05 Jun 2020


If you ask many Formula 1 enthusiasts who is their favourite team a majority are likely to say Williams. If it’s not, its usually in their top 2 or 3 preferred teams. So why is there an affection for the Oxfordshire racers? Many inside and out of the paddock cite a certain ethos to racing that Williams seems to epitomise. A buccaneering spirit that harks back to a more gung-ho era in the sport. Even when Williams enjoyed periods of Formula 1 dominance in the 80’s and 90’s they were still seen as being the team of innovation and panache while maintaining that small team persona up against the massive budgets of Ferrari, Renault, and McLaren.

The current team was launched by Frank Williams in 1977 as Williams Grand Prix Engineering. In 1978, a young Patrick Head, who Williams had hired the previous year, lead the engineering team for their first ground up in-house design, the Williams FW06. This coincided with the hiring of Australian driver Alan Jones who 2 years later would drive the Williams FW07 to the 1980 F1 World Drivers Championship, and with his teammate Carlos Reutemann, the Constructors Title.

It’s widely acknowledged that aside from his close friend Piers Courage, who tragically died in a crash at the 1970 Dutch Grand Prix, Jones is Frank Williams’ favourite driver to this day. Their fully committed style was a feature of both drivers and one which perfectly exhibits all the qualities that the Williams team became renowned for.

Throughout the 80’s Williams cemented their reputation for building consistently competitive cars with 3 more constructors titles, and drivers world titles for Keke Rosberg and Nelson Piquet.

The team suffered a huge set back in 1986 when returning from pre-season testing at Paul Ricard, Frank Williams was involved in a car accident, which left him paralysed from the neck down. The team continued to dominate the 1986 season winning the constructors championship and very nearly the drivers title as well until Nigel Mansell suffered an iconic tyre blowout in Adelaide at the final race of the season.

The 90’s brought further success for Williams with four Drivers’ and five Constructors’ Championships. A new powerful engine supplied by Renault coupled to new designs from Adrian Newey secured Williams Grand Prix Engineering with a reputation as innovators second only perhaps to that of Lotus in the 60’s and 70’s. Nigel Mansell’s 1992 championship winning FW14B took Formula 1 technology to new heights with Newey’s aerodynamic expertise as well as mastering traction control, semi-automatic gearbox design, active suspension, and anti-lock braking. Alain Prost benefitted the following year in FW15C winning the drivers’ championship, and Williams securing yet another constructors title.

Frank Williams had long wanted to see Ayrton Senna in one of his cars and in 1994 following Prost’s retirement he got his wish. However, the banning of Williams’ technological advancements left the FW16 a tricky car to drive. Sadly, Senna’s time in the car ended prematurely just 4 races into the season at Imola, the tragedy of his death having a devastating impact on the team.

Before his death Senna had championed improved safety measures not least how cars were constructed, and how they protected drivers during impacts. Following Senna’s death significant changes to safety were proposed to ensure the chances of future deaths in similar circumstances could be minimised.

Senna’s death also placed the spotlight on the up-and-coming talent of future seven-time world champion, Michael Schumacher, who had followed Senna at Imola before Senna’s accident. To this day every Williams F1 car has carried a Senna ‘S’ on its livery in his honour and to symbolise the team’s ongoing support of one of Senna’s charities, the Instituto Ayrton Senna.

Further constructors’ championships were delivered in 1996 and 1997 as well as driver titles for Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve. These wins further demonstrated Williams engineering consistency and ability to return to winning ways.

The end of 1997 also punctuated Williams’ period of success with the departure of both Renault as an engine supplier, and Adrian Newey leaving the team for McLaren.

How has Williams arrived at a possible sale?

The answer mainly comes down to a combination of inconsistency on multiple levels, and the change in the balance of power on the grid towards the big manufacturers. There has been no head of research and development at Williams since Newey’s departure that has be able to consistent replicate reliability, handling, or outright speed. A series of engine partners including Supertec, BMW, Cosworth, Toyota, and Mercedes-Benz, have all had varying degrees of impact on performance and results.

With major manufacturers such as Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, and Renault now providing all the other teams on the grid with customer engines as well as pumping significant budget into their own teams, independents like Williams struggle to compete. Only teams with significant backing from outside the sport, such as Red Bull have been able to keep pace.

This lack of competitiveness combined with new regulations on advertising has subsequently effected revenue generated from sponsorship. Unlike McLaren, Williams doesn’t have an automotive division providing a secondary income stream so going racing is all about success on the track driving potential sponsors to their door.

The stark reality of Williams plight was underlined when the team, who have achieved so much as a constructor in previous years, came last in the 2019 constructor’s championship. This had a significant impact on income with Williams posting a £13m loss for 2019 and with the season in limbo following the COVID-19 outbreak, its clear new funding is need for a business whose product is racing. Various possibilities are being considered including a number of investment options as well as a complete sale of the business, with unsubstantiated reports of both Russian and Chinese interest.

Williams is looking to complete this investment process within 4 months which if successful would prepare the team for a fresh start in 2021.

With changes to the sport over the next 2 years including more parts standardisation and a budget cap in 2021, Williams hope that some parity between the bigger teams and independents along the pit lane will take place and success for the Grove team will return.

Williams will also be on the hunt for a new headline sponsor as the relationship with mobile phone company Rokit has ended.

We will watch with interest how this develops.

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Editor-in-Residence, JDC Promotions Media Centre