Tuesday 13 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Williams - In the balance

We talk a lot about the Williams decline. We used to think of the team a little as we do Mercedes now - bound to get it right and run at the front, whatever else happens.

Photo: Octane Photography
But the Williams decline can be traced back a long time, all the way to 1997. And in the last decade and a bit it's been mainly midfield flailing. Was the upturn with the Mercedes engine in 2014 a dead cat bounce? Since, in results at least, it's been in a state of downward drift.

Its heritage is a burden in a more tangible sense. Williams retains the infrastructure of a large team, but these days is without the money to make it work. Instead it is being usurped by Force India which has a streamlined model, with plenty outsourced, that gets much better results at that level.

The latest staging post of the Williams decline in the popular consciousness is its driver selection for 2018. The team that once lost prize Honda engines by refusing to take on a Japanese sop now has two pilots whose cases owe at least something - many think a lot - to the money they bring.

Balancing the books of an F1 team (big three aside) is a perilous task of course, but one again looks at the comparison with Force India which has prioritised driving talent, presumably on the grounds that it protects the prize money as well as is better for other points of prestige that link one way or another to the bottom line. Williams can learn from its own history too, as in 2012 a 'pay driver' pairing didn't begin to make the best of a good car. And Claire Williams' recent pronouncements on the driver subject insulted the intelligence.

But she had a point that the pay driver is not a zero sum game, and isn't here. Both Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll have shown at least occasional promise in the junior ranks and have an opportunity to show us this campaign that they're not just about their cash.

Gary Anderson reckons the raw lineup may have benefits too. "That can also be a positive when you are trying to build a team," he said. "The old hardened professional driver can sometimes be a pain in the arse because they know everything about how their previous team worked instead of just driving the wheels off what they now have."

And in modern F1 it mainly is about the car. Williams isn't sitting on its hands, with 2018 being the first machine proper under the leadership of major coup Paddy Lowe, while Dirk de Beer is another highly rated recruit with his feet now under the table. The transformation was visible on the 2018 car, on which Giorgio Piola noted "everything is on the limit". It has plenty of detail, a sort of Mercedes-Ferrari amalgam.

Yet it underwhelmed in testing at least initially, looking tricky to drive particularly on corner entry and struggling to switch the tyres on - while on the raw headline best time it has made the least progress since last year. Some analyses suggest however that the team was getting a grasp on the car as running went on and that it was around the upper end of the midfield. If the car is complex it would take a time to make the best of it. But on the other hand it wouldn't be the first F1 team to overreach.

As we're growing used to with Williams, much seems in the balance.

Lance Stroll - Car #18
Photo: Octane Photography
Lance Stroll ended his freshman F1 campaign last year largely as he started it, as a much criticised presence. In advance some said he brought money but also plenty of talent, as evidenced in him creaming F3. Others pointed out that the very same money had ensured him every advantage therein - number one status in the best team, windtunnel time etc etc.

His debut F1 campaign didn't do much to resolve the puzzle. On the one hand he was well behind Williams team-mate Felipe Massa on pace and visually about as far behind his car. He can't point at gradual improvement over time either as Brazil and Abu Dhabi concluding the year were likely his worst showings of all.

On the other hand on the rare occasions that he was good he was in fact excellent, seen in his third place in Baku and fourth (and a net second) in wet Monza qualifying, with a best just three tenths off Max Verstappen's and over a second quicker than Massa's. His races in Canada and Mexico were pretty good as well.

Qualifying seems a problem – his good Baku and Mexico showings were after being vaulted to a higher position by exterior events. Some near at hand think Stroll has a harsh braking and steering style that needs everything to be just so to work. There is potential there, and professionalism, but perhaps a flipside of his money was getting an F1 drive before he's ready. His money will ensure opportunities though, and he has an opportunity in 2018 to get things right.

Sergey Sirotkin - Car #35
Photo: Octane Photography
Sergey Sirotkin enters F1 rather on a hiding to nothing, like his team-mate did 12 months ago. In Sirotkin's case we've had a long time to harden our predispositions, as his name in F1 can be traced back to 2013, when out of the blue it was announced that the then 17 year old would drive for Sauber the following year. Then as now it was assumed the opportunity reflected mainly his ability to accumulate roubles.

That particular opportunity fell through, but better late than never he now has a Williams chance. And like then it was not widely foreseen. It came down to the post-season Abu Dhabi test where - the story goes - he entered very much as an outsider but impressed the team with his pace in all circumstances, qualifying simulations and race runs, which were better even than Felipe Massa's let alone seat front-runner Robert Kubica's. He also impressed with his working with the team, technical feedback and work ethic. Sirotkin then got a whack of money together pronto and the deal was sealed.

Of course that Sirotkin inadvertently denied us a Kubica comeback fairy tale hasn't helped the goodwill towards him. Yet those who've watched him in development say he is a totally decent pilot, and although he has patchy results those may be down to circumstance rather than things he did wrong. But, as if to underline what Sirotkin is up against, cynics suggest that if Williams was minded to hire him on financial grounds then of course it would laud how well he did in that test.

As is the case for his team-mate though this season is a fine opportunity to show us definitively what the deal is.

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