How Williams ‘made the car faster without actually improving the car’

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The turnaround at Williams has been, by any standards, remarkable. The once-dominant team placed last for two straight years. It scored a single point in 2019, after the post-race penalisation of two cars for minor technical infringements at the German Grand Prix, and nothing in 2020.

How times have changed. In the last five races Williams has scored four times, including bagging second place during Belgium’s washed-out race.

Heading for the Turkish Grand Prix the team founded by Frank Williams in 1977 and sold to Dorilton Capital, a single-family investment office based in New York, in August 2020, lies eighth in the standings with 23 points. That’s over three times the tally of ninth-placed Alfa Romeo and far ahead of point-less Haas. The chance of either (or both) overhauling Williams in the remaining seven races are slim.

True, three of those four races were rain-affected and there are no doubts the Spa podium was a one-off result under unique circumstances. But on an overall basis the team is performing better than at any point during the past four years. Team members again have springs in their steps, while drivers George Russell and Nicolas Latifi, who both joined the outfit on its downward spiral, grin broadly during media sessions.

Star turn in qualifying delivered second for Russell at Spa
Williams now has the glow of a proud Formula 1 team, one that has no need to shy away from tricky media questions after each race. The team is on the up and everybody knows it – borne out by Red Bull’s placement of Alexander Albon with the team for 2022. A year ago, Williams was the last team with whom Red Bull would place an emerging driver.

“Morale is high, everyone is happy and you kind of feel that about the place,” the team’s head of vehicle performance Dave Robson said in Sochi, “which is the key about having a string of results and it not being a flash in the pan – [it] breeds more morale.”

Much of the credit for the turnaround is due to CEO Jost Capito, who was recruited from Volkswagen Group, where he directed VW’s world rally championship-winning team before heading up the brand’s performance road car ‘R’ division. His CV is steeped in motorsport, whether two wheels, rally or F1.

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Since assuming office he has added the team principal role to his executive activities, brought in Francois-Xavier Demaision as technical director and instilled an ‘opportunist’ approach, one that encourages team members to take calculated risks. “If we do as everybody else does, we will be behind them until our package is improved,” he explained to me in May in Monaco.

Demaison and Capito head up Williams’ new hierarchy
He expanded on that subject in Sochi. “If you have the ninth-fastest car, you can try things differently and not be always on the back foot and try to conserve what you have,” he said. “Try something different that others might not try because they are up front and for them it would be risky. A couple of times, we’ve taken risks, with tyre choice for the weather and it worked out.”

That’s how Spa’s front-row qualifying result came about, which was in turn converted into Russell’s podium on Sunday. Crucial to such a policy is a no-blame culture, with Robson praising Capito for his approach.

“Jost is supportive of those decisions.” he said. “Not that previous management weren’t, but Jost is proactive in reminding us that we are free to make those kinds of decisions and there won’t be any direct comebacks. Jost undoubtedly has a part to play in setting that scene and letting us do a good job.”

Apart from the appointment of ‘FX’ and the restructure at top level, little else has changed structurally although internal and inter-departmental communications have been strengthened. “It shows that the team works better as an overall team on communication. I’m surprised how much that can make the car faster without actually improving the car,” Capito said.

That said, the facilities in Grove have been upgraded substantially and there is more to come. Particularly in the composites department, which had been neglected by the previous management due to the tight purse strings imposed by circumstances.

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“A lot of new machines came in at the end of last year, so the machine park is absolutely up to date,” Capito told RaceFans in response to a question about ‘big ticket’ capital expenditure items. “Also, 3D printers were installed last year so they are not under the budget cap matrix. From that point of view we are in a much better position than we have been last year.

“Composites is one of the areas we have to improve, it’s one that is really obvious,” said Capito. “But there are other areas that are as important as the composite area that have to be modernised,”

Jost Capito exclusive interview
Interview: How a ‘dream’ chance to lead Williams put Capito’s retirement plans on hold
Given that a little over a year has elapsed since the takeover of the cash-strapped team by Dorilton, how was such a rapid turnaround possible regardless of Capito’s undoubted management skills? The key lies in a discussion I had with former CEO Mike O’Driscoll during the 2019 Mexican Grand Prix weekend when he explained that, in order to secure the team’s future, a rolling capital expenditure plan was maintained even if immediate funding was not available.

Thus, he explained, Williams was prepared for a big payday when it arrived, whether via a mega-buck sponsor or a buy-out, be that by a manufacturer (Porsche is believed to have sniffed about some time back) or deep-pocketed investors. Thus, when Dorilton completed the deal, it was simply a matter of joining the dots and signing purchase orders to get the initial upgrading programmes up and running with minimal delay.

If Capito can take credit for the latest run of results – and so he should – so too can the outgoing management, led by Claire Williams and O’Driscoll, for the company’s state of preparedness at time of sale. It was they who handed over a fully functioning company, one that simply lacked the financial resources required to return the Williams name to its former glory sooner rather than later.

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25 comments on “How Williams ‘made the car faster without actually improving the car’”

  1. With Williams on the up and up and every other team claiming they’re focusing on next year (besides maybe the big two who I’m sure will be at least semi-competitive) you have to wonder who the big loser will be next year. Alfa seems to have the least momentum (Haas has probably the biggest head start of anybody) but bottas should be the best driver of the current bottom three. Is it possible everyone will be in the mix?

    1. @realnigelmansell
      They aren’t just claiming because that’s the truth. Everyone certainly stopped wind tunnel development a while ago already by summer break at the very latest.
      I’m sure Merc & RBR will remain on top, although I hope Ferrari & Mclaren could challenge on pure pace (more) regularly.
      Even if Haas had a headstart, they’re unlikely to become a top midfield team, given field tightness.
      I share the view on Alfa, and yes, everyone could be in the mix, although the opposite is equally possible.

      1. Hmm. I could easily see Mercedes or red bull falling to the midfield or off the top. I think it’s much more of an unknown than people think.
        My pet theory is that Ferrari did whatever backstage haggling Mercedes did pre 2014 and will dominate the next few years. Would explain why spinotto hasn’t been sacked. But hopefully it will be tighter and we’ll get another classic season

        1. @realnigelmansell

          I have to agree. Next year is the biggest shake up of the regulations since the Hybrid Turbo engines came in. We saw top teams drop to the midfield then, and Mercedes come from the midfield to the top. All it takes is one significant sub-optimal decision in a top team’s concept for next year, or one strong innovation from a midfield team, and the order can change very quickly!

          1. Andy (@andyfromsandy)
            4th October 2021, 9:17

            Unfortunately reading Brawns posts, if a team comes up with something that gives them a real advantage that we didn’t see we will regulate it away.

          2. @andyfromsandy

            From what I’ve read, he has said that if a team comes up with something which stops the stated aims of the new concept working (i.e. making the cars able to follow more closely) they will regulate it away. That isn’t quite the same thing, and I suspect it is there more to encourage teams to look at how their innovations are affecting the wake rather than to ban innovation.

          3. The expectation is that some teams will be transporting a whole bunch of “sand-bags” to preseason testing.
            Heck, there were stories that Brawn himself did this back in the early days when they took over from Honda.
            One or a couple of teams will hit-it out of the park.
            Gonna be great to see it come together.

        2. @realnigelmansell, what backstage haggling did Mercedes do pre-2014?

          1. That was mostly a joke. There are rumors I see now and then that they started designing their pu before the regs were agreed on and lobbied for it, or that they used their dtm program to circumvent testing limits, but I’ve never seriously looked into it and afaik there’s no real evidence
            Fwiw I think every team does stuff like that

    2. @realnigelmansell The big losers will be us the fans as every rules shakeup spreads the field. Yes, you might get a new team dominating, but that’s about it.

      Then stable rules will bring the racing closer, before the inevitable new rules upheaval spreads the cars again.

      It’s the way of F1.

    3. Dutchguy (@justarandomdutchguy)
      4th October 2021, 16:28

      Haas might have a headstart, but they have the disadvantage of not being able to actually design the thing. Maybe they’ll be more competative in 2023, when there’s new generation Ferrari parts available

  2. Claire Williams is unfairly maligned in my opinion. She did a very good job under the circumstances.

    1. Meh, what did Williams achieve with a Mercedes engine..

      1. It’s not just the PU that delivers track time. A car can lose so much if it poorly handles low, medium and high speed corners… or has no braking efficiency, or suffers aerodynamic stalls, or has too much drag, or….

        You get the idea

        1. That kind of puts the kaibosh on the notion so prevalent in comments that Mercedes’s dominance during the hybrid era come just from having the best optimized power unit.

    2. Absolutely.

  3. The effect of a steady income of money is clear they can make those upgrades they first couldn’t. And with those little upgrade and paitient setups you are going to score more then the teams who doesn’t do this.

  4. While I think Williams are doing an amazing job to pick themselves up, I doubt that was a majorb factor in the placement of Alex Albon with the team. Rather, it was pretty much the only seat remaining. With all 4 of their seats filled with drivers they preferred, they had the choice of Williams or nowhere.

    1. I can’t imagine the Williams seat really lured Albon in; there was an undecided seat at Alfa Romeo as well which Red Bull did not pursue. Red Bull’s decision to push for Williams looked more like: 1) a political move to block Mercedes who were looking for a convenient seat for Nyck de Vries, 2) it was chosen out of spite for the Silverstone incident, and 3) to hedge their 2022 power unit performance with an insider (Albon) at a Mercedes-powered team who they could call back home to divulge intelligence. I highly doubt they will need to rely on #3 given Honda’s current performance and Red Bull’s “investment” in talent from local power unit manufacturers.

      1. I think Red Bull would have been well aware of how big the chances are of a certain Chinese driver with 30 million reasons to join AT getting that job “The Doplhins” and were just realistic in tempering any expectations they would win out against those odds.

  5. It shows you what a paradigm shift can do. Rather than getting stuck, trying to do the same thing over and over again without changing results.

    so too can the outgoing management, led by Claire Williams and O’Driscoll, for the company’s state of preparedness at time of sale. It was they who handed over a fully functioning company, one that simply lacked the financial resources required to return the Williams name to its former glory sooner rather than later.

    Talk about sugarcoating the situation, and being overly nice Dieter.
    Williams got into their position by managerial choices, not by being overcome by bad luck, so they literally ran their company into the ground.
    It might have been a functioning company, but given that everything needed investment and overhaul, you cannot say it was a fully functioning F1 team, rather a wounded one that needed some TLC.

    1. Their choices were dictated by money. Once Bernie started putting F1 behind a paywall the sponsorship value dropped like a stone and smaller teams suddenly found themselves unable to produce enough money.

  6. It’s good to see some acknowledgement of Claire’s role in the takeover and prepping the team for a new future.
    She received a lot of flack on this forum and mostly undeserved.

  7. It makes you wonder about management at williams before the recent changes at the top.
    Were they doing all they could to maximise the potential of the car?

    What are they doing differently now that they are under new ownership?
    Has there been any kind of reshuffle at williams?

  8. Maybe the last paragraph needs to be in bold or in a bigger font?

    so too can the outgoing management, led by Claire Williams and O’Driscoll, for the company’s state of preparedness at time of sale. It was they who handed over a fully functioning company, one that simply lacked the financial resources required to return the Williams name to its former glory sooner rather than later.

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