2016 Review – Slowly Slipping Backwards

Not covering ourselves in glory

I’ve held off from writing this season review as the excitement and interest for Williams fans seems to be never ending this year. As I write this in early February 2017 we are still waiting to hear who will be our technical lead for the season but I am getting ahead of myself.

No matter how you look at it this year wasn’t the success that it could have been. It could be argued that Williams were punching above their weight by beating McLaren and Renault but that was more a reflection of their bad year than anything else. This was further evidenced by our inability to beat Force India to the 4th spot in the championship. This was because, in part, because from the middle of the season it became increasingly obvious that focus had been moved from the FW38 to next years car (to be called the FW40 in mark of the 40th anniversary of the team). This seemed to happen at around the same time the Force India got into its stride and the latter half of the year was a close battle between the two teams until it just seemed to slip away from us.

The high point of the year was probably Bottas’ third place in the Canadian Grand Prix but beyond that we were decidedly lacklustre and not the exciting force we were in 2014.

If you want to relive the season in all its gory detail then the individual race reports can be found here.

Goodbye Felipe

One rather touching moment in the season was Felipe Massa’s goodbye at the Brazilian Grand Prix.

It had been clear for quite a while that Williams weren’t looking to re-sign Massa for the 2017 season and rather than slide further down grid he took the sensible decision to retire. This was announced at the beginning of September and immediately, of course, speculation started as to who would replace him.

Williams gave Massa a great send off with a special livery for the Brazilian Grand Prix and then donating that car to him. After spinning out of the race he walked back to the pits, waving to the crowd as he went, and then on arriving finding the mechanics from both McLaren and Ferrari coming out of their garages to cheer him. Obviously I would rather he had finished the race and scored some points but this inter team generosity was great to see. The likes of which I have never witnessed in my 30+ years of watching the sport.

The 2017 lineup is announced

With Massa gone there was clearly going to be a seat available at the team. Media reports suggested that the team were keen on getting Jenson Button back to the where he started his F1 career bookending it nicely. Personally I felt that this was almost a like for like replacement for Massa, two drivers very much at the ends of their careers, and was more to do with sentimentality than anything else.

A more exciting option would have been to look for a young charger such as Carlos Sainz, Sergio Perez or even Nico Hullkenburg, if he could forgive the team and come back. However, for one reason or another these all weren’t available.

Another name was also suggested was that of Lance Stroll. The young Canadian was looking very likely to become the F3 champion. He also had a father with a very full wallet and who wasn’t adversed to splashing a bit of cash to help his son’s career.

When the announcement came that Stroll was to partner Bottas for 2017 there were many detractors citing that he was only there because of his father’s money and that the team were taking on another Maldonado. Undoubtedly money was involved and given that it is hard to find these days it is not surprising that the team took it but beyond that any suggestion that Stroll isn’t any good are plainly wrong. You don’t win the highly competitive F3 championship without having something about you. I feel that Stroll has done more than enough to prove himself.

For reasons that are outlined below 2017 is likely to be a year of rebuilding for Williams and so an ideal environment for Stroll to learn his trade. In preparation for this he has been testing in a 2014 FW36 at various tracks around the globe.

Old boy Nico is champion

While the season might not have been that great for Williams, slipping further back into the mid-field, it was great to see ex-Williams driver Nico Rosberg finally overcome Hamilton to become world champion. It was nice to see another father/son championship winning duo, especially as they both had a Williams connection this time. What we weren’t prepared for was what came next and the impact that it would have on the Williams.

Within days of scoring his championship Rosberg announced that he was retiring from F1 (and motorsport in general too?) with immediate effect. Well nobody saw that coming and all those that thought that the best seats for 2017 were gone suddenly saw the most desirable seat become available.

From the moment that Rosberg announced his departure it seemed likely that Bottas would be moving from Williams to take his place. Having prevented the Finn from joining Ferrari in 2015 and having remained loyal and tight lipped about this it was going to be difficult to prevent him from moving once more. Pascal Wehrlein was mentioned as a possibility but, in reality, he was going to be too risky for Mercedes to consider and so it proved. After a few weeks of negotiations Bottas was on his way leaving a hole at Williams and taking a sponsor with him too.

Filling the vacancy at Williams was never going to be that easy as it was so late in the day and most drivers were already locked up under contract. This ruled out my personal favourite for the seat – Carlos Sainz who has been so impressive this season.

There was another wrinkle that had to be ironed out and that was that sponsor Martini required at least one driver to be 25 or over. Additionally, rumours were that Stroll’s father, who is bankrolling his son at Williams, wanted an experienced driver for Lance to learn from. Once again this ruled out the luckless Wehrlein who eventually ended up at Sauber.

And so it was that recently retired Felipe Massa was drafted back into the team for one more last hurrah. Massa seems like a nice guy but he has had his day and has gone off the boil somewhat. It won’t be helped that his last last year in 2017 will be marked by speculation as to who is going to replace him in 2018.

A technical void

Somewhat in parallel with this came a change on the technical side of the team. There had been rumours during the year that Pat Symonds wanted to retire. Then, suddenly, in December Symonds was gone. The nature and timing of the announcement made it feel more like he had been pushed than had jumped. With all the technical changes coming for 2017 surely you’d want some continuity? Why so close to the new season? Where was the succession planning? Who was going to lead the team technically?

Almost immediately the news outlets started to tout Paddy Lowe, latterly technical lead at Mercedes, as Symond’s replacement. But this was to be much more than a like for like replacement. Rumours swirled around that Lowe, on returning to the team where he made his name, would be taking a position on the board where he would oversee technology for the whole group and not just the F1 team. Also he would become a shareholder too something Williams hadn’t done with Adrian Newey all those years ago and lost him to McLaren.

If Lowe was to take such a senior role, and as I write this he still hasn’t been confirmed, it wasn’t going to be a hands on day to day position so that leaves the question who would fulfil this role?

For sometime there has been other rumours that the team had also lined up James Key, technical director at Toro Rosso, to take on the same role at Williams. More recently poaching Pat Fry from Ferrari has been suggested along with an aero guy. Could all this possibly be true? Only time will tell but one thing is for sure – it will take some time for all these new faces to have an impact on performance so I question where that leaves the team in 2017.

There is also the question of money. All these new hires would require a substantial increase in the salary bill for the team. Given that Williams’ share of the prize money will be reduced this year after finishing behind Force India that means any increase in income would have to come from: more debt, more sponsors, a larger injection of cash from Stroll or all three.

Things looking good for 2018?

At this point it is difficult to know where the team stands for the future. We have one driver, untested, at the beginning of his career and the other one past the end of his. There is no technical lead in place to drive the team in the right direction.

It could be that Lowe, Key and Fry all join the team and Lance Stroll turns out to be quite the find in which case things look good for 2018 onwards. On the other hand none of this might occur and the team slips slowly backwards once again. Either way 2017 looks like it could be a challenging year.

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