It was the 14th of July, 1979, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and Alan Jones’ Williams FW07 had spluttered to a halt 30-laps shy of a seemingly assured first Grand Prix victory. Jones had started from pole-position, thanks largely to mighty strides with the improvement of the Williams’ ‘ground effect’ aerodynamics; almost overnight, Williams became the team to beat.
Jones’ early departure from the Grand Prix would be to the benefit of his Williams team-mate, Clay Reggazoni, who would claim his fifth Grand Prix victory. Somewhat more pertinently, it would be a first victory for Frank Williams’ eponymous team…
Fast forward to 1997, same venue, same event, and Jacques Villeneuve crosses the finish line to post Williams’ 100th race win. In the intervening years, those 100 victories contributed to World Championships for Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell, Alain Prost, Damon Hill and Villeneuve himself would put the ’97 British GP win toward his own title success.
Add nine constructor’s titles to Williams’ success haul and it would appear that Sir Frank’s team once didn’t know how to lose. The eighteen years that have passed since however, tell a somewhat different tale.
Since Villeneuve’s victory in Britain, just fourteen times has a Williams car seen the chequered flag before any other, thirteen of them coming between 1997 and 2005; since then, Pastor Maldonado’s memorable victory in the Spanish GP of 2012 has been the British team’s only, fleeting, reminder of their winning capabilities.
Maldonado’s sole Grand Prix victory, coming at a time when tyres seemingly made a greater contribution to race results than drivers themselves, was at no point considered the start of a Williams’ rejuvenation – the first hint of that would come in 2014, along with the arrival of Martini as title sponsor and Mercedes-Benz as engine supplier…
Even though Williams finished third in the 2014 title race, the team failed to claim a single race victory, in part due to the utter dominance of Mercedes’ own team but courtesy also of Williams failing to capitalise on opportunities afforded to them – despite having arguably the second fastest car, Williams were beaten by even Red Bull Racing to the three races in which Mercedes dropped the ball.
Even when Mercedes had a firm hold of said ball, Williams occasionally showed signs of being capable of robbing them of it, but simply never completed the tackle. Take the 2014 Austrian Grand Prix for example; the first indication that Williams had arrived at a circuit with a car genuinely capable of deposing Mercedes as the firm race favourite. Felipe Massa qualified first, backed up by his young Finnish team-mate, Valterri Bottas, alongside him in second.
Despite their superior qualifying pace, at no point during the race did Williams exude the sort of confidence that once accompanied them to so many of their 114 previous victories; it was all a bit ‘nervous’, the team seemingly unsure of strategy, reacting to the hunting Mercedes when it was all too late rather than forcing their hand and making a fight of it.
Ultimately, Mercedes would score yet another one-two finish whilst Bottas would join them on the podium, Massa having dropped to fourth come the race’s conclusion. Cries came that Williams had missed their opportunity, thrown away the race victory that could have been the catalyst for many more – they’d missed the start of the rejuvenation.
Massa would give Lewis Hamilton a run for his money in the season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix but not until this year’s British GP, again at Silverstone, would Williams have such a clear shot at victory – instead, the race would only further suggest that the once truly, meteorically great and faultless team have seemingly forgotten how to win.
Both Bottas and Massa’s launch from the start of the race was nothing short of sublime, the Brazilian finding himself with a sizeable lead after the very first corner. Massa even managed to defend his lead from an aggressive Hamilton following a brief safety car period, a moment which allowed the second Williams of Bottas to slither by Hamilton and stalk his leading team-mate.
Then Williams came over all ‘nervous’ again, seemingly unsure of how to play the cards they had been dealt. At first, the visibly quicker Bottas was ordered to hold station behind Massa – “do not race your team-mate” – while the two Mercedes hunted the Williams pair.
Every man and his dog will claim that they could see the benefits in releasing Bottas, allowing the Finn to build a lead whilst Massa held the Mercedes at bay, securing Williams a famous victory. Alas, the decision to allow Bottas to challenge Massa came too late from the Williams’ pit wall; by then, pit stops were imminent and Hamilton was close enough to capitalise on fresh rubber and benefit from the ‘undercut’ of pitting a lap before Massa.
The rain that would come before the end of the race, further endorsing it as the race of the season so far, would curtail Williams’ afternoon further; Rosberg mastered the tricky, slippery conditions and splashed by both Williams, whilst Sebastian Vettel was in the right place – the pit lane – at the right time to change to intermediate tyres and jump both Massa and Bottas who had missed the sweet spot for pitting.
Someone often loses out when rain adds an element of unpredictability to a race and so perhaps it was simply unfortunate that Williams suffered most notably. But that period early in the race, under blissful sunshine, with both cars leading was their time to orchestrate their cars into a winning position. And they missed it.
Have Williams forgotten how to win? Or were they just particularly sensitive to the situation; who would dare ask Massa to concede a leading position given the years of hurt he endured at Ferrari under similar circumstances – who can forget the infamous “Fernando. Is. Faster. Than. You” message; Felipe Massa certainly remembers.
But if Williams want to win again and perhaps claim the victory that will be the catalyst and open the door for a flood of further success, there can be no room for sensitivities. They must be more aggressive and decisive with strategy; they must win again, for the good of the team and, arguably, for the good of Formula One – few would begrudge Sir Frank’s team success.