Williams haven’t won a drivers or constructors championship since 1997. Their last win came in Brazil at the end of the 2004 campaign. As the team start their eleventh season of championship drought, the fourth year of victory drought, a lot of hope is being echoed around the grandstands and online forums that this year will see some better performances. Team owners Frank Williams and Patrick Head must surely wondering when the rain of champagne will fall their way again? However, celebrating 30 years in Formula One as well as a few other landmark statistics being met this season, maybe a bit of luck will land on the plucky privateer’s laps. And like the team’s many thousands of fans the world over, I’m hoping the FW30 will be one of great progress and improvement, pushing the team further towards the top on the road to recovery.
The team truly are quite remarkable when you look back at their history. Officially debuting as Williams in 1978, Frank entered his cars in the Argentine Grand Prix and hasn’t really looked back since. In the last thirty seasons the team has seen some fantastic highs; seven drivers championships, nine constructors championships, 113 wins, 125 poles – all this in just 30 years. The team has given seats to some of the sport’s greatest drivers; Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell, Ayrton Senna and Damon Hill to name just four of the most recent stars. Of course, with the highs come the lows, and while the 1994 season and subsequent legal issues could be considered as low as it could get for a team, their current performance drought must be grating on the competitive spirits found within the Grove factory.
Last year the team did well, tripling the points they scored in 2006. But 33 still isn’t a particularly high number and it was only thanks to McLaren’s disqualification that they managed to finish in fourth place in the constructors race. Alex Wurz managed to climb on to the podium in Canada and Nico Rosberg was a relatively consistent point scorer, particularly in the latter half of the season.
Over the winter saw rumours of a possibe investment and partial buyout from the Baugur Group, a company associated with Williams’s sponsor Hamleys. Nothing has come of these murmurings, but the speculation surrounding the future of the team ceases to go away, particularly while the team are partnered with Toyota. Williams use Toyota’s engines and rather embarrassingly for the factory team, got beaten by Team Willy last season (33 points to 13).
Williams’s 2007 driver Alex Wurz retired just prior to the finale of the season, so the team decided to promote their then-test driver Kazuki Nakajima to the race seat, likely with the long term plan to let Nakajima continue into 2008. The Japanese driver, son of former Formula One racer Satoru Nakajima, performed well at Interlagos in ’07, and although he had a moment during his first F1-career pitstop, Kazuki drove reasonably well. Later in the year it was announced that Nakajima would indeed be driving for Williams for 2008, partnering Nico Rosberg whom the squad will be hoping will around for a good few years yet.
With no real prior Formula One experience to draw from, assessing Nakajima’s abilities is difficult. However, his testing form has improved substantially over the winter, even claiming the fastest lap at a recent session in Spain. Although initially his times appeared erratic these findings should be taken with a pinch of a salt. It could be that Nakajima was running a programme of practicing starts or pitstops, or testing out something on the car that doesn’t necessarily require flat-out performance. Needless to say that following the perceived improvement in the FW30 chassis a far few eyes are on Nakajima at the moment.
Continuing his partnership with the team that gave him his break in 2006, and also a son of a Formula One racer, Nico Rosberg has been running well in testing, generally edging out Kazuki and being a little more consistent. The German driver was mooted to be heading in the direction of Woking over the winter off season, with Fernando Alonso leaving a vacant seat at McLaren. A lot of teams are interested in Rosberg and Nico was probably the joint-favourite alongside Heikki Kovalainen for most of November and December. However, I’m fairly certain Frank Williams will not want to lose his star driver and held on to him tightly.
While there probably is a certain about of sentimentality between the two competitive spirits, Frank and Patrick really need to give Rosberg a decent car soon. It won’t be too long before Rosberg starts to realise that time is ticking and if he is to repeat Jacques Villeneuve’s and Damon Hill’s feat of becoming second generation world champions (oddly enough, both with Williams), he will need a car and team worthy of doing that. But future contemplations aside, remaining with Williams will certainly bolster the squad and keeping consistency with the lead driver while the second finds his feet is a wise move.
The FW30 has been running well in testing. The drivers have spoken of improved handling, despite the prohibition of electronic driver aids, and Rosberg has said that he feels more confident with the new chassis. This combined with a reasonably good Toyota engine could help push the squad closer to the tails of Renault and BMW. Unfortunately for the British team though, BMW have looked good and appear to on a storming run of consistent improvement at the moment, and Renault will have undoubtedly gained six tenths automatically just because Alonso is in the seat. These elements combined (I jest about the 0.6s by the way, but Renault will likely have improved over their 2007 form) will mean Williams are going to have to work hard at continually developing the FW30 chassis. It won’t be easy though for the Oxfordshire team, being the top real privateer squad and helping out their engine partner.
My heart says third, but my mind says fourth or fifth. I believe if Williams keep pace with developments, they should be able to hook onto the tail of the top four and resist the advances from Red Bull et al. I’m pretty confident they will once again beat Toyota, although this may not be in their best interests given that the Japanese factory team could leave the sport if they don’t start improving. All in all, I think 2008 will be a good year for Williams, and hopefully the start of a revival for the team that sparked my interest in the sport many years ago.