Williams are one of the most successful teams in the history of Grand Prix racing. They won two World Championships after just four years of operation, and claimed another fourteen titles over the next two decades. They had a win ratio that no other team could even dream of. With that in mind it is difficult to believe they have only managed ten Grand Prix victories since 1997, and have not scalped a single world championship.
The Technical Director of Williams, Sam Michael, has recently said “we’re definitely not quick enough to go and win Grands Prix”. It shows just how much the team have fallen back from the days when Frank Williams and Patrick Head were regularly brimming with championship confidence.
However, the very things that pushed Williams into the midfield are the same things that can bring about their salvation.
Williams was hit hard in 1998 by radical changes to the technical regulations. All of the teams had to construct brand new narrow-track cars, and had to learn how to deal with grooved tyres. This meant everyone started the season from a level playing field and the advantage that Williams had carefully built up over a number of years was quickly snatched away.
Rule changes may have hurt the British team ten years ago, but in 2009 they might be able to benefit from a significant technical shake-up.
Kenetic Energy Recovery systems will appear in Formula One next year in an effort to make the sport greener. Williams would stand to gain from this development because their engine supplier has the resources to invest heavily in this new technology.
In fact, Toyota is key to the team’s future success.
Williams have struggled for much of the last decade with their engine suppliers. As well as grappling with new regulations in 1998, the team also lost their works Renault powerplants. The French car maker decided to temporarily withdraw from the sport and this left Williams without the backing of a major manufacturer.
A deal with BMW was quickly arranged, but Williams was stuck with the old Renault engines for two years in the interim.
The arrival of BMW marked a considerable turnaround in the team’s fortunes and they were able to grasp a few Grand Prix victories. However, the German engines were horridly unreliable and Williams grew frustrated with BMW. The working relationship between the two parties deteriorated as quickly as it had begun. Mario Theissen left Williams at the end of 2005, and took his men over to Sauber instead.
Williams don’t need to worry about insecure engine deals anymore.
The partnership with Toyota could have an enormous impact in several years time if the Japanese manufacturer decides to pull the plug on their factory outfit. Despite a colossal budget Toyota have struggled in Formula One, and have not won a single Grand Prix in 105 attempts. If the poor results continue they may abandon their own team and focus on a more successful arrangement with Williams. The vast resources of Toyota would be a huge benefit for the British team, who would also gain from the marketability of the Toyota brand.
The Japanese engines look like playing a very substantial role in the future of Williams.
The same can be said for the current drivers.
The team has not been helped by its choice of talent over the past decade. Jacques Villeneuve, Ralf Schumacher, and Juan Pablo Montoya were all ferociously quick on their day but were rather dismal when the planets were not perfectly aligned. Williams went without a reliable and consistent driver for several years.
Heinz Harald Frentzen and Alex Zanardi both underperformed, and by the time Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld arrived on the scene Williams were no longer capable of race wins.
The team have now protected the services of Nico Rosberg, a driver with some serious potential. Nico came of age in 2007 after a scrappy debut season during which he made too many mistakes and performed inconsistently. Last year Rosberg improved his results dramatically by qualifying regularly in the top ten, and his battle with Jenson Button around Monza was a sign of his developed racecraft. He has the potential to become something very special, and it is worth remembering that Rosberg beat Lewis Hamilton when they raced karts together.
Williams would have had a much stronger year in 2007 if Alexander Wurz had also driven with the same conviction. Sadly the popular Austrian was past his best, and found himself replaced by Kazuki Nakajima at the final round of the season.
Nakajima may turn out to be highly underrated.
The new Japanese talent should not be judged solely on his pitstop bungle at the Brazilian Grand Prix, because although he ran over his mechanics, he set a quicker fastest lap than Rosberg. Nakajima might be a little hit or miss but hopefully Williams have chosen him for more than just his connections with Toyota. The team know Kazuki well after a year of testing and have publicly stated the faith they have in his ability to deliver.
With a strong engine deal and a few quick men wearing helmets, Williams can now focus on building a quick car. The current testing pace from the new FW30 suggests the team have done exactly that. They have regularly been at the top of the timesheets and have been racking up plenty of mileage.
The new car was quick ‘out of the box’ which is always a good sign, and the chassis instantly went third fastest on its debut run. This pace was not a fluke because on the first dry testing day at Barcelona last week Williams were quickest of all the teams, against the likes of Ferrari and McLaren.
Their rivals may have been focusing on full race distances, but at least the FW30 has some genuine speed, even if it is over a single lap. It is more than can be said for some of the other teams, notably Honda.
Perhaps the most significant development over the winter break was that Nakajima has been equal in pace to Rosberg, and has even trumped the more experienced German on a few occasions. Testing times may not count for much but at least they suggest the newcomer won’t get blown into the weeds by his teammate.
2008 might just be a special season for Frank Williams and his men.
Despite all of their troubles over the past decade, Williams still hold the record for the highest number of average wins per annum (3.8). That is a remarkable statistic and shows just how strong the team used to be.
They will now be hoping a return to those dominant days is not too far away. Grand Prix victories won’t appear on the doorstep this year but the team will be hoping that is a different tale twelve months down the road.
Otherwise, Williams risk being caught in the midfield forever.