If you’re new to Formula 1 or perhaps just haven’t gone into the archives of the 80’s and 90’s, you might be surprised to hear that the essentially backmarker Williams, was once a dominant force in the sport. They are still second in All-Time Constructors titles with 9 titles.
After entering for the 1977 season, it took them only 3 seasons to take both Championships with Alan Jones in 1980.
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However since 1997 their fortunes have gotten worse each year, with the exception of 2014 & 2015, they have slipped further through the midfield and are now in dead last for 2022.
So the questions I’ve been asking myself, is that given this team was once a Dominant Force…where did everything go wrong? Why did McLaren who had similar beginnings, fight at the top as Williams fell…and has F1 changed too much for this legendary team to ever see itself on the top of the standings again?
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To answer these questions we need to really delve into what brought them up and what brought them down, so let’s do that now….
In The Beginning
This was actually Frank Williams second run at a Formula 1 team after having issues with Walter Wolf and selling Frank Williams Racing Cars to Walter Wolf.
This time though, he co-founded Williams Grand Prix Engineering with engineer Patrick Head. They made all the right moves, running as a customer team in 1977 using a March chassis. This was a great base for Patrick Head to start with and they began working on the FW06 for 1978, Head set about fixing all of the March shortcomings on the car. As was normal at the time, a lot of the car parts were off the shelf, including a set of Volkswagen Golf radiators.
A Different Time
This was an incredibly different era in Formula 1, using off the shelf car parts, the closest thing to that now is Haas and Aston basically using a 3D printer to create their 2022 cars. Anybody with the money could realistically buy a car and enter a Formula 1 race, with qualifying being very different, as driver’s literally had to qualify high enough to take part in the race.
This meant that the term constructor’s was very different back then, if for example Williams driver’s were driving a March car and had gained enough points to win the constructor’s title, then it would have been a March-Williams Constructor’s championship. A great example of how different this era was, is that in the following season 1979, Williams used the exact same FW06 car for the first four races of the season before switch to the FW07.
Interestingly they sold their FW06 to Giacoma Agostini (a motorcycle racer) who used his Marlboro sponsorship to brand the car and used it to enter the 1979 & 1980 championship.
The point of this entire rant is simple, Formula 1 was very different in these days, although we have pay driver’s now, in those days if you had enough money you could quite literally buy a car and enter a Formula 1 race.
Anyways, more to the point, William’s was hell bent on becoming a proper constructor, knowing that this is how Chapman with Lotus had been so dominant through the 70’s, taking the fight away from the likes of Ferrari. They knew that the only way to real success was to have full control on their own chassis.
Patrick Head started working on the FW07, basing it on the incredible Lotus 79, even using the same Wind Tunnel as the Lotus team at the time. In fact Patrick Wright from lotus publicly said that the FW07 was little more than a re-engineered and stiffer lotus.
Ground effect took over the late 70’s and early 80’s, in Formula 1 after being pioneered by Lotus and Colin Chapman who used this way of generating downforce to Dominant effect.
What they failed to see though was that Head understood Ground Effect (which was the best way to generate downforce at the time) even better than Chapman himself. Along with the Chief Designer, Frank Dernie, they had created a car so efficient that it’s skirts sealed the underfloor for an entire lap of the track. The Chassis was so effective, that instead of creating a new car for 1980, they simply improved the stiffness and suspension of the FW07 into the FW07B…the car was now so efficient at creating ground effect downforce, it could run without the front wing if needed. It was incredibly efficient.
Although Ground Effect was started being phased out by the FIA for safety reasons, starting with moving skirts in 1981, Williams had put a team together which would become a dominant force in the 1980’s winning the 80, 81, 86, 87 Constructors championships, along with the 80, 82 and 87 Driver’s Championship.
The Dream Team
Engine’s, as may be obvious, play a huge part in Formula 1. After losing Honda to McLaren in 1987 Williams had a couple of years of shopping engine suppliers, and little luck in winning any championships. Meanwhile between 1988 and 1991, McLaren had won every single constructor’s championship with Honda. However in 1989 they started a new relationship with Renault. This engine matched with their eyes on taking the championship back from McLaren who had become dominant in the late 1980’s. There were two more ingredients needed to give them another title. An incredible car design and a driver. They got them both for 1992 in Newey and Mansell.
Adrian Newey was an F1 car designer who had started with March in 1988, and proven himself to be one of the hottest properties in the Paddock, designing a car so good for March (later Leyton) that massively outperformed it’s budget. However by 1990 he had fallen out with Leyton and was now wanted by every team on the grid.
Williams though, literally in its DNA was the perfect fit for Adrian Newey at the time. It had a massive, basically unlimited budget, and Patrick Head was willing to allow Newey the freedom to create the the last days at Leyton had strangled from him by leading with Accountancy. They had also signed Mansell to drive for the team.
To put in perspective how quickly Newey had improved the team, by the mid-season of 1991, his FW14 was a match for the dominant McLaren. If it wasn’t for early season reliability, and Senna’s driving in the McLaren, they could have won the championship.
They had literally created a dream team of Newey, Renault and Mansell…the FW14B with Mansell at the wheel dominated the 1992 season.
The William’s team, although switching driver’s managed to dominate the mid 90’s. They lost the 1994 championship, tragically due to Ayston Senna’s death and some incredible yet controversial success from Michael Schumacher and Benton in 94/95 that would have the anti-Verstappen element of F1 twitter today in absolute shock. That’s a topic too complex for a side note in this video though.
At the end of 1997 season, Williams dominance would come to an end for the last time, as Renault left F1 for the second time and Newey was poached by McLaren who were back on the rise again after obtaining an incredible new partnership with Mercedes.
McLaren would go on to have a decade long fight with Ferrari, while Williams would fall further and further down the order.
So this gives us a solid idea of what went right, great engines and great engineers, gave them incredible cars which led to signing incredible drivers. I mean Senna was so impressed by the pace of William’s cars in 1992, he literally offered to driver for them for free.
What went wrong? One element is losing engines, this has a direct knock on effect to the teams. What I mean by this is that the best engineers & designers, much like the best drivers, want to work with the best teams. F1 is, obviously a competitive sport, which means staff like Newey want to win. The loss of Renault engines, and the rising success of McLaren with Mercedes, meant that McLaren had not only the engine, but also the funding and the drivers to successfully lure Newey to the team at the end of 1997. It also didn’t help that Newey didn’t need an excuse to leave as he was already furious with the Williams and Head over making key driver decisions without him.
Loss of Newey
Williams couldn’t have lost Newey at a worse time, F1 was changing in a big way, Ecclestone had turned it into such a massive spectacle attracting the worlds biggest brands, that wanted to win.
F1 had always been an expensive sport. However now being at the front in F1 was a monumentally expensive endeavour.
McLaren was now in a full partnership with Mercedes, meaning it had the power unit, the driver and now had Newey. Ferrari had finally got the technical setup, including bringing in Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher to drive their creations. Renault were aiming to get back into this new era of F1 as a full works team, which they would do in 2002. Honda and Toyota would even throw a full works hat in the ring in the next decade.
Williams did solve one issue by getting BMW on board. BMW was looking to steal some of the success away from the Mercedes F1 engines that were increasing car sales. Within a couple of years, BMW were probably supplying Williams with the fastest engine on the grid, this power showing what it could do especially in the 2003 season.
However the knock on effect was that after Newey left, Williams not only failed to get someone else even in the same neighbourhood to his caliber, they let their facilities and aero departments fall behind. By 2005, BMW had enough of supplying a winning engine, to a team that was no longer capable of doing so.
This put Williams on the engine roundabout, using Cosworth, Renault and Toyota engines, until settling on Mercedes by 2014. They lost sponsors as they became less competitive. Less sponsors, less money and their facilities and teams, fell further behind.
Williams finished 3rd in both 2014 and 2015, but this rise was due primarily to the engines that were so far ahead of the competition until Ferrari and Renault started catching up and dulling the overpowered engine gains.
Teams like Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull were spending 300-400 million a year before the cost cap came in, whereas Williams was struggling to spend 80.
Can they get back?
Even though the cost cap, by it’s nature, will now bring the top teams down to spending the same maximum. Teams like Williams and Haas aren’t even reaching this cost cap, this means their car is running behind already because their facilities are behind. This means the best staff will always be given to the biggest teams.
On top of this, Audi have bought Sauber, Aston Martin and the Strolls are pumping money into what was Racing Point, and the big teams are improving their facilities and already have the best teams.
Now Williams with a new owner, Mercedes engines until 2025 and a cost cap surely they can get back to the top right? Well no…there is an even bigger interest in Formula 1 now than ever.
Thus, I don’t think Williams will be able to get back to the top, unless it’s at the expense of its name. It needs a company with almost unlimited resources to purchase it, think Porsche or even Andretti who can get the funding. The problem is that these buyers would only want to share their name with something that stands for success…and Williams…sadly…no longer does.