Williams placed third in the championship three years ago, yet three races into the 2018 F1 season it is the only team yet to score a point.
In an exclusive interview with RaceFans’ special contributor @DieterRencken, Claire Williams explains why the changes coming to F1 in 2021 are vital for this historic team.
Timing is, as they say, “everything”. The idiom does not, though, imply convenient timing – and so it proved with my request for an interview with Claire Williams, Deputy Team Principal of the multiple F1 championship-winning outfit founded by her father (Sir) Frank. It was granted for Bahrain.
At the time of my request – in Spain, during testing – the team’s pre-season testing suggested reasonable pace. It hadn’t set the circuit alight but was far from slowest through the traps and had covered more laps than most. With Mercedes power units in the back and Robert Kubica in the simulator, 2018 looked promising.
That the team had made the least pre-season testing progress over 2017 was concerning, but Lance Stroll qualified 14th in Australia, and with Sergey Sirotkin being a rookie with little knowledge of the Albert Park circuit, things could only get better. Thus I prepared for a good news interview in Bahrain; it was scheduled for post-FP3 on Saturday, so shortly before qualifying. My timing could hardly have been worse…
Claire puts on a brave face, but the discussion is painful for us both. The two cars are rock-bottom on the timing screens and the feeling as we sit down is that qualifying won’t be much better. (It is, marginally: Sirotkin beats a Sauber to 18th, but Stroll, who last year qualified 12th in his third grand prix, is plum last.)
Still, I need to ask the question: What is going on? “I think turning the fortunes of an F1 team around is not the work of a moment,” Claire says after much deliberation. “It’s hard work; Formula One is hard work. We’ve done everything we can possibly do at the top level in order to turn the team around.”
She pauses to reflect on recent disappointments, particularly 2012/13, when the team placed eighth and ninth respectively despite (rather fortuitously) winning in Spain in 2012, then: “We did a good job in 2013 [of restructuring], and then we had a great couple of years.
Williams placed third in the 2014/5 constructors championships and fifth in 2016/7. To address its recent slippage, the team recruited Paddy Lowe as technical director from Mercedes in March 2017. It was a return to the team for Lowe, who was a senior member between 1987 and 1993 when it enjoyed its greatest successes.
Last year’s car was a done deal when he arrived but much was expected of his first Williams, this year’s FW41, particularly after some high profile recruits.
“Of course we came into the season believing that we were going to turn things around. Maybe it’s a case of managing expectations. I don’t believe it’s as simple as just plugging in a few senior heads. This is a big organisation, there’s some 600 people working in our Formula One team.
“Obviously we’ve got issues that could be percolating with them, just at the senior, senior level and we need to address those issues. To say ‘It’s not where we wanted to be’ is the grossest understatement that you could imagine.” It is visibly as painful for Claire as it sounds.
I figure it is time to address the overall inexperience of the driver line-up: There was a time when one of the top four or five drivers was driving for Williams. It seems for every step forward, the team takes half a step back…
Why is that?
“If [only] I knew…
It could be financial, I venture; after all, since the current inequitable revenue structure every race was won by one of the Big Three, who in 2016/7 also locked out every podium save one (Baku), which Williams and Stroll claimed. Surprisingly Claire isn’t buying into that.
“No, I think that it would be very easy to blame the current financial distribution model in our sport; it would be very easy to blame a lack of budget. But then teams around us working with the same budget as us, or even less, and they’re seemingly able to do a better job than us, unfortunately. The problems start at home, they always do. I’m not going to air our dirty linen in public, as I said at the press conference.”
I remind her that during that Friday’s FIA team principal press conference I had asked those present whether they should not consider switching to the Haas model of sourcing as many parts as permitted from a ‘big sister’ team. Is it possibly not time to change the Williams business model?
“I was very clear on my answer, wasn’t I? I could live to regret that… The model that Haas have, the model that Force India have to a lesser degree, is not something that we subscribe to at Williams. We certainly haven’t in the past. We feel we are a whole constructor, a holistic constructor. We’re very proud of the fact that we design, build and develop our race cars fully in-house. Very, very little is out-sourced.
“Whether that’s a relevant approach in this day and age under the operating circumstances that we find ourselves in in Formula One at the moment, maybe it’s not. But that’s where we are at the moment, and so that’s what we have to work with.”
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The issue, though, is that the current revenue structure is cast in stone until end-2020, and Williams is carrying a far larger overhead than the others. Can the team stick it out until 2021, or could it become a casualty?
“We have to stick it out until 2021, we don’t have an option. We will always be in Formula One; that’s what we do. So we have to keep fighting and all we can do at the moment is ask people to dig a bit deeper, to keep pushing and to try and understand why we are where we are and try and resolve where we are.
Then, somewhat pointedly: “I’m not an engineer; I can’t get in there and start trying to fiddle around with the engineers and what they do. That’s why we have people like Paddy and people like Dirk de Beer…”
But, her name is on the door, I point out. More pain: “My name is on the door, and at the moment it’s not a very proud moment to have [the family] name on the door.”
If the root cause is not F1’s lopsided revenue structure, why then was she recently quoted by The Sunday Times (of London) as saying “Formula One is broken”?*
“I thought it was for a book,” she says, having been under the impression that the quotes would be used only for a book being authored by the journalist concerned.
Either way, in the past Claire had consistently refused to criticise F1’s 2013-20 revenue and governance agreements. I point out the team’s former CEO and chairman Adam Parr had, according to paddock patter (and comments in his book “The Art of War”) refused to subscribe to F1’s inequitable structure – and been invited out of F1 for his efforts.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? And what happened, happened. I wasn’t involved in it. I don’t believe that the revenue structure is fair and equitable, I’ve been really clear about that. It’s not. You just have to look at the numbers to know that it’s not fair, nor equitable.
“For me, I’ve always believed that any sport should operate and should start its operations on an equitable playing field. And what teams can do over and above that when it comes to attracting sponsorship income, then that’s all well and good.
“I think what we’re just seeing at the moment is something that probably none of us predicted, which is the bigger manufacturers coming in, or the Red Bulls that have access to huge amounts, they’re spending much more than they ever did. They weren’t spending 300, 400 million, five, 10 years ago.”
I point out that Williams wasn’t spending 150 million [in whatever currency she is talking] ten years ago, that Williams has always operated on lower budgets than the Big Boys, which was admirable and indicative of its underdog spirit. For example, when Williams won the 1992 title with Nigel Mansell the figure that was bandied about was around 30 million pounds, while Ferrari had 100 million or so – three times the Williams budget.
“Yeah, and I’ve always said, and they said yesterday, it’s not how much money you have, it’s how you spend it. There are examples of teams that have had huge budgets, and not won. We’ve seen that in the past. But I don’t believe you can fight on the other extreme when you’ve got such a small budget. Because you can’t do everything that you want to do. You have make compromises and you have to make difficult decisions.”
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Time to be upbeat: Claire had been optimistic during the Friday media conference about Liberty’s post-2020 proposals. Does she believe concepts such as a cost cap and a revision of the revenue and governance structures could be too little, too late?
“I’m pleased that [the proposals] happened now. I’ve never subscribed to the expression ‘Too little too late’, really. When you’re in a situation where change happens, then whenever it happens, it happens for the better and that’s a good thing. And you just grab it when it comes along.
“So I’m pleased with what’s happened now. And I’ve always been positive about Formula One because Formula One is a great sport. I don’t feel positive about it just because this is all we do. We love what we do, and it is a great sport, and it has too many people trying to tear it down, be negative about it.
“Let’s talk about the positives in Formula One, of which there are so many. Yesterday’s news, yesterday’s announcement, the proposals laid down, I do believe that they are the right things for our sport. They have to be. And I believe we will keep fighting until 2021 when we can take advantage of it. And I hope that players up and down the paddock don’t try and jeopardise that. Because we’ve got to protect teams like ours.”
The proposed $150m budget cap could have been tailored for Williams, as that is the team’s approximate operating budget. I point out that the bigger teams will need to restructure and lay off personnel.
“I don’t know the exact numbers, and yes, of course it’s going to be difficult for teams to restructure and reorganise, and yeah, of course the thought of anybody losing their job as a result is not something we welcome in any way, shape or form. It pains me to say, but sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture for the sake of the sport.”
We discuss the ramifications of the budget cap, and it is clear why Williams, the third-oldest team in F1 after Ferrari and McLaren welcomes the proposed cost disciplines.
“If I look at it from my perspective, if we don’t do this, then Williams will close, the whole of the company. We’re very lucky. [Friday] I was very positive about it, but then there are some of the people that are very negative about it. We are lucky that this works for us, but it think it probably demonstrates the fact that our team, track performance aside, is a good model of how a Formula One team should be operating in our sport.
With the impending exit of title sponsor Martini the arrival of Sirotkin points to obvious commercial opportunities in Russia. But the current political climate makes this a thorny subject.
“It’s a huge market, we all know that. I think there are some difficulties with where we are in the political landscape at the moment with Russia, so probably not easy…It ebbs and flows, and as long as we do our diligence, then we’re open for business with Russia, and we hope that having a Russian driver helps support our efforts over there.”
Sirotkin is one half Williams’ inexperienced driver pairing – the youngest on the grid. The team has been more used to fielding experienced drivers. But on the subject of whether Williams is geared up to nurture young talent Claire is delighted to switch tack, and positively beams for the first time in 20 minutes.
“Yes,” she says. “100 per cent. We’re very different as an organisation from the Frank and Patrick (Head) era. I think you have to be. I think all teams probably are. Maybe that’s just through the personalities that you have now running the teams are involved at that level and in that area of your team.
“It is important to nurture your talent. You can’t just use your talent; you have to build your talent. You have to build their capability; you have to build their esteem; you have to build their confidence. Because by doing that, it’s the way you’re going to achieve the most out of them. Sports psychology has grown considerably in the past decade that perhaps wasn’t available to the team principals 20 years ago.
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“We all know the benefits of nurturing your talent rather than just flogging your talent in the hope that would do the trick, and make him perform better.”
How does the team go about achieving that?
“Communication,” she says. “You give them the right tools, whether they be sports psychologists, whether that be additional coaching away from the race track, which comes in various different guises. So you have a whole programme, and then we make sure that the drivers have that holistic approach.
“We make sure that we talk to them; we make sure that they feel understood and that their opinion is respected, and that they’re important. But equally they have to feel an instrumental part of the team, but that they’re no different to anybody else, everybody has a contributing position, within our team anyway.
I saw certain racing drivers doing yoga by the pool this morning, and if you would have told me that Nigel Mansell would have done yoga by the pool back in the 1980s, I would have had a heart attack. But times change.”
Oh, and who were they?
“I’m not telling you. [But] I think it’s a great thing. That’s human nature. It evolves, doesn’t it? And we all want to be better versions of ourselves. And there are certain things that help us achieve that. And if you want to be the best, then you have to evolve too?
It seems a perfect time to stop. The team once evolved to be the best in F1. Yet if ever a team needed to evolve further simply to ensure its survival, it is the one with Claire’s family name on the door.
*The Sunday Time, 25 March 2018 quotes: “The sport is fundamentally broken. When I took on this role, I genuinely believed that we could win, but now I don’t know how we could do it. You always have to have hope, and I always had that naive spirit that if you work hard then you will get your just rewards, but how do you do it? I just don’t know.
“I have come to terms with the fact that nobody outside the Big Three teams can win. When I took over, I told myself and everybody else that, of course, teams can win. But the financial gap is now so insurmountable that it is not now possible. I think that is so sad.”
Follow Dieter on Twitter: @RacingLines
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