When we think about silly season in F1, the first thoughts that come to mind are the unexpected driver moves that shake up the entirety of the grid. The most recent example of this was the announcement of Alonso moving to Aston Martin which set off an explosive chain reaction that had the world of F1 up in arms. But it looks as though the drivers are not the only ones causing a stir within the paddock.
Heading into 2023, we saw 4 teams usher in a new age as they chose to swap out their team principals in favour of new leadership. The outcome of these changes has had various degrees of success with some teams excelling under their new direction, whilst others have remained stagnant or even started to drift backwards. Amongst these teams, there is one that stands out above the rest, Williams.
Williams – The backmarker
Having not broken into the top 3 in almost a decade, the once championship-winning team have found themselves in a rather precarious position. Williams have been hamstrung by a complete lack of investments, leading them to fall behind their competitors as they try to overcome sub-par facilities that are two decades out of date.
Over the years the expectation of the Williams team has gradually decreased until the bare minimum of scoring a single point became a monumental goal worthy of a race-winning celebration. If we rewind the clock back a couple of years, you’ll remember the ongoing storyline that built up throughout the 2021 season regarding Russell scoring his first points for the team (which he joined in 2019). The anticipation that grew throughout the year culminated at the Hungarian Grand Prix with both Williams drivers scoring an emotional points finish. This feat ended in (good) tears after the race, but the evocative reaction was enough to show the ongoing fight that had ensued behind the scenes in order to pull out a result like that.
Although this saw Williams jump up to P8 in the Constructors Standings it was not enough to solidify their reputation as a team that was on the rise as they would return to their ‘regular’ position of being plum last come 2022, in a year that was reminiscent of 2019 and 2020.
An overhaul for Williams
Over the past decade or so Williams has had a couple of stand-out drivers who have gone on to become future race winners and even world champions, however, these drivers have been far and few between. During the success drought at the team, any outstanding results largely fell on the shoulders of drivers who were outperforming the car as opposed to the drivers being provided with a car that could achieve points and podiums on a consistent basis.
So, given that the team are still in a relatively weak position, would an overhaul of personnel really help to dig them out of the hole that they’ve found themselves in?
Well, yes. The short explanation is that with the introduction of James Vowles as the new Team Principal and Alex Albon solidifying his spot as the number 1 driver at the team, they have been able to somewhat haul themselves up above the new backmarkers that have filled their vacant spot at the back of the grid. The changes have not stopped there as the most recent announcement made by the team confirmed that Pat Fry would be departing Alpine to join the Grove-based team as their new Chief Technical Officer.
How far can Williams climb?
When looking at the resources that are at Williams’ disposal it becomes clear to see how much they’ve climbed in just 6 months, especially when you compare it to their struggling peers such as Ferrari.
As one of the smaller teams on the grid, the cost cap being introduced has been somewhat of a saving grace for them. Before this financial restriction was put in place, limiting how much the teams could spend each year, the likes of Williams and Haas were rumoured to barely be breaking £100 million each year, whilst the top teams, such as Red Bull and Mercedes, were reported to be spending north of £400 million per year.
This blatant discrepancy in what the teams were able to spend formed the foundation of the ever-growing gap between the top and the bottom of the grid. With the playing field now levelled out a bit more, it looks as though Williams have taken to these new changes like a duck to water. There is no denying that they remain towards the lower end of the midfield, but they can comfortably say that they are no longer a backmarker team. In fact, a few of Albon’s performances over the past couple of years have put in a legitimate case to argue that the team would be able to fight amongst the top of the midfield on a regular basis if they had two experienced drivers.
Why have Williams been able to outperform the bigger teams?
On one hand, it could be argued that as Williams are a smaller team, there is less to oversee compared to the likes of Ferrari etc. On the other hand, Williams have a significant lack of resources that far outweighs that of their competitors so their success can only be looked at as a team that is outperforming what they currently have.
The case of Williams has caught everyone’s attention in particular as they have been able to make such drastic changes that have materialised on track in such a short period of time. In a similar vein, McLaren have also been able to perform a 180 this year. However, the improvements seen on track by the papaya outfit slightly differ from Williams as they were aware that this shift in development was coming throughout the year. McLaren announced that they were not entirely happy with their car at their launch back in February and a new spec would be coming mid season which accounts for their uptick in performance.
Typically, it will take a couple of years for the decisions of a new Team Principal to make its way onto the track, this is due to the time it takes for the latest structural and developmental changes to fully bed themselves in and start to take effect. Williams seem to be an outlier to this rule as they have already seen a stark improvement within the same year that their restructuring has taken place.
As well as the personnel changes that were mentioned above, the team have continued to bring upgrades to the car which have even caught them by surprise with how successful they’ve been. There will understandably be a limit as to how far Williams can progress this year with the remainder of their upgrades, but it leaves them in a strong position heading into next year as they have exceeded the expectations that were placed on them in March.
The future of the team
Looking at the current state of the team they appear to be lining themselves up to capitalise off of the success they’ve had this year and carry forward the current momentum that they have. Almost everything is in place for this to go ahead, but there is one lingering factor that threatens the potential of the team’s future. That factor is Logan Sargeant.
Albon’s heroics at the team have been praised on more than one occasion since his return in 2022, however this has not been the case for his teammates. Latifi departed from the team at the end of last year, this was an almost inevitable decision that everyone saw coming as the Canadian had failed to keep up with all of his teammates throughout his stint at Williams.Embed from Getty Images
Heading into 2023, Williams would take on the only American driver on the grid and considering that he is a rookie in a team that cannot fight at the front, I don’t think many placed too much expectation on him. As the year has played out, Sargeant has failed to keep pace with Albon (as expected) but he has crucially failed to score any points for the team on weekends such as Canada and Monza when the car was more than capable of doing so. This ongoing collection of disappointing results has started to stack up and rumours have started to swirl suggesting that Sargeant could be out of a seat come Abu Dhabi. Although there has been no definitive decision made as of yet, it’s definitely one to keep your eye on as the season comes to a close.
The 2023 season has reinvigorated Williams internally and externally, they have an aura of optimism surrounding them and as they find their footing following their recent reshuffle, it looks as though the only way is up.