Last year saw Williams Grand Prix Engineering make a return to a position it had not occupied since the mid 1990s: the front end of a Grand Prix grid. It was a welcome sight to behold the once indomitable Grove-based squad, winner of 9 Constructor’s and 7 Driver’s World Championships, once again jousting with the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull.
Williams F1 had managed last year’s return to form in spite of a budget deficit of about $150M USD to the likes of Ferrari and Mercedes. They performed this bit of wizardry through a combination of switching from Renault to Mercedes power in the 2013 off-season, getting a new title sponsor in the form of booze giant Martini, retaining the superlative Valtteri Bottas and pairing him with seasoned veteran Felipe Massa, and by head hunting the other teams and attracting serious new brain power to the team. These moves saw Williams jump from their 9th place finish in the 2013 Constructor’s rankings to 3rd in 2014, and by the end of the season, occupying the position of “Best of the Rest” after AMG-Mercedes. It seemed an excellent basis to build from for 2015.
But alas, after four races in 2015, Williams has found themselves relapsing, slipping behind the resurgent Ferrari, and seemingly having trouble staying ahead of some of this year’s midfield teams such as Red Bull, Force India and even Lotus. Given that very few things changed for Williams during the 2014 off-season, it begs the question, “Why?”
Unlike most advances or regression of form in Formula 1 in which the complexities make for a nebulous explanation at best, Williams’ slump thankfully may be more easily elucidated.
For starters, let’s look at the leap-frogging of Williams by Ferrari. In 2014, Ferrari was in an absolute state of chaos. Their power unit was severely compromised by decisions made during development of their 1.6L turbo hybrid system, and their chassis and aero problems were legion. A series of firings within the team resulted, and included Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo, two team principles, and virtually the entire technical design staff. Add to that, the loss of lead driver Fernando Alonso. To put it mildly, 2014 was a disaster for the red squad. Williams, on the other hand, had seemingly made the most of their 2014 package, and was the best non-works team using the Mercedes hybrid power unit. Their deficit to the factory AMG-Mercedes team amounted more or less to a less an aero solution that wasn’t quite as efficient, understandable given the difference in budget between the two teams.
In essence then, Williams had far less room for improvement in the 2014 off-season than did Ferrari. The 2015 Williams package is as much an improvement over their 2014 contender as this year’s W06 AMG-Mercedes is over last year’s Championship winning W05; that is to say, it is an all around better car than the 2014 version, but is an evolution, rather than a revolution of last year’s technical package.
Ferrari, on the other hand, through total team reorganization and a complete overhaul of last year’s recalcitrant F-14T, has started from a completely blank page. Owing to how far back they were last year, the massive budget they were given for 2015 (rumors suggest an additional $100M USD was spent), the hiring of the best and brightest available for their technical team, the retaining of a freshly motivated Sebastian Vettel, and to be honest, a good pinch of luck, Ferrari have been able to maximize their 2015 package. Quite simply, they have created in the SF-15T racecar what they should have been able to create in 2014, had the team not gotten off track in its development. When one considers the massive infrastructure and resources that Ferrari has compared to those of Williams, it really should be of no surprise that Ferrari has claimed the second-best spot.
Moving on, we must focus on the 2015 Williams FW-37 itself. Pat Symonds, Williams’ brilliant Technical Director has been vocal about the deficiencies of the 2015 car, and he lays the blame at a lack of overall downforce. This is responsible, according to Symonds, for the FW-37 main handling problem: a lack of traction through low-speed corners. Drivers Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas agree, the latter noting that last year’s car suffered from the same issue on certain circuits.
In addition to the cornering speeds, the lack of downforce has been having an effect on the FW-37’s ability to manage its tires, an area where Ferrari and Mercedes’ 2015 cars excel. Without the ability to manage a longer stint if necessary, Williams is at a distinct disadvantage to the aforementioned teams in terms of their race strategy. They have lost the ability to undercut the other teams, or conversely run longer on a set of tires to enable the next set to do less mileage.
In terms of the FW-37’s power unit, there is less agreement amongst the squad’s key players. Pat Symonds was quoted in Shanghai as saying “In terms of our power unit, we’re pretty happy with things. I think all the Mercedes customers are.” Bottas and Massa have disagreed with that assessment, with Bottas suggesting that there were drivability issues with this year’s power unit that weren’t present last year, and Massa, with typical Latin temperament, suggesting on more than one occasion that he suspects that the customer Mercedes power unit package is not identical to the one the works AMG-Mercedes team is using. For their part, AMG-Mercedes have denied these allegations.
What’s indisputable is that because of these and other smaller issues, Williams is lacking overall race pace compared to AMG-Mercedes and Ferrari. In qualifying trim though, the Williams seems much better, often jostling for grid spots with the two top teams. Interestingly, this is the exact opposite situation that Ferrari faces, as the SF-15T has superlative race pace, but issues when in quali trim.
Pit stops have also been a problem for Williams this year. While not a technical issue with the car, as we all know, a pit stop can mean the difference in finishing position in a race. This was the case in Malaysia for Massa when a misaligned rear jack cost the Brazilian dearly. Williams’ Head of Vehicle Performance, Rob Smedley, has admitted that this much change, especially when the competition, such as Ferrari, are routinely turning out 2.3 and 2.4 second stops.
Symonds has taken an accommodating view of this, and the overall season thus far, and is resolute that there is more to come from Williams this year.