Williams, on the verge of something new?

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When was the last time Williams F1 won a championship? If I said 1997 would you believe me? That would make it sixteen years ago. Who would have ever thought Williams would be unable to repeat what for a time was commonplace—taking possession of one or both of the big silver trophies the FIA hands out at the end of each racing season. Constructor titles: 80, 81, 86, 87, 92, 93, 94, 96, 97. Nine in all. Drivers titles: 80, 82, 87, 92, 93, 96, 97. This total is seven and combined it’s 16.

To illustrate just how far from the top they have fallen let’s look at this simple fact. Last year Williams only managed to score five points. FIVE. This might have been ok with the two previous scoring systems with only the first six finishers collecting points but this is the era of 25 points or less awarded to each of the first 10 finishers. In other words, almost half the grid scores points in the modern era yet out of 19 races and if my addition is correct, 1919 points available, Williams, the third most winning constructor in Formula 1 (Ferrari and McLaren occupy the first two spots), managed to only take five of them!

What could have precipitated this complete decline of one of the greatest racing organizations modern F1 has known? What could be the cause of such a reversal of fortune? In every GP last year NBC Sports’ David Hobbs and Steve Matchett seemed to be genuinely confounded as how Frank Williams and company could lack even the slightest amount of competitiveness and they’re not the only ones wondering.

This is one of the great teams I remember as a young adult when my interest in F1 started in earnest. This was the team that had such dynamic drivers such as Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansel, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost and briefly Ayrton Senna. This was the team whose cars were liveried so beautifully.

First with the simple but elegant white and green, then with canary yellow and white with a streak of blue, and when Rothmans joined as the title sponsor the combination of blue, white and gold stripes, just stunning. They’re one of the great teams in the sport so I always want Williams to do well, to reach the podium, to score wins. When they don’t I definitely wonder, “What the hell went wrong?”

I’m pretty sure money has a little to do with it. Budget has a profound effect on what the team can achieve realistically year in and year out. Williams is the only team traded publicly on the stock market, which would indicate to me money was indeed an issue, why else would one sell shares of their company but to raise capital? But with the restrictions that have been brought in to F1 in recent years, I can’t blame it all on this.

Staffing has a large effect on your success as well. Adrian Newey used to work for Frank Williams. There’s certainly only one Adrian Newey, so replacing him obviously hasn’t gone too well. Let’s look at drivers; have they had an Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel or even Raikkonen of late? They have not. I could see this being a significant part of the problem if we were addressing the difference between first and fourth on the racetrack, but Williams’s cars were finishing 14th, 15th and 16th regularly throughout the 2013 season. Does this sound to anybody like the Williams of old? Absolutely not. They’re Williams, they should be able to attract drivers and engineers good enough to play in the top tier. I suspect there is something else at work.

Good News, Bad News

I’ve got good news and bad news for Williams. Your decline was inevitable. It happens in everything, fashion, music, art, politics, real estate. One minute you’re on top, the next you’re near the bottom. Ebb and flow. What goes up must come down. Sports teams are more susceptible than many other things, which is both the joy and the agony of sports fans. We’ve seen this happen to all great sports organizations. Which one was it for you? For my father it was USC college football until Pete Carroll came along. For many basketball fans here in Los Angeles (were I reside) it is the Lakers’ sudden fall from grace. Speaking of Los Angeles, The Dodgers have been through so many ups and downs I can’t even keep track.

So I don’t believe that what has happened to Williams in the past sixteen years was entirely due to money, or departed designers, or lack of driver talent. I don’t believe eliminating any one of these issues or even the aggregate of them all would have made a difference. Williams F1 was following a pattern that can be traced multiple times throughout history and can be applied to almost every successful endeavor.

Now for the good news. All cycles which end must start again and as reported recently by Autosport, Williams F1 has been making what can only be seen as some very aggressive moves this off-season. They’ve just signed Jakob Andreason from Force India, Graig Wilson from Mercedes and Rod Nelson via Lotus. Also reported by Jonathan Noble in the same Autosport article is the soon to be confirmed appointment of Rob Smedley.

This presumably is due to the arrival of Felipe Massa to the team. Could the hiring of Pat Symonds who has World Champion experience, the arrival of Massa who has worked for World Champion Ferrari (and came within half a lap of being World Champion himself) plus the buttressing of the technical side of the operation be the jolt needed to get a new cycle started for Williams and get them moving back up the grid? Timing is everything, they might be just due for some luck.

The change in regulations might also help them, it could be just the type of fresh start needed to create some parity at least in the beginning of the season and allow Williams to find their feet again. We can’t be certain. McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes, Lotus and of course Red Bull will all have fast cars at Jerez. Can Williams compete with these teams again? The idea they could slip further down the pecking order seems beyond the pale so we can only answer “Yes, please!”

Of one thing I am definitely sure, the folks from Grove have been down and out for way too long. It is time for a change. Time to get back to what Williams knows all too well: how to win. I don’t think they ever forgot, I just think history was not on their side lately. But now it could be a whole different story if history is anything to go by. The tide could be changing and it is history that could be Williams’ ace in the hole.

Okay fans, time for you to weigh in. What team have you followed faithfully that has been on top and then on the bottom again? And do you think Williams can be competitive in the 2014/2015 season?

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