Formed in 1977 by Sir Frank Williams and Sir Patrick Head, Williams Racing are no strangers to success. With 9 Constructors Championships, 7 Drivers Championships, 114 race victories, 312 podiums and 128 pole positions, racing is in their DNA.
It’s part of them. They have thrived on success throughout their time in the sport and have become one of the sports oldest and most successful teams, behind only Ferrari in Constructors Championship wins.
A team proud of their heritage, they won their first championship in 1980 after only two full seasons in the sport as a constructor and went on to win 3 drivers championships in the 1980s, and became the most dominant team in F1 during the 90s, as they won the constructors championship in ’92, ’93, ’94, ’96 and ’97. They added to that success with drivers championship wins in ’92, ’92, ’93, ’96 and ’97, only missing out on the drivers crown in ’94 as Michael Schumacher took his first on 7 titles driving for Benetton.
For those of you who read my articles, follow me on Twitter and watch our F1 Podcasts every Monday at 8pm (cheap plug, sorry), you will know how much I love this team and how sad it makes me to see them in the position they are in now.
Recent years have not been kind to the popular team from Grove however, and to find their last podium you will have to go back to 2017, when Lance Stroll finished on the rostrum in Azerbaijan. Their last pole position came back in 2014, thanks to Felipe Massa in Austria. Their last race victory is even further back, in 2012, at the hands of Pastor Maldonado in Spain. To find their last championship, you will have to journey all the way back to 1997, when young Canadian Jacques Villeneve triumphed. For a team who prides themselves on success, and who have racing and winning running through their veins, the past 20 years have been incredibly tough. For fans, it’s tough to watch a team struggle so badly, especially a team who were once F1s superpowers.
So where did it go wrong? Well, after Villeneuve won in 1997, Renault ended their full time involvement in F1 and Williams had to run old, rebadged Renault engines for 1998, under the Mecachrome name. It meant that the car for that year, the FW20, had the same engine as the previous year and was virtually the same car, so was a way back from the likes of Ferrari and McLaren. 1999 was a similar story, with Williams again running old rebadged Renault engines, this time under the Supertec name. Villeneuve had also departed to drive for the new BAR team, so Williams had Alessandro Zanardi and Ralf Schumacher. The drivers struggled with the car, and only managed 3 podiums, all scored by Schumacher. A tough pill to swallow for a team that had been tasting championship success just two seasons before. McLaren had become the sports quickest team over the past couple of seasons, and Ferrari had returned to competitiveness thanks to Michael Schumacher, Ross Brawn and a host of other personnel arriving. The sport also had a surprise contender, with the small but popular Jordan team turning out to be surprisingly competitive in 1999, fighting for podiums and the odd race win.
2000 brought renewed hope to the team, as they landed a BMW engine deal. Zanardi was gone and was replaced by young rookie Jenson Button. Schumacher stayed for a second season as the team looked to regain their position at the front of the grid. The season did not give them the victory they desired, but they scored three podiums, again all thanks to Schumacher. The first year of BMW power had been promising though, and the team felt that success was just around the corner.
The team tasted victory once more in 2001, as Ralf Schumacher took three race wins, and new driver Juan Pablo Montoya took a further race win, ensuring the team stood at the top step for the first time since 1997. The BMW Williams had to contend with a difficult enemy, however. Michael Schumacher and Ferrari were Formula One’s dominant pairing, and they took a clean sweep of championships between 2000 and 2004. Williams enjoyed success during those years, but often no one could get near the scarlet Ferraris as they dominated the sport week in, week out. The team finished 3rd in the championship in 2000 and 2001, and followed those results up with 2nd in 2002 and 2003. Seven race wins, shared between Ralf Schumacher and Juan Pablo Montoya was still a disappointing result, not only for Williams, but also BMW, who were getting impatient for success.
2004 was a disappointing year for the team, as the radically designed FW26 proved less competitive than first hoped, and the distinctive “Walrus-Nose” did not have the desired effect. (Google that car, it’s a strange looking thing - but one of my favourites). Montoya took the teams only victory that year, at the season ending Brazilian Grand Prix, as the team stood on the podium just 4 times. 2005 was even worse, as the team failed to win a race and were left to take just four podiums at the hands of Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld. Renault had emerged as the sports new dominant team, and signalled the end of an era for Schumacher and Ferrari, and pushed Williams further back down the grid, behind McLaren.
After the 2005 season finished, BMW departed and took over the Sauber team, rebranding it as BMW Sauber. Williams were left without heavy manufacturer backing and turned to Cosworth for 2006. That years car, the FW28, was uncompetitive and unreliable. The team failed to score a single podium and finished in the points on just 5 occasions. Out of 18 races that year, Williams had a double retirement in 6 of them. Nico Rosberg scored a fastest lap on his debut with the team, but that was the only highlight during a tough and forgettable season. 2007 brought Toyota power to Williams, and a podium thanks to Alex Wurz’s 3rd in Canada, but Williams failed to make significant progress up the grid. 2008 was similar, with a couple of podiums for Rosberg being the positives, but attention had turned to 2009, and the big regulation changes. Williams failed to capitalise on the double-diffuser loophole, however, and failed to score a podium, with Rosberg scoring all of the teams points. Young driver Kazuki Nakajima failed to score all season, and both drivers were changed for the following season. Rosberg left for Mercedes, while Nakajima was replaced. Experience man Rubens Barrichello and highly rated young rookie Nico Hulkenberg stepped into the cars for 2010, and even though Hulkenberg scored a shock pole position in Brazil, the car only showed flashes of competitiveness. 2011 was even worse. Barrichello stayed on, but Hulkenberg was replaced by Pastor Maldonado, and the team slumped to 9th in the constructors championship, their worst finished since 1983. The car was reliable but slow, and Maldonado’s repeated errors proved costly to the team.
2012 saw a reunion with Renault, who had provided championship winning engines to the team in the ‘90s, so their was plenty of optimism. Maldonado stayed, but Barrichello retired and was replaced by Ayrton Senna’s nephew Bruno. Senna failed to impress, but Maldonado scored a shock win in Spain after a brilliant race saw him defend strongly from Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari. That still remains Williams’ last win. 2013 saw more struggles, which were painful to see after she shoots of success had appeared in 2012, and the team failed to get a podium and again finished 9th in the championship.
2014 saw a complete overhaul in F1’s regulations, and ex-Ferrari man Felipe Massa joined the team to partner Valtteri Bottas. The team also secured a deal to run Mercedes engines, which were proving to be the best in the sport. They also secured backing from Martini. There was a great deal of optimism, which was rightly rewarded with 9 podium finishes, a pole position in Austria (which was also a front row lockout) and a 3rd place finish in the championship. Williams were confident of pushing on for 2015, as they ended 2014 with the second fastest car, behind Mercedes. 2015 yielded another 3rd place finish, and the team were confident of being able to fight for wins, but they slipped back to 5th in 2016 and 2017, before finishing 10th in 2018 and 2019. The positive 2014 season was quickly forgotten as the team fell back into their free fall down the grid. Martini left after 2018, and RoKit took over as title sponsor. After just one season however, the deal between RoKit and Williams was terminated, leaving Williams without the all important title sponsor, and of course the investment and money that comes with it.
2020 saw the team put up for sale after their worst finish in 2019, scoring just 1 point. The long term future of the team was unsure, and it seemed entirely possible that the Williams name could drop out and be lost to the history books. It’s impossible for a team like Williams to compete budget-wise with the likes of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes. One bad season means less money, which means less to spend on getting back to competitiveness. Then that equals another bad season, and so on and so on. Formula One is almost entirely based around money, as it has been for many years, and teams like Williams, who pride themselves on being the last privateer team, would never be able to survive much longer with the results they were getting.
However, good news was around the corner. The team was saved by a company called Dorilton Capital, an American Investment company, which has bought the Williams team and secured their long term future. While Williams are no longer a family owned team, which is a shame, they will be on the grid for the foreseeable future, and thanks to their new owners having deeper pockets than the Williams team had previously, a return to the sharp end of the grid isn’t unthinkable. It will take time, however, and results won’t happen overnight, but the team can look forward with positivity. I really hope we see them return to the podium soon, and hopefully take a race win or two. A championship would be lovely, but that won’t be for a few years yet! But, with the new owners insisting that long term investment is key, and their commitment is obvious, I feel really positive for the future of the team I love so much.
The other good news that has come from the takeover is that the Williams name is staying, and they will also continue to be based in Grove, with Dorilton recognising their world class facilities and appreciating the Heritage that the team has.
I really hope we see them turn a corner now (or several, quickly) and that one of the sports most successful teams has an exciting new chapter ahead of them. And who knows, they might take the fight to Mercedes!