George Russell, Williams, Circuit de Catalunya, 2019

Williams must face up to its worsening crisis

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The Williams FW42 turned its first laps on Wednesday afternoon, two-and-a-half days after the start of testing and five days after its intended debut run in a filming day. The team’s 2019 F1 campaign is already off to a worse start than its rotten 2018 season.

In a press conference shortly afterwards deputy team principal Claire Williams effectively gave short shrift to media members, many of whom had been restrained in their criticism of this once-great team’s worsening plight.

No reasons were advanced, no explanations provided; indeed, nothing was said about this exceedingly sad state of affairs other than an apology. During the 15-minute media briefing the impression prevailed that there was no real crisis, that it would be alright on days when it matters, when points are dished out.

When I asked Williams how it came to pass that the team slid from a fixture in the championship top five to finishing last one year and showing up late for the start of the next (all in three straight years, saliently during the tenure of Paddy Lowe as technical director) her response was one of protectionism rather than confidence-instilling:

“There are a lot of elements to that. But I don’t think that it’s appropriate for me to, as I always say, air our dirty laundry in public. I don’t think it’s right to do that. It’s not right to do that to the people that are working so hard at Grove. We’ve just put it wrong and we need to fix that and hopefully you’ll see a much more successful Williams in the coming years.”

This smacks of denial. Williams is in crisis, and the fact Claire also stated an “inquest” is still underway strongly suggests both urgency and internal control systems are lacking – whether within the design/technical/engineering departments, at (in-house) manufacturing operations levels, or during the (outside) procurement process.

Could it be a combination of all three? Probably, suggesting an overall management problem, for the full car design process takes six months, and RaceFans understands both performance and manufacturing targets were missed as early as November.

Nor was the delay down to a single part: Up to 20 critical items were said to be affected, and not only in-house parts, suggesting the engineering ‘release’ process – when drawings are released for manufacture – was behind schedule.

While there are arguments that teams win together and lose together, by not apportioning blame Claire has implicated every department, indeed every employee, whether culpable or not. This strategy of shielding those responsible places unfair burdens of guilt on innocents, in turn destroying overall morale – just when management should boost spirits.

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Social media messages posted by staff indicate morale is already seriously waning ahead of arguably the most vital season in the team’s recent history.

Robert Kubica, Williams, 2019
Williams’ plight makes Kubica’s returns even tougher
True, there are mitigating circumstances. The new front and rear wing aerodynamic regulations were finalised later than usual – only firmed up in November – while the start of the season has moved forward a week. That squeezed 2019 car-build schedules at both ends.

But if Racing Point, which plunged into administration before being rescued at a crucial point during the design process, could deliver a competitive car on time, Williams should have managed it too. Particularly given its superior resources: manpower, in-house facilities, larger budget and own wind tunnel. Yet even after being air-freighted overnight the car arrived incomplete, with parts due to arrive in time for today’s running.

None of this would be serious had Williams enjoyed a strong 2018, but the record shows the team slipped from fifth in 2017 to tenth off the back of a recalcitrant car. If that was bad, not pitching until (after) midway of the first test is arguably worse and suggests the entire team did not take its 2018 travails seriously. There is an emerging pattern here, and hiding the root cause does no one, not least innocent employees, any favours.

The team owes it to its millions of fans to come clean, then take corrective action no matter how painful or public. If it means Claire needs to take the decision to step aside or technical director Paddy Lowe or unnamed operations managers need to be replaced, so be it. Hiding behind the corporate veil erodes the credibility and goodwill the team still has.

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That Lowe today cancelled his media session, ostensibly to focus his energies on ensuring that “the car is in the best possible shape”, suggests a shirking of responsibility at the top of the technical pile. Of course his first priority is to ensure the car delivers on track, but equally, by cancelling an already postponed media session the impression lingers that he refuses to ‘man up’.

Last year there were searching questions about his leadership abilities and this latest saga has provided his critics – of which there are many inside and outside Williams – with further ammunition, unless he is ultimately exonerated.

The return to respectability of a once-dominant F1 is more important than the maintaining of family links, or the shielding of executives who have been found wanting at the top of a publicly-traded company. Williams has been in gradual decline for five years as the record since 2014 shows: 3rd, 3rd, 5th, 5th, 10th.

Admitting culpability – wherever that may lie – then carrying full responsibility and taking corrective action for what is clearly a totally unacceptable situation are not only the first steps towards what is likely to be a long recuperation period, but crucial to the team’s survival.

To paraphrase former US president Harry S Truman: “The buck needs to stop somewhere.” On Wednesday’s evidence, at Williams the buck is bouncing around between denial and delay, between the top floor and the drawing office.

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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  • 52 comments on “Williams must face up to its worsening crisis”

    1. Claire, or Sir Frank? To echo my comment from today’s round-up (and take a look at the excellent points made by lunaslide and sundark as well):

      If what I read in yesterday’s Telegraph article is correct, and that Sir Frank is the one overseeing development at the factory, then he needs to take a good hard look at himself and see if a rejig is warranted – both in leadership and approach. Until now I was under the impression that it was Claire who was TP in all but name (similar to Bob Fernley back in his Force India days).

      So, if Frank is the team principal and overseeing the development work, but it’s the deputy Claire who’s running day-to-day operations (and doing other TP responsibilities), then she’s the one left holding the ball at the end of the day in the eyes of the world. Yet, as the deputy, I’d think Claire will have to be deferring to Frank on some issues & decisions that he makes. And that’s not a great way to run a team – a ship needs one captain.

      I expect this to be an unpopular opinion, given the respect Sir Frank commands – and deservedly so – but there is a lot of damage that can be wrought by a poor leadership structure. Claire has received a lot of flak around decisions she’s made, but I now wonder how much of it was truly under her control (e.g. maybe it’s not Claire’s fault that Williams continue to persist with a metal transmission housing). I wonder if this is time for Sir Frank to take a step back, let Claire run the ship, and have someone else oversee the development work at the factory and report in to Claire. Sir Frank can then step back into an unconflicted role of being only the voice of experience for Claire to turn to if and when required.

      1. @phylyp Interesting… I always felt that following his accident, Frank Williams was just a figurehead at the company – Patrick Head was the one making the cars go fast.

        The team hasn’t really gone anywhere since he stepped back from his TD role in 2004.

        1. @optimaximal – you’re not alone in that, I too thought he was the figurehead until seeing that article.

      2. interesting, I had assumed frank had essentially zero involvement and was team principal in name only. he stepped down from the board years ago, but who knows what goes on behind the scenes.

        if he is still involved in the day-to-day running of the factory and/or making higher level decisions, then we have to question that. I don’t want to appear ageist or indeed ableist, but he is an old man and has a history of medical problems – what he did for the team in the late 80s and 90s was unparalleled in the sport, but there comes a time when it’s best to step aside fully (which is what I thought he had already done).

      3. Totally agree. This is a management issue. As long as Claire is only a deputy and didn’t oversight all the development process, she can not held responsible of everything.

      4. @phylyp: It is not my job to correct other media, but the fact is I checked the situation thoroughly before writing an analysis that people in the team described as “tough but fair”.

        I went back to the team to check whether Frank is any way involved in the operation of the team – and was assured by a senior source that he takes a keen interest in proceedings, but is not involved in any way.

        Anyone who understands his situation would know that.

        1. @dieterrencken – thank you for that update, and for clarifying the position re. Frank.

    2. @dieterrencken

      But if Racing Point, which plunged into administration before being rescued at a crucial point during the design process, could deliver a competitive car on time…

      …with effectively a blank cheque, right? I don’t think it’s fair to compare Williams Racing’s issues to the FI rescue.

      I know ‘the Silverstone team’ are effortlessly frugal and very good bang-for-buck, including taking gearboxes from Mercedes rather than design their own (etc), but the new owner(s) effectively paid off all debts and likely intended to ‘overfund’ the company initially to avoid these issues – after all, last year they effectively ran the show car for the first few races because of heavy financial shortfalls?

      Lawrence Stroll has a point to prove with Racing Point (even though that may just be ‘look, Lance can drive a car’) – he’s not going to let it fall at the first hurdle.

      1. That may be the case but it doesn’t alter the fact that Force India was performing way better than Williams well before Stroll’s money came along.

      2. While Williams still build their own stuff as opposed to whatever the pink team is called these days, surely the writing has been on the wall for Williams really ever since BMW left them – they are a class B team. They fluked a win with Pastor in 2012, lucked into the best engine by a mile in the hybrid era and did well as a result but in truth have been a second rate outfit for a while. They can do two things: go flat out and still struggle as a true independent – and we can see how successful they are being at that – or else they can do a HAAS/Pink team and trim their team down to be a modern independent. Unless they do something truly special right now they have (in the opinion of this fan anyway) no chance of climbing off the back of the grid. And that’s looking less and less likely every year. Williams as program fillers? It’s just very sad…

        1. I think if Williams had better drivers in the car in 2012, that win would have seemed much less of a fluke. There were Grand Prix where Maldonado showed good speed, but either made one of his many mistakes or was let down by reliability. Senna was mediocre all year, I believe there was much more potential in the car. In 2014, Williams were the best customer Mercedes team, that included McLaren as well as Force India.

          I haven’t read the Independent article, but I did watch the Williams documentary fairly recently and if that’s anything to go by, Frank hasn’t got anywhere else to go, his team is his life, and it will take a very cold heart to stop him from getting involved. Not living in the office would be a good start.

          You don’t need heads rolling at this stage of the season, you need all the help you can get to get you out of the mess. If personnel needs changing, wait for a slightly more stable time, not right before the start of the season. It takes time for new personnel to make positive impacts, no new person will be able to fix what’s gone on between now and Melbourne, Paddy’s in the best position to do so. It’s still early days, let’s give it a few races to see whether Williams can move up from the back of the grid.

      3. There’s never been a ‘blank cheque’, and a significant amount went to paying off old debts which does little to nothing for your car development.
        @optimaximal

        Williams has more staff, a bigger budget, and I’m sure that they have many talented people amongst their staff. Thus the only reason for (continued) poor performance must be attributed to management.

      4. Haas would have been another team worthy of comparing Williams to: They have a smaller budget, and got better results. I believe Haas employ less people too, but I couldn’t find evidence to show that in the time available to me. Yes, they bought stuff rather than design and build their own, but that’s exactly what Williams should be doing. Unfortunately, whether they follow the Haas model or continue with the traditional F1 design and build model, both take leadership.
        Legend has it that Bill Gates refused to accept any correspondence from any of his staff if it didn’t contain bad news because it was the only way he could be sure he was getting told something close to the truth. Without knowing the truth you can’t be sure your decisions are good ones.

    3. I have personal experience of Paddy ‘manning up’ and admitting his mistakes to his and the wider team in the past. I would be surprised if we hasn’t done so already at Grove, and will likely do so in public in good time.

      As David Coulthard famously once said, the best Formula One teams “don’t have a blame culture, they have a responsibility culture”. I’m not personally concerned by Claire’s reticence to name and shame in public at this stage. It is Claire’s job to make sure everyone knows what their responsibility is, and what is essential is that those individuals are taking responsibility for their decisions and actions within the team right now. Where I agree with Dieter is that in relatively short order those things need to made clear publicly as they owe a proper explanation to the fans, and they owe it to the rank and file at Williams to publicly take that responsibility. But right now the priority needs to be internal, get the show back on the road to Melbourne.

      As a side note on Paddy. He’s a shareholder at Williams. Are we seriously asking Claire to publicly name and shame a fellow shareholder in a publicly listed company? Even if ultimately the Board decides Paddy is responsible and needs to go, unwinding / resolving the ongoing status of his equity position and making the required statements to the market would take time to agree and organise.

      1. You beat me to it @badger74. I was just about to ask how people could suggest that Paddy needed to be replaced given he’s a substantial shareholder.

        Yes Claire might be defending team members publicly (as I believe she should) but I’d be pretty certain the riot act is being read behind closed doors. When things settle a bit there might be a few changes made inside the management team, particularly if someone steps up and gets things done, but now probably isn’t the time for that.

        1. Exactly. Blaming people and sacking people right now when they need the team focused on getting back on track is not productive. Better to investigate in the background and put things right. Then further down the line more decisions can be made.

        2. how people could suggest that Paddy needed to be replaced given he’s a substantial shareholder.

          Unless he has a majority vote that does not really matter.
          But according to their company files, he is not a shareholder yet; he might have some unvested stock options though.

          1. @coldfly From page 22…

            Paddy Lowe and Doug Lafferty were each granted share options on their appointment to the board in 2017.

            From page 43…

            210,000 further shares were granted during the year. Obviously it’s not made clear who took them up.

            1. Those options only vest (transfer to stock) after 3 years.
              @optimaximal

      2. I agree. The article is somewhat at odds to my view of how companies should operate, especially sports teams. Blame on individuals is not necessarily a good thing. Also the fact that the whole team is taking the blame because no one is singled out does not necessarily lead to poor moral as it all depends on how it is handled within the team in private. To be honest delivering a car late that is better than last years car is surely better than delivering the car on time and it being rubbish? (Assuming that the car is indeed better). People (especially the press) love to have someone to blame. I have been at many companies where blame is apportioned out for pretty much everything and they are horrific places to work. It leads to people only doing the minimum and not pushing boundaries as they are scared to make mistakes. You want an atmosphere where mistakes are not seen as a bad thing but as a learning point on a wonderful journey. If you are not making mistakes then you are not trying hard enough. Obviously the mistakes need to be learned from and if the same mistakes keep happening then something is not right, but mistakes in themselves are not a bad thing as long as no one dies…

      3. It’s already been said, but I too agree. Claire publicly blaming individuals would undermine whatever credibility those individuals have left within the team. Right now they need to get the car ready for the season. Claire’s “inquest” is the right approach. Personnel performance issues are best dealt with confidentially. Otherwise everyone will be looking over their shoulders wondering if they will be next to be pilloried for making a mistake. They need to prioritize getting the car ready, then they can move on to understanding what went wrong and put processes in place to prevent it again. If some of those processes involve personnel changes, then that will come out as it happens.

      4. Vettel Fan 17 (@)
        21st February 2019, 11:59

        …the best Formula One teams “don’t have a blame culture, they have a responsibility culture”

        Too true. If Claire goes around blaming everyone then fat chance that will help them be more motivated. They need to see where they are going wrong and try and fix that (and if it’s everywhere, do it one thing at a time) – they have the resources.

      5. All very good points being made in this thread.

        I too would like to understand what happened, and especially how they will be moving forward, and do believe, for some years now, that Williams needs to change how they operate.

        But, publicly naming and shaming at this point likely would only be a tasty, if quickly turning sordid, spectacle, and would not help the team get on with salvaging anything from the still to start season.

      6. Paddy is NOT a shareholder – I’ve checked that for the umpteenth time. He holds a share option that has not been activated.

        1. Hmmm, advocating an old school Ferrari style name and shame, let’s apportion blame, Machiavellian style of management process without any proper analysis and due diligence seems like a ludicrous way forward for a large scale professional business organisation.

          As an aside, is Paddy not technically a shareholder; e.g. a pending shareholder, as long as he is with the business long term, in that he has been granted a share based payment that will come into force after a 3 year vesting period?

    4. @badger74 – good points. We don’t know what manner of ‘mea culpa’s have been stated internally at Williams. As much as I hate Claire’s corporate-speak pretty much every time she opens her mouth, she’s doing the right thing by covering for the team at the moment and taking the heat. Let’s just hope that’s being matched with a sensible internal inquest.

      I admit, it wouldn’t hurt our curiosity to hear some detail about what went wrong, but revealing information is always something that can be done at a later date, taking back something is impossible.

      1. Well put @phylyp – and we’ll done to Claire for holding firm. I’m sure she’ll have a story to tell when the time is right.

        1. A fair comment. Get off Claire’s back and let them get on with it. I’m just hoping that they can copme back to F1 as good as they used to be with a little time and less hassle from the sidelines.

    5. Normally enjoy Dieter efforts, but not this one. Williams don’t “must” do anything you or any person so wholly unconnected with them demands. It’s up to them what they do.

    6. Do heads really need rolling? Maybe, but what if it was all a 3rd part supplier, or something unforeseen?

      I can however see how it’s not entirely healthy when management is virtually irreplaceable as with Claire being a Williams and Paddy being a shareholder.

      1. but what if it was all a 3rd part supplier, or something unforeseen?

        There is still somebody internally responsible for that (procurement and contingency planning).

      2. According to my sources Paddy Lowe did not trigger his share option.

    7. Is losing 2,5 days of pre-season testing really this kind of catastrophe? It almost feels like people are losing all sense of proportion here. If the car keeps failing all the time then you may have something to talk about but missing 2.5 days of pre-season testing and another earlier date which amounts to 5 days total is not a total failure in my book. They are still doing 5.5 days out of 8 maximum.

      Car being 2.5 days late is something that just sometimes happens. Red bull, force india and sauber all have had problems problems getting their cars ready in time in recent years. Honda has not made a ready to drive engine for pre-season tests for 4 years. I’d calm down with this doom and gloom and at least let them test a bit before ramping up the tabloid headlines.

    8. It’s all very unfortunate, but howling for heads to roll sounds like an Italian answer to a british problem. Williams are not the 1st team to be late starting the season.

      1. It’s a journalism answer. No dirty laundry in public means no juicy stories for the press.

        Personally, I suspect it’s more a case of them losing their Martini sponsorship– that had to have affected their cash flow.

    9. This article smacks of the media putting themselves centre picture when it comes to a teams responsibilities to enlighten the media. So much wrong with it I don’t know where to start but in summary: You’re not centre picture and Williams have more important things to do than tell the press what they want to hear. It is laughable that someone with ZERO experience of even being in an F1 team let alone running one should start pontificating on what they SHOULD do. Saw the same thing with Ferrari last year with media blaming their capitulation on their poor attitude to the media.

      1. Well said!

        Despite my long standing questions as to Paddy and his abilities, it is not for the press to make demands and suggest all things must follow their given agenda.

        I have lived through this and managed several manufacturing and other companies with public/private problems such as this. I really hope that they have an independent group deal with the inquest (read as fix it for next time report) and not the perennial issue British manufacturing “internal review” it is called a self assessment and has to be brutally honest – if you do not know where you are, you do not know where your going.

        The issues at Williams are always going to be magnified by them being a large manufacturing it all type with outdated equipment and resources vs the outsourcing lower head count type. Obviously much time and effort goes into work outside of the race team simply to survive. Mclaren had to do similar but had a whole different investment behind that type of work and restructuring process. Williams do not and Paddy has no experience of being an engineer in charge of the lot without a guiding light and a very very rich auntie to assist. There will be questions. It makes a huge difference. It is not easy to turn around such boats that have found themselves heading to the bottom very quickly and requires many different skills.

      2. Hear! Hear!

        I normally enjoy a Dieter’s writing but not this time. Neither Dieter, nor anyone so wholly unconnected with Williams, has a right to demand that Williams “must” do anything. There is certainly a right to an opinion along the lines of “if I was in Williams’ shoes I’d do this” and we could all argue over what’s best, but this self-righteous piece is beyond the pale.

        Dieter Rencken is talking Italian.

    10. Two things: I don’t see where any team owes fans or the media anything, I mean by that logic teams wouldn’t have any secrets at all, but yeah unless they have a relatively strong campaign for here on in, Williams is showing major signs of an imploding organization. There’s clearly a need for fresh minds at the top.

      1. Disagree… The fans are owed something… Fans pay money which goes (partly, ultimately) to the teams. It’s as simple as that.
        As for your odd ‘logic’… there is no reason whatsoever why teams would then have no secrets left. You have neatly converted ‘anything’ into ‘everything’… This is oddly inverted logic… ;-)

    11. Wow, harsh. I don’t feel entitled to any explanation from Williams. Just let them get on with it.

      1. I agree. Let them sort it out and then they can explain things in time. Dieter obviously doesn’t like being told ‘no’ by teams ;).

        All of this talk is irrelevant anyway if Williams come out and get points in Melbourne – which no-one can really rule out as of yet.

    12. Couldn’t have said it better myself @dieterrencken!

    13. I feel like calling for Tifosi level of “off with their heads!” management canning is a little outrageous. Sure there are Williams superfans out there, but I think it’s silly to demand answers like this. While Claire being standoffish doesn’t help their image, they’re obviously struggling… I will respectfully wait until they have an answer and accept their decisions – what else is there to do?

    14. Pre-season testing is always a major let down — we’re all so excited for F1 to be resuming that we always seem to forget that pre-season testing nearly always tells us so little and leaves many questions unanswered until Melbourne.

      “We” are dying for a news story and there really seems to be only one real story — Williams. (Well, that and what exactly goes on with Mercedes setting such paltry lap times, but I doubt that it’s a “crisis”)

      It seems that because every other team has been able to just get on with it and Honda isn’t stranding cars on the side of the track, Williams, with their terribly visible issues have painted a massive crosshair on themselves and the media and commenters alike are running wild with it.

      Can we just calm down please?

      I’m not letting Williams of the hook, but as many of the previous commenters here have stated (I must commend this site, for its comments are actually worth reading) let’s give them time to get themselves on track, put in some miles, set some times and prepare themselves for a lengthy F1 campaign without all this “off with their heads” reaction.

      Something needs fixing, that is patently clear, and I’m certain they are looking hard at what that is. Lowe dodging the media may not have been a dodge at all, he may legitimately have needed that time to get a 2.5 day late car prepped to run as best it can for the remaining time this week.

      Honestly, I’d rather the Willimas folks clamp their mouths and get on with getting Kubica and Russell some much needed seat time.

      The answers will come in due time.

    15. Does it seem odd to anyone else that Lowe isn’t implementing (successfully at least) some Merc design at Williams? He was Exec Director at Merc during the time their first four current-spec championship cars were being designed (he was there from 2013, so saw 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 cars being designed). To be honest, I don’t know what that title allowed him to see/know but I have to imagine it was quite a lot, no? Unless the team stovepiped everyone so they only knew so much…

      Why wouldn’t you absorb everything you can so that 1) you stay relevant and advance your own knowledge in a fast-paced, innovative design environment; and, 2) have something to offer future teams when you leave your current one? Maybe he is doing as much as he can and others aren’t doing their share. But were in Williams team management I’d be asking where the Merc knowledge is.

      1. I suspect the Technical Director role (or whatever the title was) is less about them getting into the nitty gritty detail of designing, but rather managing people and their processes and making decisions in department meetings. Paddy’s role is going to be more concerned about getting his team to function more effectively so that they can tap into their creative potential and enjoy better communication with other departments. He’s not going to remember every CFD number from the Merc days, but he may encourage a similar car design philosophy – and judging from what we’ve seen, Williams have tended towards the Ferrari/Red Bull philosophy more than the Merc one.

    16. Other than technical analysis/speculations there isn’t much of substance to talk about at this point of the year but the media frenzy is out of scale.
      But how many camera’s were aimed at that first departure from the garage, and which pundit would have given a Williams more than a comment in passing. Rokit must be very pleased.

    17. I see more ‘comment frenzy’ in these comments than ‘media frenzy’ in the articles… ;-)

    18. I’ve got a friend working for one of the teams, and is out in Barcelona right now. I asked him what’s going on with Williams, and he said they’re having dire financial difficulties.

      With their dubious Rokit sponsorship, I can believe that. I don’t have anymore information than that.

    19. Given how long the troubles have been going on, I’d have expected answers by now. Less about why this specific failure cluster happened, but why the general trend is how it is. That we do not have it suggests one of two things:

      1) Williams isn’t sure it’s found the reason yet

      2) It can’t yet propose a solution (usually, public identification of underlying problems are presented once action has been taken that is believed to correct it.

      Either reason worries me.

      I have to admit wondering if Paddy is like Eghbal Hamidy – a designer who thrived in the matrix system of turn-of-the-millenium McLaren, left for Jordan and then came up with some radical, over-designed ideas that resulted in three months of lost wind-tunnel time, an emergency switch to different design directorship and a lawsuit (when F1 Magazine somehow managed to overstate the magnitude of the failure).

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