But here we are, 5 years on from their last decent car, 7 years since their last and sorry to say this, very odd race win and 22 years since their last championship. Williams are and have been for some time a nearly runner, a pale shade of their former self and in danger of falling into obscurity.
Last year’s car was written off very early, with focus shifted to the incoming rule changes for this year, but issues that tainted last year’s car appear to have been carried over. And whilst this years car, albeit perhaps not the handful of last years is well off the pace and apparently carrying yet another fundamental design problem that might not be able to be fixed during the season.
So, what’s wrong with this year’s car and more importantly what’s wrong with Williams as a team? Let’s investigate…
Whether you like it or not, fundamentally Formula One is a business, those who invest their funding wisely usually operate the best. Notice how I didn’t say that those that spend the most often do the best?!.. that’s because whilst that’s often true there are exceptions to those rules, with Force India (now Racing Point) and Haas perhaps the best modern examples of teams that operate more efficiently with their money.
Both of these teams operate on a fraction of the budget of the big teams but have managed to exceed their own expectations in recent years. Meanwhile, Williams, being staunchly British, seem to believe that Formula One should work in a certain way and rather than look at ways to work with others to improve their overall performance have instead insulated themselves to the point of irrelevance. I can think of no better example of this than what has been very publicly witnessed in the recent Netflix documentary covering F1.
During a scene in the documentary deputy team principal Claire Williams addressed factory personnel in what she perhaps considered a rousing speech...
“To be very clear, we aren’t going down that road of a B-team. If any of you that know me well would know that it be over my dead body. You will never read in the press that Williams has turned itself into a junior or B-team”.
I saw it as a damning indictment of a team that’s too stubborn to adapt and whilst I’ve heard these kind of remarks before from Claire and the team before it was a very public way to highlight just how disconnected Williams now appear to be from the rest of the grid.
Just because you want Formula One to operate in a certain way doesn’t mean that’s how it does, with Haas the prime example of this. Having recognized that it was possible to do things differently they shook up the establishment and have reaped the rewards. And whilst no-one is suggesting that Williams suddenly adopt the same model or mentality there are ways to do what they’re doing in a leaner manner.
Boxing clever (or not, as may be the case)
There are ten teams on the Formula One grid but only six gearbox suppliers, Mercedes HPP supply their works team and Racing Point, Ferrari supply their works team, Haas and Alfa Romeo, Red Bull technology supplies their two teams, leaving the other three ‘classic’ teams to design, build and supply their own.
Williams have had the opportunity to take a Mercedes gearbox for a number of years now and very nearly did so for 2019, but at the last moment backed out. Don’t get me wrong, taking their box does come with the drawback of being intrinsically linked to some of their design and packaging decisions, but they haven’t done too bad with it over the last few years…
Furthermore, it opens up the opportunity for you to purchase some other, perhaps more cost effective, solutions from them too, such as the rear suspension arrangement.
This kind of common hardware sharing is something that the 2021 regulations are looking to promote in any case and so I'm not so sure why Williams are so reluctant to get on the bandwagon a little early, especially as it would also help them to redistribute their staff and resources onto other areas of the car.
The other thing that’s struck me about Williams in recent years is that they still have big team/unlimited testing mentality when it comes to their in-season development path. They take a scattergun approach to the problem, bringing various versions of a certain part in the hopes it’ll make their issue go away.
This, at least to me, points to a disconnect between the teams simulation tools (CFD and wind tunnel) and the performance seen on the car, something that many teams have an issue with at one time or another but one that’s blighted Williams for some time now…
That win that I’ve already mentioned, back in 2012, came at a confusing time for Williams, as that season I think I counted 8! different iterations of front wing. And I’m not talking about 8 iterations here, I’m talking 8 pretty different ideas… That year they couldn’t decide which exhaust solution worked best for them either, almost giving up on the ‘Coanda’ exhaust solution entirely (as they couldn’t make work on the track what worked in the tunnel), they tried a Red Bull-esque style crossover ramp and actually won the Spanish GP with a periscope exhaust.
This actually brings me to a crossroads of my own, as I think there are two salient topics that I need to cover.
Aerodynamics - simulation tools and real world performance
To my mind, ever since this period of aero uncertainty I’ve struggled to convince my inner voice that Williams do not have a problem with the correlation of their tools and the equipment that they haul around the world. I struggle because I wonder how a team that should be so well equipped as Williams would continue to build car-after-car knowing that they had a problem. However, I can’t think of a team that hasn’t gone through their own issues in this respect at some stage in the last decade, and so it brings me back to it. Therefore I’ve reconciled with myself that Williams must have an issue with their CFD methodology, wind tunnel or both...
It actually appears to be an issue that they’ve carried right the way through what I determine to be the modern iteration of the regulations (since 2009), which came in tandem with the decline of other giants of the sport, all of which relied heavily on the manufacture and testing of full scale parts. At every point where they’ve found themselves in a decent position since, it appears they've done it by the happenstance of a regulation change that was driven by performance factors not of their own direct creation.
To explain myself further, in 2009 the double diffuser was a design concept that was actually cooked up at Super Aguri and when that team folded their staff went off in various directions but natively arrived at the Japanese powered teams - Honda, Toyota.
By extension Williams were powered by Toyota that year and it’s my understanding that’s how they accrued the necessary knowledge to take advantage of the situation.
Bar the outlying victory in 2012, the years that intervened up to 2014 were a steady decline for Williams, with numerous aerodynamic issues faced by them along the way. One such instance, and one worth revisiting, was the one already mentioned - exhaust blown diffusers. At this point in time they had the best engine on the grid for the technology, afterall Red Bull were in the midst of winning their 4 back-to-back titles with it.
Unfortunately Williams couldn’t capitalize on this opportunity as they just couldn’t get the best from the exhaust blowing technology, firstly with the captive exhaust solution and then even less so when it required aerodynamic influence. They simply couldn’t replicate the real world effect in the wind tunnel and ended up trying numerous solutions, rather than staying faithful to one particular concept. This not only sucked a lot of time and resource but also meant that updates were constantly delayed throughout.
As the new regulations appeared on the horizon for 2014 it became clear that Renault would be one of the most expensive options and Pastor Maldonado, unhappy with his return on investment, was also set to leave.
As such the team went in search of another supplier and opted for Mercedes. This was most fruitful, as whilst they didn’t have the best chassis, by a long shot, they’d actually designed one which was hella efficient, making them a force to be reckoned with at certain circuits. Furthermore, the resultant mistakes made by the other leading teams, both aerodynamically and from a powertrain point of view gave Williams the bump they needed.
It was short-lived though, and as time passed by and they inevitably tried to add downforce the result was not kind to them and they’ve drifted down the pack. Now, their biggest issue came in 2017, when a high downforce package (one they’d campaigned against) was introduced it exposed them to their biggest weakness and the slide got even larger than it had been before.
The power vacuum - Engine Supply
I draw some parallels with the issues faced by Williams, with the ones that McLaren have faced in recent years too. McLaren’s issues were ones made by Ron Dennis and the companies overall desire to enter the road car market, issues that drove a wedge between them and Mercedes and moreover their AMG brand. However, without taking this already lengthy article down another alley, I brought us here because of Ron’s comments about needing a ‘works’ style deal to compete.
Ron, ever the shrewd operator knew what was coming from Mercedes and also knew that their performance in Formula One was about to take a hit because of their off track antics. The way he went about dealing with it was a day late and a dollar short, but nonetheless, he knew the writing was on the wall for any team that didn’t have a works association.
The last ‘works’ style deal that Williams had was back in the the early part of the noughties and took them up to the end of the V10 era, as the team found backing in the form of BMW. It coincided with the arrival of Ralf Schumacher just a year earlier and saw all involved trying to leverage the union from a commercial aspect.
It was a great tactical move to be fair, not only did they get the opportunity to work with an up and coming driver but also had the advantage of working with a manufacturer in a works style arrangement, as they provided not only their technical clout but also financial assistance.
It’s a deal that came to an end when Ralf moved to Toyota and BMW decided that they were no longer getting what they wanted from the partnership and decided to look into buying their own team and become a fully fledged works entry - finally settling on Sauber.
In the intervening years they’ve basically been buying their engine or powerunit off the peg, which means they’re essentially unable to get the absolute maximum from it, as they don’t have the resource that the lead works team does.
This has actually put them in a slightly awkward financial position too, as they’re having to pay for the engine/powerunit or giving up a seat to a driver that, that works team needs to find a seat for and ending up with some compensation from them to run him.
2006 - Cosworth Paid for the engine, chose their driver lineup - Webber / Rosberg
2007 - Toyota Paid for the engine but had Nakajima as a test driver so likely got a discount
2008 - Toyota Nakajima assumed a race seat role, so Toyota likely funded more of the deal
2009 - Toyota Nakajima stayed on as a race driver, so Toyota likely funded more of the deal
2010 - Cosworth Toyota had exited the sport, so back to paying for engines and having driver choice
2011 - Cosworth Paying for engines but extra money from Maldonado’s arrival offset expense
2012 - Renault Extra money from Venezuela helped to bridge the gap to allow for the more expensive, yet more performance orientated Renault engine
2013 - Renault Still able to afford the Renault unit with the financial backing brought by one of their drivers. Meanwhile, Bottas arrives without huge financial backing (remember the Toto Wolff connection here)
2014 - Mercedes Move to Mercedes, who were cheaper than Renault for the hybrid powerunit and still have a cache of money arriving from Venezuela, as Maldonado has been brought out of his contract. Massa replaces him.
2015 - Mercedes Status Quo
2016 - Mercedes Status Quo
2017 - Mercedes Bottas leaves for Mercedes, who give them a tickle of discount as he’s still in contract with Williams. Meanwhile, Lance Stroll takes his seat whom also brings money. Massa stays on due to the late nature of the Bottas deal
2018 - Mercedes Massa leaves, again, with Sergey Sirotkin taking up the other seat
2019 - Mercedes Lance Stroll leaves but under contract will pay a parachute payment to Williams. Take Kubica and Russell as drivers, the former of which has some sponsorship money available, whilst the latter is connected to Mercedes. Even so it’s understood he’s there on merit and Williams didn’t pursue Mercedes for a monetary deal.
As we can see this too’ing and fro’ing has not only been linked to engine supply but also to the prevailing money filtering into and then out of the team. I know I’ve already touched on the money and business aspect earlier in this article but that was more from a sporting perspective I think what’s also important to realise is that like any business a Formula One team needs to stay liquid, otherwise they’re dead in the water. In recent years we’ve seen numerous teams on the brink, saved at the last minute by new investment, with Lotus>Renault and Force India>Racing Point two shining examples of how the success bubble can hit you hard.
Williams, like the aforementioned, sat on this bubble in 2014 as they took fourth in the championship. But, whilst the other two were able to sustain a slightly longer lasting advancement, Williams almost immediately began their slide as they were unable to profit from the very advantage that had helped them get there and their bank balance was perhaps not being replenished as quickly as they’d like either.
The loss of Maldonado was not initially felt at Grove, as the Venezuelan was forced to buy out the remainder of his contract, with PDVSA settling with Williams for a sum in the region of $25m. Not chump change then and with the iconic Martini branding on the car bringing in circa $15m per season they were heading toward a large part of their budget already in play for 2014. Bottas and Massa both brought some budget to the table but neither anywhere near the level of money that would be needed to compete with the oil money that was set to dry up in 2015.
(I understand Bottas’ personal sponsor, Wihuri, was providing around $2m, whilst the arrival of the oil and lubricants supplier - Petrobras, coincided with the incoming Brazilian driver in a tie-up that was supposed to not only assist from a financial aspect but also a technical one, making the financials a little more difficult to tie down. Banco do Brasil also arrived with Massa and saw his compatriot - Felipe Nasr take up the third driver role too).
Williams other financial assistance in that period came from long time sponsor Oris Watches, Unilever and their Rexona branding which is thought to bring in the region of $15m per year, Genworth, Randstad, Avanade, Hackett, Dom Reilly and Esquire.
Anyone looking at the figures mentioned here that knows how much it costs to run an F1 team will notice that there’s a bit of a shortfall, one which will be supplemented by the prize money received by the teams each year. I believe that figure for Williams, based on their 2013 performance, would have been around the $50m. This is a fund that is paid to the teams over the course of several months/ the season though, rather than one up front payment, in order to save them from themselves and help them stay within a budgetary window.
Down the years many teams have asked for and advance on their prize money in order to stay liquid though, much like the one that Williams vetoed for Force India in 2018, but we’ll come back to that later.
Moving the timeline forward to the start of 2015 and the PDVSA sponsorship oil reserve has started to dry up (I don’t believe that PDVSA would have ponied up all that money in one hit, rather used a parachute payment option instead), leaving Williams with another $25m shortfall to deal with. Fortunately their on track behaviour in 2014 had seen them finish fourth and able to collect a more substantial piece of the prize money pie, which on top of they’d also negotiated a historical payment into the new bilateral (concorde) agreement that the teams sign with FOM to distribute the prize money.
Having finished the season in third place they collected approximately $75m, $10m of which was the new historical payment. You’d think $10m, that’s great, well yes it is, but let's put it in perspective with McLaren and Mercedes who’d negotiated around the $35m mark, Red Bull around $75m and Ferrari around $100m… I think they sold themselves a little short when you put it that way, but that was always why Bernie was so clever in these negotiations, as he’d deal with each of them individually behind closed doors, so they all thought they were getting a good deal, right up until they saw someone else’s…
Regardless of the smaller historical payment (although that’ll come back to bite them shortly) their income from the prize divvy was actually up, and to the tune of around $25m, the kind of shortfall they had from Maldonado’s absence.
2016 wasn’t too bad either from a financial perspective, if apples were oranges, but as we know nothing stays the same and with new rules incoming for 2017 the team would need to spend more money to accommodate the shift in any case. With the prize money pot up for 2015 the team would have got just shy of $90m in prize money to work with.
For 2017 the teams reliance on the previous years result, which saw them finish 5th, meant that their divvy was reduced to around $80m.
2018’s dividend, driven by their finishing position in 2017 (fifth) saw the team take around $80m from the pot once more, but with the team set to not only lose the funding brought to the team by Lance Stroll they had to face up to the departure of title sponsor Martini. This was about to leave the team well and truly on the financial backfoot, especially as another regulation change was looming that would suck resource like no tomorrow and their prize money dividend would also be severely impacted by finishing at the foot of the table (to the tune of $10-15m).
Now, remember them vetoing Force India’s request for an advance on some of their prize money in 2018? (nothing new for Force India, they’ve been doing it for years as a way of improving their cash flow ahead of a season) Having done that to Force India for 2018, Williams couldn’t well go cap in hand to FOM for 2019 and with the Stroll money now tied up in dealing with the Force India / Racing Point transition I’d find it highly likely the transit of money down the line to Williams for the release of Lance’s contract might well have been slow too. Add to this the late arrival of a new title sponsor, in the form of Rokit, of which I can’t pin down the financial deets of, but suffice to say that the money in play is slightly down and perhaps a little behind schedule, all of which adds up to the delays and shortages we’ve seen the team have to deal with so far this season...
So, we’ve come full circle and we’re back in 2019 and need to look at the FW41, which is not only a terrible car but also a duplicit one, as the team believe that neither the car driven by Russell or Kubica seem to respond in the same way. This is just one of a myriad of issues faced by a team that are seemingly quite short on answers and now lacking the technical leadership that they once had, given Paddy Lowe’s absence.
As already mentioned, the financial hiccups that the team have faced will undoubtedly have had an impact on the design and construction of this years car and with 2018’s car being an absolute nightmare it’s hardly surprising they’re having more issues.
The black art
I think one of the fundamental issues that Williams have been having stems back to the arrival of Pirelli in the sport. When they entered in 2010 it changed the inherent design characteristics of the tyres, which in turn has an effect on many performance factors and design parameters of the cars. It goes without saying that they’re the only thing in contact with the track surface, a fact which makes how you operate them imperative to the cars performance envelope.
It’s a bit like a goldilocks equation - too little or too much in one direction and you lose performance, but if you can find that sweet spot you’ll unlock a huge amount of potential that’s difficult to make up elsewhere. It’s a design problem that’s difficult to put a finger on because it relies on the crossover of vehicle dynamics and aerodynamics, both of which Williams seem to have fallen behind with over the last few years.
As we’ve already discussed the team have struggled with aerodynamic issues that stem from transient conditions (exhaust blowing) and there is no other source of aerodynamic instability greater than the one caused by the transient nature of the turbulence created by the tyre and more so in the Pirelli construction than we’ve seen in the past.
Thinking of the tyre three dimensionally you must also sit and consider how the forces acting upon it, through a range of motions, will inherently alter its shape, now also consider that all four tyres are altering shape at different rates and you have to decide which of these aerodynamic battles to fight first.
You must also deal with the reactionary forces of the chassis upon the tyre, which requires the suspension to have compliance and/or be able to find ways to dial out issues with the tyres behaviour too.
The tyres performance is also driven by its heat cycle, with the temperature sweet spot within the working range a critical factor in one lap performance and over a race stint. Williams pace differential compared with the rest of the field, at least for me, can be explained away predominantly by their inability to work the tyres and keep them in this sweet spot. The changes made by Pirelli for 2019 have clearly moved the goalposts even further away for Williams, with thinner gauge tread releasing more heat from the tyres surface than its predecessor, which in-turn puts it a further odds with the bulk tyre temperature.
Add to this an issue that many of the other teams are having, which is that the starting temperatures from the blankets is now 20 degrees lower at the rear (100/80 oC) and you have a yo-yo effect where the front tyres are out of whack with the rears.
No, not just tyres
Now clearly I’m not trying to say that if only Williams could solve their issues with the tyres everything else would just go away. What I am trying to allude to is their overall importance to the performance of the car and moreover how big the gain can be if that performance is unlocked, not only in terms of the rest of the cars design but also the improvement that can be found each race weekend through setup.
It’s also pretty clear that the FW42, and its forebears for that matter, have become weak both mechanically and aerodynamically. Lowe tried to address this in 2018, as the team coupled numerous ideas from the front runners with their own designs. Of course it’s not as simple as copying and pasting from one car to another though and these conflicting design solutions didn’t appear neat or cohesive and made for a particularly sensitive machine on the best of days.
The FW42 retained many of these features but refined them, toning them down to allow a more cohesive base from which to build upon, but still its not translated into any notable performance increase. On top of this some of the innovative solutions that first appeared on the car, including the additional front suspension member and crazy two-part mirror housings, were gone by Melbourne. This is all wasted resource, sometimes an inevitable consequence of pushing the rules but galling nonetheless.
Add to this fact that due to the funding crisis that they find themselves in the car may actually weigh more than is necessary, as to increase the lifespan of parts to meet the next build targets the designers will not be able to ‘add lightness’.
I’m sure throughout the course of this article I’ve missed many things, some more obvious than others, but as I’m trying to build a picture of a decade long issue if I didn’t reign myself in this would have ended up being a book. I hope you’ve enjoyed what I’ve written and leave you with the following, as a sentiment of how I feel about the current Williams situation.
A ship without a rudder is still a ship, it's just one that cannot be steered in the right direction.