From the third row of the grid in 2015 to the back row of the grid in 2018, the decline of Williams during the turbo hybrid has been dramatic and rapid. But just how did things go so badly wrong?
2014 was Williams’ strongest season in over a decade. Whilst they couldn’t find their way to the top step of the podium, 9 top 3 finishes and a comfortable third place in the Constructor’s Championship was seen as a huge success for the team from Grove.
Part of the team’s success was built around its strong driver pairing of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas. Massa had a point to prove after a difficult last few years at Ferrari, whilst his experience and feedback was vital in helping Bottas develop into the race winner at Mercedes he is today.
Williams also benefitted significantly from the strength of the Mercedes power unit in the early years of the turbo hybrid era. The focus of chief designer Pat Symonds was to build a car which would maximise their straightline speed advantage, sacrificing downforce in the process.
Whilst this worked well in 2014 and 2015, Symonds’ development of that design was limited, and the team began to fall behind the likes of Force India in 2016 back into the midfield.
The team were dealt a major blow at the end of that season when, after Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement, Mercedes approached Williams to sign Bottas for 2017. Short on funds, Williams looked to the well-funded Lance Stroll to replace him, a driver whose junior career had been impressive, but would be making a huge step up from European F3.
— WILLIAMS RACING (@WilliamsRacing) January 16, 2017
The huge change in aerodynamic regulations meant that a change of development direction was needed. With that in mind, as part of the Bottas deal, Paddy Lowe came over to Williams to replace Pat Symonds as Chief Designer.
“The car has many new features, most of which are not all that obvious, but externally the team has pursued a very different aerodynamic concept which has allowed us some significant progress in aerodynamic performance,” said Lowe at the 2018 car launch.
“All Formula One cars are an evolution of what has gone before to some extent, but the FW41 does involve a number of departures from the directions that have been pursued in the past.”
With finances becoming an ever-pressing issue, the team also made the move ahead of this season of bringing in solid, if unspectacular, rookie driver Sergey Sirotkin. Sirotkin brings with him a large amount of Russian backing but partnered with Stroll, became one of the least experienced driver pairings on the grid, alongside Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley.
However, this change in direction has so far not paid off for the team. Suffering with instability and inconsistency, especially at the rear of the car, Stroll and Sirotkin both look short on confidence. Williams sit bottom of the Constructor’s Championship and last weekend at Silverstone saw a new low as both drivers went off in Q1.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that with such inexperience in the driver pairing, there isn’t the depth of feedback required on the issues in order to make significant progress. Stroll is known to complain without substance on the radio, whilst it would be perhaps unfair on a rookie driver like Sirotkin to know exactly where the problems are.
Reserve driver Robert Kubica could provide a solution to these troubles, considering his experience of racing in F1 between 2006-2010. However, with Williams set to lose longtime title sponsor Martini at the end of the season, funding is going to be an even bigger problem.
Promoting Kubica would likely lead to a loss in backing from Sirotkin or Stroll, but if it leads to better results, then the chances of attracting a new lucrative title sponsor increases. This poses a difficult dilemma for the team.
Perhaps the best they can hope for right now is to stick it out until 2021 when the next big change in regulations arrives. Williams are continuing to bring through young engineers through their engineering academy and maybe one day they can return to their former glory. For now though, this is a dark period in the history of a legendary racing team.