The 2nd most successful team in the history of Formula 1 racing in terms of Constructor’s Championships, Williams F1 has fallen on hard times. Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, the team, led then as now by the wily hero of British motorsport Sir Frank Williams, won 9 constructor’s titles, including 5 in 6 years between 1992 and 1997. However, as highlighted perhaps most painfully by their dismal performance during the 2011 season, the noblest of the British teams has stumbled and fallen in the 21st century. With drivers Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado accumulating a meagre 5 points over the course of the entire season, questions must be asked as to why and how the team that brought success to Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, and Damon Hill to name but a few has strayed so far from winning ways.
The fundamental spine of the team, Williams himself and his co-founder and long time technical director Patrick Head remain, with the latter admittedly now in a less active role. Drivers in Formula 1 have always been controversial in their influence, and while there are undoubtedly more talented drivers on the grid, Barrichello proved in his Indian summer of a 2009 season with Brawn GP that with a competitive car beneath him he certainly is still more than capable of being competitive, despite his advancing years. It is almost a pity that the Williams authorities have yet to re-sign him for the 2012 season.
Nevertheless, the organic matter behind the wheel does not explain the problems the team has encountered. Two core issues seem principally to blame, one human, the other symptomatic of modern Formula 1, and indeed modern sport as a whole. Despite their successes previously, it was the 1990’s which saw Williams ascend their highest pinnacles. Throughout this period, the Williams car, perhaps most noticeably during the 1992 and 1993 seasons, took best advantage of ambiguities in the technical specifications laid down by the FIA and dominated the racing, first in the hands of Nigel Mansell, and then Alain Prost in his swan-song year before retiring for a second, and final, time. Such was the extent of this dominance that during the ’92 season, Williams accumulated 65 more points than second place McLaren, with Mansell on the top step of the podium for all but three of the races he finished, descending no lower than the second on the other occasions. The man truly responsible for this success was not the one spraying champagne from the winner’s pedestal, rather the one behind the scenes, who continues his remarkable work to this day, and still has not achieved the full recognition that he deserves. Earning championships for Mansell, Vettel and many in between, wherever Adrian Newey has practiced his dark art has seen success. Consistently sculpting cars capable of taking maximum advantage of all possible parameters, Newey has been the magic behind 8 championship winning cars and one needs only look at the mercurial rise of Red Bull Racing to see his abilities actively at work. Losing Newey’s talents to McLaren at the end of the title-winning 1997 season led to the immediate decline of the team he left behind. They haven’t won a championship since.
The other factor behind Williams’s fall is more nebulous and yet equally if not more powerful, and, tragically, even more difficult if not impossible to repair. In the early years, Formula 1 was awash with independently designed, independently funded teams. Today, Williams stands alone. Team Lotus, the other figurehead marque of successful independent British motor racing, buckled to the pressure in 1994, and while Williams has not yet been made to pay the ultimate price, they have certainly felt the pinch. Teams such as Lotus and Williams represent the golden age of British innovation, engineering prowess and pioneering spirit and pluck. It is a sad but telling element of modern racing that there is less and less room for such admirable traits in the face of the glitz, glamour and industrialised financial muscle of today’s Formula 1. Without hefty sponsorship packages, Williams would undoubtedly have slipped beneath the surface already, but lacking the clout of a major corporation behind them, the decline is plain for all to see. Money is truly king now, but if only romanticism, tradition and courage played a larger part in creating success in sport. Sir Frank Williams and his team have them all in abundance.
- Oliver Fletcher