After many years in the Formula One doldrums, the return to form of Williams has been a pleasant feature to F1 since the start of 2014. A dismal 2013 saw just five points scored and seemingly no-way back. But, third in the 2014 and 2015 constructor standings were richly and thoroughly deserved, even if the team were slightly disappointed with their ’15 campaign.
2016 promised to be yet another good season for the team, with technical director Pat Symonds always guaranteed to design a solid car, the FW38. Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas would return for a third season together and the team were optimistic of maybe challenging Ferrari for P2, and when conditions were right, of maybe challenging for a win.
But the season has somewhat stalled. Despite solid points hauls since the season started, usually around fifth to eighth, only one podium has been delievered, Bottas in Canada. Since Monaco, Massa has scored just two points, Bottas 14. At Austria, a track they took pole at in 2014, and suits the low-drag characteristics of the chassis, just two points were recorded.
The slip in form, has all but halted chances of chasing Ferrari and Red Bull for second and third, but the team are now in a battle with Force India for fourth. On similar budgets, it could be an interesting fight as just 15 points separate the two, although at half-way, the Force India does look the best car.
Continuing with the low-drag philosophy of ’14 and ’15, the FW38 retained the look of its predecessor, the FW37, but according to deputy team principal, Claire Williams the team were “confident we have made a step forward over the winter”. Initial testing suggested the car was close to Ferrari on pace, but as the field headed for Melbourne, the car could manage a best finish of fifth, crucially behind a Red Bull, suggesting that that team had jumped the Grove-based outfit.
The low-drag philosophy means that in low-speed corners the car is hard to drive as it understeers, and on tracks such as Monaco, it is pretty much hopeless. 22 points, in Russia is the most the car has hauled in a single race, and after the first five races, a respectable 65 points had been hauled, but only 31 in the following seven. In the wet, the car is also hard to get the most out of scoring just one point in the two races where rain has played a part, in Monaco.
Powered by the still class of the field Mercedes Power Unit, the team will always be there or there abouts. The team are almost certainly guaranteed a top five in the constructors, and it may be the case, that sooner rather than later, attention is fully switched to the 2017 FW39.
Rating out of 10: 6.5
The Finn, now in his fourth season in F1, has established himself just on the cusp of the top drivers on the grid, alongside your Ricciardo's, Grosjean's, Button's and Verstappen's of this world. 2015 was interrupted with links of a move to Ferrari proving to be more of a problem then first realised. One that settled down, Bottas again delivered, the highlight of his run-in being a Mexican podium.
Scoring in all races, bar Monaco and Britain, Bottas’s 58 point haul is currently seventh in standings. Consistency is a key trait of all the greats, as is the ability to beat your teammate, something Bottas has an excellent record for doing. His drive to the Canadian podium was a typical unflustered drive.
To hold on to Bottas, Williams needs to somehow improve. It is difficult as the three teams currently ahead in the standings, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are manufactures or bank-rolled by billionaires. For a small-independent owned team, sponsorship is thus hard to find. But there are some clever people at Williams, Symonds, Rob Smedley and of course, Frank himself, who always finds a way to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.
Rating out of 10: 8
The likeable Brazilian has struggled much more than Bottas as the FW38 continues to stall in the development race. He has also had rotten luck, with a nudge in Germany on the opening lap leaving his car a handful to drive until his retirement. The early season was promising, but much like the team his results consistency has nosedived off alarmingly. Whilst Bottas was busy spraying the Canadian bubbly, Massa was the victim of a rare Mercedes PU issue.
It is certainly not through a lack of trying, as the 11-time race winner never gives up. However, he may be forced into retirement should Williams look at refreshing their driver line-up for ’17 and not being able to find a competitive seat. The best way he can prevent that is to re-find the impressive form he had in the opening fly-away races and try to claw the 20 point deficit to Bottas back.
Rating out of 10: 7.5
Goals for the rest of the season
First and foremost, Williams must see off Force India for fourth in the constructors, and immediately regain its form. Spa and Monza, the firsr two races after the summer break should suit the package, and so the team should aim to do well there, as the Force India's could have the advantage in Singapore and Japan.
Also regaining driver confidence is a must. The drivers, especially Massa, need a spark to reignite their stuttering season, and the higher they finish this season, the more prize money they’ll receive for 2018. As cars are an evolution of the previous years chassis, the rest of 2016 is key, as if Williams are on the back-foot going into ’17, the resultant knock-on effect could substantially prolong the wait for this once dominant team to return to championship winning seasons.