Williams scored its first point of the season last time out in Australia, thanks to a quirky but clever strategy which enabled Alex Albon to make use of free air and make his one-and-only pit stop at the end of the penultimate lap.
Embarrassingly for Williams, Albon was forced to start the Australian Grand Prix from the back of the grid as his car lacked enough fuel to provide an official sample after qualifying. He’d stopped out on track at the end of Q1, which points towards a simple underfuelling scenario.
Albon ran as high as P7 during his mammoth stint on the hard tyres he’d started the race on, with the strategists gambling on a late red flag, which didn’t come to fruition, but were instead handed a lifeline by Lance Stroll holding up a train of cars behind Albon for several laps.
DIsappointingly however, Williams are still firmly planted at the back of the 2022 field it seems, with fluke results right now being the team’s only hope of retrieving itself from its unyielding mire at the back.
A team that so desperately needed to continue its slow and steady upward trajectory and add to its impressive 2021 campaign, has seemingly remained in the bottom third of the pack and arguably gone backwards.
We are admittedly only three races into the season, but this is the time when it usually starts to become clear what the rough order of play looks like and where those in the lower regions of the grid stack up against each other.
The smaller gaps between teams have tended to be at the front and in the middle of the field as of the last few years, with the introduction of the cost cap hoping to close up the gap between the very front and the very back.
Since its ultimate nadir in 2019, Williams has dabbled with being both ahead and behind of Alfa Romeo and Haas – each Ferrari customer has endured their own disastrous campaigns in that period, notably Haas in 2021. The Grove-based team has also undergone a complete overhaul in management, kicked off by the sale of the family-owned team by Sir Frank and Claire Williams to a US-owned investment firm Dorilton Capital, in the summer of 2020.
The arrival of highly-regarded Jost Capito, who quickly appointed himself as CEO and Team Principal after the removal of interim boss Simon Roberts, was also backed by a high profile technical signing.
New Technical Director ‘FX’ Demaison joined late last spring, whilst the design of the 2022 car was well underway. Therefore he has not yet been able to shape the concept of a Williams F1 car from its inception as of yet, but some of his expertise will have certainly crept its way into the 2022 project.
The unfortunate lack of continuity which comes hand in hand with drastic personnel changes can sometimes lead to a disjointed understanding of a car for at least a season, but it looks as though this isn’t really the case with Williams and their FW44.
Fans got to see behind the scenes at Williams in the second season of Netflix’s Drive To Survive, which detailed heavily the 2019 pre-season testing fiasco from the point of view of Claire Williams and then-Chief Technical Officer Paddy Lowe. The outfit is very different now in how it operates.
The core structure of the engineering and manufacturing side of the outfit three years on looks to still remain, but with new recruits as key additions and the changes in the higher management structure to bolster things. From an outsider’s perspective this is of course the right way to go, but only those directly involved would be able to give a true picture on the status of Williams nowadays behind the scenes.
Speaking earlier in the year, Capito says that Demaison’s influence is “definitely there” and admits the team has done things differently with this car compared to in the past in order to have more time for development.
“It’s not his first full car, and I think we will move on from there as well. But his influence I think is definitely there and we have done things different than we have done in the past,” says Capito.
“Not just how we approach the aerodynamics, we also had investment in infrastructure, on the wind tunnel, so that we can get better results from the tests we are doing in-house and also on the production side, we did change it so that we can be more efficient in getting the parts done, getting the chassis done – and that helped us as we had more time to develop the car before we had to sign everything off.”
The investment in certain aspects will have made a more immediate difference – such as on the production processes – but changes to the more substantial wind tunnel and general infrastructure will not have their impacts as noticeably seen until later on.
Capito admitted though that the impact of the cost cap will not be fully felt until the advantage that financially larger teams enjoyed in previous years (to develop their then-future projects) have naturally subsided.
“Now the regulations are completely different, that gives a new start for everybody. The cost cap balances it out, but it takes a couple of years to balance it out because the investment that other teams have done in the years that Williams couldn’t invest are still there. There should be a benefit for some of the teams in developing the new car. We did quite a condensed and a very focused job.”
They are the only team not to have had the chance to run a version of the 18-inch Pirelli tyres on a mule car in the Abu Dhabi post-season test last year. This would definitely have put them on the backfoot, the extent of which is difficult to quantify, but by now the disadvantage will have been nullified to a degree.
They also missed a large portion of running time in the Bahrain pre-season test when both rear brakes caught fire simultaneously and melted the suspension when Nicholas Latifi was in the car. Throughout the test the drivers’ both struggled with excessive and unexpected front-locking as the hot and windy Bahrain circuit began to expose everyone’s weaknesses.
“Obviously when it is tricky, it definitely has a certain driving style,” Albon explained when asked on the characteristics of the FW44. “There is one driving style on the car. It’s just about learning that and avoiding the front-locking more than anything else. [It’s a] bit of a learning curve.”
Of course, each team is amid a colossal “learning curve” of their own in this early stage of the new era of aerodynamic regulations. It’s a given that no-one understands these cars as well as even the ‘worst’ team will do in a couple of years from today. However Williams’ learning curve is not only aerodynamic, but rooted in the structure of the organisation.
In Bahrain, Latifi described how “we’re not where we want to be”, but that the team knew “the areas where we need to improve on the car [and] where the limitations are that are holding us back.”
Exasperated by the speed trap figures in Bahrain – a measure which is actually hugely unreliable when considering the top-end characteristic differences between the power units – many hypothesised that the Mercedes power units, of which the Mercedes works team, McLaren, Aston Martin and Williams have in the back of their cars, as being the culprits in each team’s clear lack of performance.
Up until the Australian Grand Prix and McLaren’s double points finish, each of the three Mercedes customer teams sat in the bottom three spots on the constructors’ table. Williams have since moved from P10 to P9 with Albon’s singular point, with the non-scoring Aston Martin taking P10.
McLaren remarkably jumped from P8 to P4 owing to Lando Norris’s P5 and Daniel Ricciardo’s P6 in Australia, but at this stage the small amount of points on the table means the positioning can be turned on its head relatively easily, especially with the condensed field.
Like many others in Formula 1 at the moment, Williams will be hoping it finds an exceptional fix to its core weakness. It seems that any sizeable step-up in performance can propel you further forwards than ever before.