Although it’s early days yet, the indications after the first pre-season test is that Williams is well on the road to recovery after the annus horribilis it endured in 2019.
[f1tv2020testa]Williams arrived in Spain last year aiming to bounce back from a bruising 2018 in which they slumped to last in the championship. Instead they endured the embarrassment of failing to produce a car for the first day of pre-season testing, followed by the discovery that the FW42 was potentially a worse car than the previous one. “We hit rock bottom,” deputy team principal Claire Williams recalled this week.
Just about the only high point of the season that followed came when it grabbed a point in Germany. Even that, on the 40th anniversary year of the team’s first grand prix victory, only came after two competitors were disqualified from a chaotic race for technical infringements.
Before testing, rumours swirled about that the team was again in similar straits, even suggestions its test car would be dispatched to Barcelona as “a box of bits” to be assembled in the garage. This proved utterly unfounded – indeed, as early as Friday a spy picture of the FW43 appeared. The car was sent to Spain over the weekend, and shaken down by the team on Monday, two days before testing was due to begin.
Come 9am on Wednesday when the Circuit de Catalunya opened for action George Russell’s blue, white and red car was at the sharp end, first onto the track. Although the team downplayed the symbolism, it was a fitting reward for the folk who experienced so much heartbreak last year.
Of course being, first out the box provides only brownie points, not championship points. But over three days the team ran consistently with Russell and Nicholas Latifi alternating at the wheel.
Bar the odd sensor issue, repairs to running damage and a power unit data “spike”, the FW43 performed faultlessly. Over the first three days of testing last year the team covered just 107 kilometres; at the same stage this year the FW43 has done more than 1,500.
The team has already lapped almost a second quicker than it did during last year’s Spanish Grand Prix weekend. Russell is bullish, not least because of the strides made in every area of car performance since the last race of 2019. That is the true measure of improvement.
On Friday Claire Williams, de facto boss of the eponymous outfit founded by her father, faced the press. Her demeanour could not have been more different from a year ago when, frankly, we were rather tough on her. “I’m smiling,” she said this time when asked by RaceFans how she felt, before admitting the year-on-year target was to “make progress.”
She is under no illusions that the road to full recovery to the team’s former title-winning status will be long and hard, but she has clearly delivered on her promise made last August during an exclusive interview of getting to a “the root” of the team’s problems and of creating “a new culture”.
At the time she insisted the changes she was making would deliver. “I think the work that we have put in that people don’t get to see, because it is all behind-the-scenes stuff, then you want to believe that the work, the change that has gone on at Williams, which I am so proud of, that it’s all going to shape the future,” she said.
The entire car process – from first concept through design and production to testing, racing and development – has undergone scrutiny, with wide-ranging changes implemented to drag the team up to F1 2020 standards. In short, the team had previously operated a decade out of date, and hence its slow slide down the grid as the sport became exponentially more sophisticated: each season had brought another retrograde step.
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“Behind the scenes at Grove over the past 12 months,” she said this week, “we’ve all undergone huge transformation and change. And what we would like to see now is the rewards of that change, because the business really is unrecognisable from where we were, from everything, whether it be structures, processes, policies, et cetera.”
There is still a long way to go. Contrast Williams’ position with that of its fellow Mercedes customer Racing Point. The pink team, once Williams’s grid peer, has built a completely new car drawing on different design philosophies for the final season under F1’s current regulations. Williams has effectively updated the FW42 to carry updated aerodynamic parts and running gear – akin to a ‘FW42B’.
Equally, it remains the only team to use a cast aluminium gearbox housing – Renault, the last of the others, moved to a composite casing three years ago. This is both a consequence of its ‘complete constructor’ model and a pointer to a lack of collaboration with a major team beyond sourcing power units from Mercedes. Racing Point, for example, sources (at least) a complete rear end from Mercedes, something Williams says she is still unwilling to consider.
[smr2020test]That said, when you’re pursuing lap time gains in the order of whole seconds rather than tenths, there are different priorities when it comes to building the 26,000 parts which comprise a modern Formula 1 car. Still, Williams will eventually need to move with the times in this – and other – regards, but that takes budget, which this year will be about at the same level as per last year, in turn well down on 2018.
Tellingly, a rival team boss told RaceFans on Friday that currently two teams are intensively (and successfully) recruiting personnel: Racing Point and Williams. That speaks volumes, for while the former received massive budget boosts courtesy of its new owners and tie-up to Aston Martin, the fact that Williams is playing the job market points to a quiet confidence not seen for a few years now.
Hence the trick for 2020 will be keep head above water and prepare for all change in 2021, when F1’s playing field should at least be levelled, if not completely so. In the interim, Williams needs to finish at least ninth – which testing performance suggests should be well within teach. That alone will be just reward for all the hard work over the past 12 months. Any further improvement will be a bonus.
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