What do Williams need to change?

Over the past week or so, rumours that big changes are afoot at Williams have been ramping up.

Last week when I saw that a German website had written about this, I prepared a simple but telling graph looking at the form of Williams over the years. But I refrained from publishing it in case my conclusions were overly harsh.

But today the team’s technical director Sam Michael has come out and said for himself that the recent performance of Williams is not good enough.

What I would not be happy with doing would be not changing anything – even myself. Even if everyone said everything is perfect, I know it is not. So, I am not happy with the job that we have done as a group. I would review that anyway – including myself. I don’t exclude myself from any of that.

I, as technical director, have chosen the technical team that works for me… They are all people that I have chosen to put in those positions, so if it doesn’t work then it is my responsibility.

This is refreshing honesty. It is no secret that Williams’s form has been disappointing in the last few years. But it has never been properly confronted.

In the light of Sam Michael’s comments, here is the graph. It tracks the Constructors’ Championship positions of Williams throughout its 32 years in Formula 1. Alongside the annual positions, I have added a five-year rolling average to allow us to see the longer term trends.

Williams Constructors's Championship positions

It is well-known that Williams has always been a highly successful grand prix team. The 1980s were a bit of a rollercoaster. The team mixed hugely successful years with a few more disappointing years. Overall, the trend has been for the team to hover around 3rd place on average.

Then came the mid-1990s, when Williams were truly dominant. This was the period where Adrian Newey was on board. It is almost impossible for the five-year trend to get any higher, as the team strung together an incredible seven consecutive top-two finishes.

It is no secret that Williams have never dominated in this way ever since Adrian Newey left in 1997. But looking at the trend, Williams continued to average around 3rd place in the Constructors’ Championship — if anything, still slightly better than the pre-Adrian Newey years. But in the middle of the 2000s, it begins to change for the worse — dramatically.

In fact, if you look at the trendline, with no other knowledge I think you could actually guess when Sam Michael became technical director. In case you haven’t spotted it, I have added a subtle hint that pinpoints the year.

Williams Constructors's Championship positions (with arrow indicating when Sam Michael became technical director)

This could well be a harsh assessment. Sam Michael seems to be well respected among his colleagues at Williams. But from the outside, it has long perplexed me why there hasn’t been more of a question mark over Sam Michael’s role.

The team has made many changes in recent years. They have switched engine manufacturers from BMW to Cosworth via Toyota. They have brought on board hugely experienced drivers (Alexander Wurz, Rubens Barrichello) along with promising rookies (Nico Rosberg, Nico Hülkenberg). And there have been lots of changes behind the scenes with the operation of the business. None of these changes have done the trick.

Now, with Williams enduring their worst start to an F1 season since their very first one in 1978, it is crunch time. They need to face up to their issues properly.

We know the problem is not money. After all, the team keeps telling us they have no money worries whatsoever!

Currently the team languishes in 10th place in the Constructors’ Championship, behind Lotus, a team that is not yet two years old. Indeed, in China, Pastor Maldonado was beaten fair and square by Heikki Kovalainen in the Lotus.

Amazingly, this position is up from the situation after Malaysia, when the team was also behind Virgin in the Constructors’ Championship. Virgin is another team looking carefully at its technical set-up, as Nick Wirth’s CFD-only approach fails to prove its worth.

Here, just for fun, is the graph of Williams’s Constructors’ Championship positions with their current 10th place for 2011 added.

Williams Constructors's Championship positions (including 2011 up to the Chinese Grand Prix)

3 comments

  1. I don’t think it’s overly harsh at all — I’ve been wondering since the walrus tusk debacle why Sam Michael’s role in Williams seems beyond reproach. Even Gascoigne felt bad about beating Williams, feeling it should be one of the last teams he gets to beat!

  2. I think quite a lot of the reason is to do with the constant change Williams has endured since Patrick Head first got the idea that he needed someone to take over his position. While it is clear that something needs fixing because the arrangements as of 2011 are obviously non-functional, Williams also needs to make sure the this time, the fix is decisive and final. Once the fix is in place, it will take 2-3 years of stability before it can make major changes to the technical side.

    It may be that Sam has to step aside for Williams to progress, but stability across the board needs to be in place for the successors of the current regime to do better.