All us motor sport fans, bloggers, forumites and general fanatics resemble Aladdin on speed around this time of year, fervently pleading for our wishes to be granted: “If Mark Webber could win the championship and five manufacturers suddenly enter the World Sportscar Championship and the Grand Prix ticket prices get reduced and…..(continued ad nasueam). And I am no different, with a melange of different hopes, fancies, fears and lunatic impossibilities filling my mind about a variety of different areas of the sport. But what keeps tapping me on my minds shoulder is the most enticing one, that Williams Grand Prix Engineering might just shock everybody this year and move up the grid. Wouldn’t it be just brilliant? The performance of Williams in recent times, and especially last year, was enough to make one weep. Reading the Williams thread on the Autosport Racing Comments thread was sometimes like walking into an episode of Cheers when the regulars were at their most morose (and this is not a criticism of them, such pessimism WAS perrenially justified). So definitely an annus mirabilis then. And what makes this more painful is how Williams have deviated from the values which have won them so many fans.
Two incidents underline these values, which make me happy, sad, fascinated, laugh, despair and bewildered depending on which way I look at them, but are all uniquely Williams. The first was when they rejected the offer of keeping their Honda engine supply in favour of buying normally aspirated John Judd engines in 1988. McLaren had cleverly spirited away Senna from Lotus, and along with him a supply of the ‘best in class’ Honda turbocharged engines. But Honda were not up for burning all their bridges with Williams, and offered them continued engine supply, as long as they reserved a place for their favoured son, Satoru Nakajima, who had been at Lotus. Williams could have kept a free supply of the best engine, while negotiating with alternative manufacturers if they wished for future years, while providing a viable challenge to McLaren, comparing themselves against Ron’s men with the same engine. How different would the Senna/Prost domination of 1988 been with Nigel Mansell buzzing around in a Williams Honda? Well, we don’t know, because the Williams answer to Honda’s generous offer was: NO. And no doubt delivered in a fashion that wouldn’t have been ‘Lost in Translation’! That is Williams, delivering themselves pain in the short term, to stick to their long term principles. But would they have it any other way?
They certainly didn’t in 1996, when they let go of one of their boffins. And it wasn’t any old boffin....it was a certain Adrian Newey, and it has not turned out well for the boys from Grove. The story goes that Newey wanted more recognition for the astounding job he had done with the cars, helping Williams reap from 1991-1996 a massive harvest of victories, championships and glory. Specifically, he wanted shares in the business, around 10% if what I read at the time was correct. The Williams response? Well you can probably guess by now.....NO! And look how it cost them, as Newey went to McLaren, and then Red Bull, inspiring them to championships, while Williams have won none since the 1997 chariot that Newey left netted the Drivers and Constructors titles.
So, while by turn maddening and frustrating, the two examples at least show a team that sticks to its principles no matter what. So what if they are enjoying bad times, at least they can be beaten by no one for those principles eh? Well....no. The breaking of the first principle was painfully and ironically evident. Just in case it didn’t dawn on people in 2007, 19 years on, that Williams were breaking their principle to take a Japanese driver, in order to get a discount on their engines, this Japanese driver had to be.......Nakajima san, KAZUKI Nakajima, son of Satoru. Generational changes....And when Patrick Head stepped down, and wanted to sell his stake in the team, the shares that Adrian Newey wasn’t good enough for, are now owned by.....Tom, Dick and Harry. Well they very well COULD be. They were floated on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, so go and buy some for yourself right now if you fancy it. So did Williams’ credibility float away with it? Well that would be excessively harsh. They are Williams, they are privateer, Sir Frank is still at the helm, their core business is still racing, there is no mega-rich sugar daddy behind it all (not even Qatari) and my goodness they even have Renault powerplants in the back of the things this year. But undeniably, something has changed. Adam Parr now seems to be a big public face of the team, pay drivers come and go, and they are now involved in a multitude of other projects, opening a technology centre in Qatar, or working with road car manufacturers. ‘Diversification’, and maybe more sensible for the bottom line, but more McLaren than Williams. Something seems to have been lost from the Williams ethos.
And yet, if they were a stock................oh, they are(!)....................well anyway, I would be recommending ‘Buy’ for this season. A Renault engine that apparently allows them to fully exploit their svelte gearbox, a ban on exhaust blowing that the Cossie couldn’t manage last year, and a new design team including the talented (albeit controversial) Mike Coughlan, and I think Williams will safely leap from the no man’s land of last year right back into the upper midfield this year and ‘overperform’ expectations – never a bad thing. But that is this year....in the long term I worry that Williams, increasingly under Parr’s leadership, will hit a ceiling where that is all they are able to achieve, and future race wins are beyond them. The seeming gradual tearing apart of the RRA, and Williams’ financial weakness would leave them exposed in a new era of financial arms racing. And lead to further reliance on pay drivers, which when from dubious regimes like the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez, will lead to less interest from other sponsors, less money, less performance, which will lead to less interest.....and repeat. I worry that this year may be as good as it gets for Williams. And I’m just not sure potential future decline will be accompanied by them sticking to their guns as resolutely as in the past either.