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Three days in, already a crisis at Williams

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Expert
20th February, 2019
7

Some say any news is good news, but there’s no way to spin what’s happening at Williams as positive.

That Williams finally made it on track overnight (AEDT) would have come as a relief to some, but missing almost a third of preseason testing with less than a month until the first race of the season has put it about as far on the back foot as a team can get.

This is doubly meaningful for the much-loved heritage constructor, which had pegged 2019 as the first year in its regeneration after suffering its worst championship finish in history with tenth place last season.

“It’s definitely going to be next-gen Williams from 2019,” deputy team principal Claire Williams told Crash. “[2019] for us is going to be very much that we can push the reset button.”

Fielding the slowest car of 2018 and collecting a measly seven points should’ve meant the historic British marque couldn’t sink any lower, yet things are already looking grim at Grove.

The glitzy car launch with new title sponsor ROKiT, complete with a new livery and all-new driver line-up, was supposed to signify the first step towards recovery, but two days later the team confirmed it would miss its scheduled filming day, an event that in practice is used to shake down the car before testing begins.

“We have had an extremely aggressive engineering programme over the winter,” Claire Williams said in a statement. “As such, we have taken the decision not to run our car during our filming day this weekend in order to allow the team to maximise the time at the factory before we head to Barcelona for the first day of the test.”

This on its own is no major drama. Even Renault openly admitted that it was at risk of missing its filming day, and pushing development for as long as possible is part of the game.

But the matter moved from a minor curiosity to a notable problem when on Sunday, the day before the first morning of testing, Williams delayed the on-track debut of its car until Tuesday, and that notable problem became a significant issue when the team advised it was now not due to take to the track until Wednesday afternoon (last night AEDT) “at the earliest”.

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Piling on the pressure are stories of low morale inside the team after simulations suggested the car is slower than expected, which in turn is amping up speculation on technical director Paddy Lowe’s position at the team after his first car last year proved such an emphatic disappointment.

Williams racing motorsport Catalonia Grand Prix

Day 3 of Formula 1 winter testing at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya in Montmeló, Spain; testing runs from 18 to 21 February 2019.

But for all the mutterings of crisis at Williams, the critical delay in getting the car onto the track is understandable in the greater context of this season, and it goes some way to describing some of the problems afflicting Formula One.

Williams is now in the unique position of being an independent constructor adrift in a sea of teams supported or sponsored by major automotive manufacturers (Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault, McLaren and Alfa Romeo), multibillion-dollar businesses (Red Bull Racing and Toro Rosso) or wealthy benefactors (Haas and Racing Point).

Williams stands alone as a publicly listed company reliant on prize money and its sponsorship portfolio.

The business model experienced turmoil in the last 12 months with the departure of title sponsor Martini and the substantial financial backing of drivers Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin — all in a year that sudden changes to the technical regulations for 2019 required an unexpected additional outlay in developing the car.

Further, the smaller teams are increasingly closely tied with the larger ones. Haas is the most notable example, buying as many parts from Ferrari as is allowed by the regulations and outsourcing most of the rest to a third party. Toro Rosso too is re-establishing a technical partnership with Red Bull Racing now that the two share a power unit supplier.

Williams, on the other hand, remains steadfastly solitary, turning its nose up at the trend towards technical partnerships that it believes dilute the sport.

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“It’s not easy currently with the way the regulations are for truly independent constructors to compete,” Claire Williams said at the launch of this year’s car, as per Autosport. “We’re incredibly proud of the fact we’re true constructors in the sense we make all of our race cars in-house ourselves.”

In many respects Williams is at the heart of a debate raging at the centre of the sport. The degree to which cars are built exclusively in-house intersects with cost-saving, both of which are matters being pursued by Formula One and the FIA for rules changes in 2021.

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There is talk of an overall cost cap in 2021, but concrete details remain elusive. There is also the suggestion that the way the sport dictates how much of a car must be made in-house will be redefined, perhaps by forcing teams to make more parts independently in exchange for a list of mandated standard parts which all constructors would have to use — indeed the FIA this week has released a tender for a sole supplier of gearbox internals for 2021-24.

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Formula 1 is attempting to move towards a more competitive and financially sustainable business model on these and other terms, but a happy medium on its most difficult issues is at least two years away, and could yet be delayed further.

Until then Williams will be forced to live its independent half-life struggling to keep up with its rivals on what has become an uneven playing field. That sounds like a crisis to me.