“I'm not too concerned about us not having scored points yet,” said Formula 1 veteran Rubens Barrichello at the Spanish Grand Prix. “We will do it, it's a certainty. What scares me a little is we had plans to win races at Williams this year – and those plans are now far, far away.”
Points – two of them – finally came at the sixth attempt, when Barrichello finished ninth in Monaco. But the plan to win races? That remains far, far away.
It's just the latest in what is now a set Williams routine: preseason hopes dashed by reality. It's been like this for so long, it's easy to forget what a colossus the team once was – and for how long. With founders Frank Williams and Patrick Head at the helm, one taking care of business, the other the nuts and bolts, it bestrode Formula 1 in the 1980s and '90s, generally sharing alternate dominance with McLaren. In fact, from 1991 to '97, with a series of Adrian Newey-designed cars, it had a then-unprecedented run as the fastest for the longest.
However, from then until its most recent victory at the end of 2004, it looked like a top team struggling to uncover an underlying problem. Since '05, it's been a minor player, dreaming of the magic design that will somehow take it back to its rightful place, yet kidding no one but itself. It's become a paddock cliché to compare Williams of the 2000s with Tyrrell of the 1980s and '90s, a once-great team whose stature reduces each season.
But Barrichello's hopes were more than the delusions of a 39-year-old hanging onto his own dream of remaining in F1 after an 18-year run. He was optimistic last year as he watched a very radical car take shape, a design much more adventurous than Williams' of recent seasons. The FW33 features an outrageously small gearbox, something that looks more suited to a motorbike than a 750hp F1 car. It sits so low that new technology was needed to point the driveshafts down at the necessary angle. Even the upper suspension wishbone has had to be mounted to the rear wing pylon – because there's just fresh air at the point where it would normally be mounted to the gearbox. All this was in chase of ultimate aerodynamic performance.
“I lived a lovely season last year,” continues Barrichello. “The process was going to take a little longer but we were going to do it, and whenever I saw the gearbox or driveshafts, it was very exciting. Everything was moving to a better aerodynamic package. It's an aero package-driven car – but the aero is not working.”
When this became evident, technical director of the last seven years Sam Michael (with Head at right) handed in his resignation, as did chief of aero Jon Tomlinson. It's as if the FW33 was the last roll of the dice. How did it come to this?
There were two crucial game-changers. The first came back in the off-season of 1996 when chief designer Newey proposed he be made a shareholder in the team – and was rejected out of hand by Frank and Patrick. Newey would have made the perfect bridge from the team's past to its future and given it a permanent devastating head start over everyone else, just as it had enjoyed since his arrival in 1990. It's one thing not to pay big money to drivers (always a point of principle with Williams) and quite another to extend that to the guy making the real difference. With Patrick continuing to oversee as Newey grew, it would have been perfect, and there's no reason why Williams wouldn't now be in the same position as Red Bull.
Instead, the spurned Newey signed with the opposition, and so he joined a list of names – Mansour Ojjeh and Honda principal among them – that defected from Williams to McLaren. No team can lose such huge assets as these and not suffer from it. Any single one of them would have been a body blow, but all three? That was downright careless.
The other crucial factor was not making a lasting partnership with BMW when F1 was still in its manufacturer era, when you needed such levels of financial and technical resource to compete at the front. There are all sorts of reasons why this partnership collapsed, a lot of it clashing cultures. The fierce independence of Frank and Patrick meant the team was not for sale and it may yet prove to have been a wise decision. But it certainly lost the team its ability to run up front for the remainder of the manufacturer era.
“The Williams team I signed for in '05 was not the team of old,” says Mark Webber, “but I only realized that when I arrived.”
Webber remains a fan of Michael's, and feels – as does Barrichello – that he needed more support. Williams' failure to return to the front now that the manufacturer era is over is not a surprise to him.
“Sam was the right guy in the wrong job,” says one former employee. “He was incredibly thorough and so hard-working, He's a guy who's brilliant operationally and someone who, if you give him a car, will get every last tenth from it at the track. But he maybe didn't have the appropriate skill set or band width to do that and oversee the design process. If he'd been teamed with someone with more flair in that department, it would have been mighty.”
At some level it's a failure of leadership, a quality the team never lacked in its heyday (LEFT: Jacques Villeneuve leads en route to the World Championship in 1997). “Frank and Patrick inspired people,” says another one-time employee. “That was their greatest contribution to the success of the team and it's something that's missing as they get older and run out of energy. That galvanizing force somehow weakens and no one has really replaced them.”
Last year, former chief executive officer Adam Parr took over as chairman from Sir Frank. His skill set is suited to the commercial side of the operation – and that's becoming ever-more crucial – but he can never be a direct replacement for the founder. “Adam is highly able but isn't a racing man,” says one insider, “and he doesn't inspire people in the way Frank and Patrick were able to. That role needs to be fulfilled and although [12 percent shareholder] Toto Wolff is just a serial investor, if he gets seduced by the pit wall profile side of the business, I think he may have the leadership, charisma and ease with people that's required.”
There have been signs this year that the Austrian key shareholder may indeed be becoming more actively involved.
There's no reason why the team can't have as many rolls of the dice as it wishes, so long as it can stay in business. This, perhaps more than returning to race-winning form, is what has preoccupied Frank Williams since one day a few years ago when he had dinner with then-FIA chief Max Mosley.
“He was very charming,” recalls Sir Frank, “and very charmingly told me my business model was unviable in the F1 era he was planning. I said, ‘Thanks very much, Max. Is this the reward I get for 30 years of being a good citizen in F1 society?'”
The point Mosley was making was that Williams had expanded massively during the car manufacturer era but that he was intent on making F1 affordable, returning it to being the preserve of teams with, say, 200 people rather than the 600-plus Williams then employed. The team was in danger of becoming a dinosaur, without the manufacturer backing appropriate to its size and a dwindling prospect of attracting sponsorship of the necessary scale.
And so came the big drive to diversify, to sell Williams' advanced engineering skills to the market. It's been a brilliant move, one that may yet be the race team's financial savior. It has allowed Williams to retain independence but still support the expansive facilities and workforce. Williams hybrid technology has been developed and raced very successfully with Porsche and it's been announced that the new Jaguar hybrid-powered supercar C-X75 is being developed with Williams tech. There are several more lucrative engineering contracts that client confidentiality prevents Williams from publicizing. The F1 team is becoming just an adjunct to the main business – cutting-edge engineering technology.
Seen in that light, Williams may not be so much in a tailspin but simply evolving away from its original reason for existence. That diversification may be what prevents the race team from sliding into oblivion Tyrrell-style, although it's in a state of disarray during this transition. It may not find favor with racing purists but, given the way F1's commercial landscape has changed in the last three years, it can at least shore up the foundations of what has been a crumbling entity. With a solid basic structure, who knows what renovations may be possible in the future.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the July 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.