How did a great team like Williams produce a fundamentally flawed F1 car?
The famous Williams team is in trouble.
Alarm bells started ringing shortly after the launch of its new car, when a cancelled track filming day turned into a delayed start to winter testing. Key targets around the build of its new car had not been met. The team missed over two and a half days (in other words, 25 percent) of its potential running and it found itself wildly off the pace of the next nearest car at the Australian Grand Prix. Williams was also at the rear of the field last year but the situation was nowhere near this extreme — so how did this situation unravel so dramatically?
Over the winter, speculation immediately circulated about the future of technical chief Paddy Lowe, who the team had lured across from Mercedes at the end of 2016 — something seen as quite a coup at the time. Although Claire Williams refused to point the finger of blame during preseason, she made what appeared to be a Freudian slip during a TV interview during the opening week of testing. After talking of her embarrassment at seeing the team arriving so late, she had to correct herself mid-interview: “Clearly we know the main culprits… not the main culprits, but the main elements to why we are delayed.”
Many in the paddock assumed Lowe was in deep trouble but it was unclear whether he would be in the firing line ahead of the Melbourne opener.
Lowe’s 2018 car had lacked performance from the beginning of the campaign, finishing bottom of the order, but the team abandoned work on it early to avoid making similar errors this year, which came with some opportunities created by the reworked regulations around the front and rear wings of the car. To have followed up with a car that is even worse than the 2018 model is quite astonishing for a man who came to the team with significant pedigree from long spells at McLaren and Mercedes.
Speaking in the second week of testing, a somewhat defensive Lowe urged Williams to follow the example set by his former team when asked if he felt confident of staying on.
“What I have observed is over many years in Formula One there is a habit of changing the people when things don’t work but what I’ve also observed is that the stronger teams are the ones who do exactly the opposite,” he said. “Every difficulty and every problem in a team is an opportunity to learn, not only to not repeat it but to be even stronger next time.
“What you shouldn’t do is go and get rid of people because you will throw away that experience and knowledge. It is very important that the team build together, develop together and grow together to become stronger and more effective.”
Seven days after that press session Lowe was put on a period of leave from Williams. The team is yet to confirm who will fill the role, which is the most important to an F1 team behind the person in charge of the day-to-day operation. The team is also yet to replace their departed head of vehicle performance, Rob Smedley, who left at the end of 2018, or chief designer, Ed Wood, who left in May 2018.
Even more concerning in the context of the upcoming season was the state of the car in winter testing. The team finished at the bottom of the completed mileage charts and was so short on spares its drivers were ordered to stay off the Circuit de Catalunya kerbs for fear of the car falling apart — Robert Kubica admitted this was still the case during Friday practice in Melbourne. Kubica’s body language told the whole story. Here was a man making his comeback to racing, nine years on from the rallying accident which nearly claimed his life, and yet he looked deflated and defeated talking about the car that will be his for 21 weekends of racing in 2019.
It’s perhaps unsurprising he felt so down about it. During the Australian Grand Prix weekend the Polish driver and rookie teammate George Russell spoke about a fundamental flaw in the car’s design which could leave it adrift of the midfield pack for months yet.
“We understand what that is, but it doesn’t mean we can wake up on Monday morning and rectify it,” Russell said in Melbourne. “To change something so fundamental will take months of development, work in the simulator and designers working out how to do it, and that is what needs to be done at the moment.
“Unfortunately we are looking at a number of races before we are going to be able to fight, and that is just where we are at the moment.”
Kubica’s lack of knowledge about his car was summed up on Saturday, when he slammed into a wall at the end of the opening qualifying session and sustained a puncture.
He later admitted: “The problem is I was starting from such a bad feeling before that lap that in many places I under-drove the car. That is normal when you start from not knowing things.”
In other words, Kubica lacked any confidence in how his car was supposed to behave when in qualifying-trim — with low fuel and when set up for maximum pace. That situation will surely get better as the season unfolds and the team gets more time on track with the car, but it shows just how far behind Williams is at this stage of the season. But the cracks have been in place for a while.
While it is easy to lay all of the blame at the feet of Lowe and his design team, Williams is also suffering from missing the ball on F1’s most recent trend. The sport’s newest arrival, Haas, has enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with Ferrari and has used that close tie-up to rocket up the pecking order in the same time Williams has plummeted to the bottom of it. Haas’ deal allows it to take as many car parts from Ferrari as allowed under the regulations. Toro Rosso has entered a similar agreement with Red Bull this year with obvious benefits: an influx of parts from a more competitive parent outfit allow a team to focus more on specific parts of the car it can build.
Team boss Claire Williams has made it clear on numerous occasions she views her team as a fully-fledged constructor, not a B-team. Whether that is a realistic vision in the confines of modern F1 or an overly sentimental approach to running the team her father created is open to interpretation.
Last year Williams said: “We are a constructor. [Team founders] Frank [Williams] and Patrick [Head] fought for our independence for decades, and they did an incredibly good job. One of my responsibilities is to protect our independence. And that’s incredibly important to us.”
However, reports last year suggested Lawrence Stroll was pushing for a similar partnership with Mercedes while he was a key shareholder at Williams. Stroll has since taken over the Force India team and, under the rebranded guise of Racing Point, this has now expanded its partnership with the world champions in what is effectively a watered-down version of the Ferrari-Haas deal. For the time being Williams remains a fully-fledged constructor.
Staying free of that type of deal might have long-term advantages, as it gives the team some flexibility around any future regulation changes that might close up that loophole, but for the here and now it has left Williams significantly hamstrung. The obvious drawback is that it has magnified this current crisis and meant the onus is on Williams to recover — there is very little it can do to lean on Mercedes and a slew of parts from the grid’s class-leading car.
This is not to doubt Williams’ ability to recover: Grove has many talented people working on this project. But it’s hard right now to see any light at the end of the tunnel or to imagine Williams anywhere but the very back of the order for the foreseeable future.