Welcome back to Race Chaser Online’s preview of the 2014 FIA Formula One World Championship! We continue our 11-day journey through the field today with a look at the Williams team as we continue to lead up to this weekend’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix! Make sure to check Race Chaser Online all season long for all of your stateside-based news from the Formula One world!
March 10, 2014 — story by RaceChaser open wheel correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Williams/LAT photo — As Formula One slips into a new era marked by the return to V6 turbocharged engines, Williams Martini Racing is also preparing to embark on a new journey of its own, seemingly re-energized and refocused following a rough patch from the mid-2000s onward that saw the famed F1 team slip towards the bottom of the Constructors’ Championship.
Aiming to unglue its feet from the past, Williams enters the 2014 season with new lineups across the board. Within the past year, the team has overhauled its staff, acquiring Brazilian driver Felipe Massa from Ferrari along with Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley, appointing Pat Symonds as chief technical officer, and attaining key sponsorship from Petrobas, Banco do Brasil, and Martini.
Most important of all, Williams bolted from Renault to Mercedes engine power, a move that makes them instant contenders for points given the tumultuous preseason testing for rival manufacturers.
In 2013, Williams only scored points in two Grands Prix, but with several key changes within the team, it seems as though a change in overall performance is on the way as well.
The Drivers: The Williams attack is bolstered by the arrival of veteran Felipe Massa, who is set to begin his twelfth season in F1. Massa piloted a Ferrari from 2006-2013, coming within a single point of winning the championship in 2008. Massa’s career drastically changed in 2009, when he was struck one inch above the left eye with a piece of debris, knocking him unconscious instantly and keeping him out of action for the remainder of the year.
From then on, Massa’s performance has been inconsistent at best, prompting some to wonder whether or not the horrifying incident had left him mentally altered. Despite failing to win a Grand Prix since 2008, the 32-year-old has a chance to make a fresh start, and there is plenty of confidence within the team that he can make a points-scoring splash immediately.
“He is superb,” Pat Symonds told Autosport ahead of the season opener in Australia. “I didn’t know exactly what to expect because I didn’t know him particularly well before he joined Williams, but he is great.
“He is very quick, which we knew and he provides good concise feedback without any airs and graces, it’s just ‘this is what’s happening.’ He’s a fabulous team player and such a charming person.”
Alongside Massa is 24-year-old Valtteri Bottas, a young driver who could benefit from Massa’s experience and leadership. Bottas graduated to the F1 world after winning the GP3 title in 2011. Following a one year stint as a test driver for Williams, he was bumped up to drive as Pastor Maldonado’s teammate.
Bottas was generally seen and not heard in 2013, retiring twice (only once from collision) and finishing outside the top 10 in all but one race, an eighth place classification at Circuit of the Americas. He finished ahead of Maldonado in the championship and outqualified his teammate on multiple occasions, including a career-high starting position of 3rd at Canada.
Now, Bottas has a competitive car under his reign, which will serve as a litmus test to prove just how much skill and potential the highly touted Finn really has.
The Car: The Williams FW36 is a car of firsts—it’s the first car in the team’s 37 year existence to be powered by a Mercedes engine, and after securing title sponsorship from the Martini & Rossi distillery, it will be the first car to sport the legendary Martini livery since 1979.
The Mercedes PU106A Hybrid V6 cemented itself as the most reliable engine in preseason testing, helping Williams to accrue 4893km, a tally that sits less than 100km off the overall lead held by Mercedes AMG Petronas. Massa and Bottas both led sessions with the fastest lap times, and Massa clocked in the fastest time at the Bahrain test during his qualifying simulation, two-hundredths of a second faster than Lewis Hamilton.
The time on the track was valuable not only for the drivers, but also for the crew. Contented with the reliability and secure car performance by the conclusion of testing, the team decided to run pit stop practices in the final testing sessions in Bahrain.
An “anteater” nose design was adopted at the front, but the Williams nose is narrower than its counterparts, meeting FIA regulations yet maximizing airflow underneath the car. Technology is playing an expanded role in the sport this season, but Pat Symonds still believes aerodynamics are vital and that the FW36 can meet the team’s lofty standards.
“F1 is still going to be an aerodynamic formula in 2014,” Symonds said. “There are some significant changes: the nose is lower than last year and the front wing is narrower, which means the end plates are now more shrouded by the front tire. The rear wing isn’t as deep as last year and the beam wing below it is no longer permitted, and we’ve also lost the ability to use the exhaust to enhance aero performance.
“I’m confident that we’ll be closer to the front aerodynamically than we were last year. Our ambition for the year ahead is to have a strong 2014 season.”
The Challenges: Although the season ahead is filled with promise and improved performance, Williams does not have the advantage of prior success in recent years. Many changes occur from one year to the next, so it is unfair to downgrade Williams solely based on previous performances. However, the fact remains that while top teams like Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari, and McLaren (who endured a miserable 2013 campaign) are well-oiled and used to occupying the top positions in the sport, it has been over a decade since Williams has run consistently up front. This is not an insurmountable hurdle, but one that could affect them as the season wears on and the competition grows tighter.
In previous seasons, driver errors have marred multiple races for Williams, leading to poor finishes and an abundance of retirements (specifically between Pastor Maldonado and Bruno Senna in 2012). Felipe Massa is being hailed as a huge difference maker for Williams, but lapses in judgment have been known to plague Massa from time to time as well. Even though his exploits come nowhere close to matching the departed Maldonado, incidents like the 2013 Monaco Grand Prix weekend, in which Massa tore up two Ferrari machines in the exact same location scaling the incline into Sainte Devote, must cease to exist. Now battling with other frontrunners in the sport, Williams cannot afford to waste points when the car is running amidst cars capable of producing podiums and top 10 finishes.
The Strengths: Aside from the losses of concentration previously mentioned, Felipe Massa is a seasoned competitor that adds to the team the expertise of car behavior and setup in addition to his skill as a driver. He should work well with Valtteri Bottas, and he already has a working relationship with Rob Smedley from their partnership with Ferrari. Chemistry should not be an issue for Williams, even though changes in leadership positions include at the helm of the team, with founder Frank Williams’ daughter Claire serving in merely her second season as deputy team principal.
Projected Result: At Williams Martini Racing, the old has been phased out with newer and improved personnel and equipment. The squad still holds its roots in the past, but the future is bright. The FW36 is the best car Williams has produced since the BMW V10 powered FW26 in 2004, and a Grand Prix victory would come as less of a surprise than their last victory, when Pastor Maldonado captured the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix. Winning the Constructor’s Championship would be highly unlikely, but don’t be surprised to see Williams’ results mirror those of Renault/Lotus from 2011-2013. Final Position: 5th.