Williams – a driver with lots to prove, but with underlying qualities that could make him a genuine force in F1. He’s almost a metaphor for the team in human form – high expectations and prodigious potential but with disappointing recent results. Expectations will also be sky-high given he faces the daunting challenge of replacing Mercedes-bound George Russell.

So this year is all about having realistic expectations for Williams. It can certainly aspire to be stronger than it was last year but, given all of the teams that finished ahead of it have reasons still to be there in the coming year, it’s no foregone conclusion. Instead, the real measure of Williams’s progress will be taking the wider view – think more 2032 than 2022.

That might sound overly conservative, but the size and complexity of grand prix teams today means that the long view is the only one worth taking. That doesn’t mean it will have to wait a decade to be back to winning ways but, whatever the final timescale, it’s going to be a long haul.

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