Newcomers to F1 are understandably hard-pressed to believe that the Grove-based team is one of the most successful in the sport’s history. Only Ferrari have won more Constructors’ Championships, and only McLaren and Ferrari have won more Drivers’ Championships—hard to believe given that they haven’t been a top 5 team in the Constructors’ Championship since 2007. 2011 and 2013 represent the lowest of the team’s lows, with 9th place and 5 points each season.
Last year saw a new low for the team as Pastor Maldonado—the driver who gave the team their first win in eight years in 2012—grew increasingly frustrated with an uncompetitive car. At the US GP, Maldonado underwent a meltdown that ended with him accusing his engineers of sabotage. In response, Claire Williams (daughter of team founder Frank) showed Maldonado the door (along with chief designer Mike Coughlan) and set about rebuilding the team. Her decisions look quite promising.
2013 looked like a sign that Williams would never break free of their downward spiral until Claire Williams announced that they had Pat Symonds from his consultant position at Marussia. Having provided Fernando Alonso both of his championship-winning Renaults (and boasting a long list of competitive cars besides) Symonds was a step in the right direction. A nice basketful of fresh aerodynamicists gave the understudied engineer his chance to a make a mark.
Judging from preseason testing, the Symonds-designed FW36 isn’t so much a step in the right direction as it is a massive leap back to the sharp end of the field. Williams posted the quickest overall time during the Bahrain tests and ran more distance than any other team except their engine suppliers Mercedes. Only so much can be taken away from testing times, but the reliability of the car is beyond question.
Another item of interest about the car is the looks. The livery itself is a classical combination: Martini & Rossi and motorsport. Striking and understated, the Martini livery is one that has graced many great race cars, and their arrival as title sponsor for Williams brings benefits beyond a beautiful paintjob. As a financial partner to the team, the Martini sponsorship brings with it more sporting conditions compared to driver sponsors. By comparison, Maldonado’s personal PDVSA sponsorship gave him preferential treatment in the team as a condition. With that political snafu gone, the team can operate less like a one-horse stable and return to functioning as a team.
Valtteri Bottas – Time to make his mark
Having been closely tied to Williams for a few years and mentored by two-time champion Mika Hakkinen, Bottas had high expectations on his shoulders from the start of 2013. Hard as it was to shine in the FW35, Bottas put in a few staggering results that likely only worsened the foul mood of Maldonado. Canada saw him qualify an encouraging 3rd in the wet (ten places ahead of Maldonado), and he finished on top of his teammate in the championship by driving a fine race to 8th place at the US GP.
If the FW36 is as promising as it seems, the young Finn could be fighting for podiums and maybe even a win. A more experienced and kinder-tempered teammate in Massa can only help to further his growth as a driver as well.
Felipe Massa – If the team can turn around, he can too (maybe)
The third Brazilian driver to come to the team since 2010 and the second to be a former Ferrari driver: Massa’s move to Williams initially provoked many snide comments about being a stereotype, but it may have been the best move of his career. The 2008 Drivers’ Championship has never been the same since his severe accident at Hungary in 2009 and returning to a supporting role at Ferrari made it impossible to get back on form.
In what proved to be a toxic relationship at Ferrari, Massa was a second driver at the best of times and disposable tool at others. Constant team orders to let Alonso past and even deliberately incurring penalties to benefit his teammate were among the torments Massa faced. Each incident left him more demoralized than the last, and the mental scars might be there to stay.
His past speed presented itself every now and again over the past four years, but would vanish for weeks as soon as the words “Fernando is faster than you” shot through his radio, signalling him to slow down and let Alonso enjoys the spoils of his efforts.
Williams’ more open team structure is his best chance to get back to his old ways. The new cars, however, may be ill-suited to his driving style. Even at his zenith in 2008, Massa was prone to suddenly spinning the car, and with more torque in the new engines he might have a hard time adjusting.
Jerez Total Laps: 175 Laps (4th)
Massa: 133 Laps
Bottas: 42 Laps
Massa: 1’23.700 (2nd quickest)
Bottas: 1’25.344 (6th quickest)
Bahrain Figures (Test 1 &2 Combined)
Total laps: 761 Laps (1st)
Massa: 267 Laps
Bottas: 407 Laps
Massa: 1’33.258 (1st)
Bottas: 1’33.987 (4th)