Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The future of Williams?

A front row lockout and finishing third and fourth at last weekend's Austrian Grand Prix was a great result from Williams whose last years have had lots of ups and downs. They fell from a top team to a midfield team once their partnership with BMW ended after the 2005 season. 2011 was their worst season in decades, ninth position in the constructors' championship with only five points. After that, one could wonder if there were any hope for a better future for Williams. That's why their good form in the 2012 season was a positive surprise. Pastor Maldonado won the Spanish Grand Prix for the team, their first win since Juan Pablo Montoya at the 2004 Brazilian GP. Yet they couldn't finish higher than eighth in the constructors' championship; Maldonado was way too inconsistent and Bruno Senna didn’t have the pace.

2013 was again a difficult season for the team. Just like in 2011, they finished ninth in the constructors championship with five points. After the season, Maldonado, with his PDVSA sponsorship, left the team for Lotus. Valtteri Bottas, who had replaced Bruno Senna after 2012, stayed in the team, and a former Ferrari driver Felipe Massa became his new teammate. The team also had to end their engine partnership with Renault and they switched to Mercedes engines.

The switch to Mercedes engines was probably the best thing that could happen to Williams. Mercedes has built the best 2014-spec engine, as shown by their own team dominating the series. That's why also Mercedes' customers have had good results this year. But you can't explain Williams' good form with only the Mercedes engines. They are ahead of McLaren, an established top team. Force India are two points ahead of Williams but they gained lots of points compared to Williams in the early season. Williams seem like the only team besides Red Bull that might have pace to challenge Mercedes, even though Williams doesn't perform everywhere as well as at Montreal and the Red Bull Ring.

But can they repeat this season's results next year and re-establish themselves as a top team? That is hard to say but I am a bit sceptical. I believe that at least some of Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren will be stronger next year and will be able to challenge Mercedes. This season is for Williams a bit like the 2012 season was for Williams and Sauber. Suddenly a midfield team has a car capable for podium results, yet they couldn't repeat the success in the following year. One advantage for Williams is the Mercedes engines, though. If Mercedes could retain their advantage for the next year, Williams might find themselves fighting against usual top teams like Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren.

The Mercedes engines may have helped Williams to become again a team that can race for podium results but if they are to become a true championship contender, they may need to have another engine partner. After all, Williams are Mercedes' customers and I am not sure they would get full support, especially if that might cost Mercedes' own team a title. McLaren could have stayed as a customer team for Mercedes who are probably the best engine manufacturer in F1. Instead they start a works engine partnership with Honda. Being a customer team isn't an ideal position if you want to race for the titles.

Williams need results like they have had this year to convince some car manufacturer to enter into a works partnership with them. What I think is good for Williams, is that they seem to be financially more stable than other midfield teams, making them more attractive for a long-term partnership. Besides, their non-F1 engineering services might make them an attractive partner for a car manufacturer. Still, at the moment there isn't much talk about potential new engine manufacturers, so having Mercedes customer engines is the best they can have at the moment. Those are the best engines available and help them to establish themselves as a strong midfield team. That is where they need to be to have a chance to become a works team for a new engine manufacturer.

To establish themselves as a strong midfield team, they need also a strong driver line-up. Bottas and Massa is a good pairing, especially Bottas has had some very impressive race performances. But Bottas has been so good that I expect him to leave Williams for a better team in few years unless Williams becomes a true top team. Having at least one excellent driver is necessary for a team. Williams' 2012 season is an example on that. The car had lots of potential, as shown by Maldonado's win in the Spanish GP. But Maldonado was very inconsistent and Bruno Senna lacked pace. With a stronger driver line-up, they might have finished a couple of positions higher in the final standings.

Finding good drivers is difficult for a midfield team, especially as they aren't able to pay much but would rather have drivers who would bring some sponsors. But Williams aren't here alone. The likes of Lotus, Force India, and Sauber have this same problem. One can hope that the good results of this year would bring some new sponsors for Williams to be able to have a strong driver line-up as well as engineering department. Unfortunately we have seen in recent years that good performances don't guarantee new sponsors for midfield teams. Lotus was strong in last two seasons and Sauber in 2012, yet those teams have had financial difficulties.

Williams are having a great season but they still have a long way to become a real top team. They need results like this to attract new sponsors and maybe some car manufacturer to enter into a works partnership. More sponsor income and works engines are in my opinion what Williams need to become a championship contender again.

1 comment:

  1. Great writing, let's hope that Williams can win this season. I also write a sports blog in finnish: http://urheilunortti.omablogi.fi/