F1

F1 2017 team review: Williams

After being usurped by Force India as “best of the rest” in 2016, Williams were hoping for a resurgence this season, but it didn’t quite go to plan for the Grove team.

George Howson by George Howson

(Photo credit: Jen_ross83)

2017 expectations vs reality

With a big shake-up in the regulations for 2017, Williams had to put the disappointment of the previous season behind them quickly if they were to stay near the forefront of the midfield. 

The works teams of Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault, coupled with the financial might of McLaren and Red Bull, should’ve meant that Williams would be fortunate to get sixth place in the constructors’ championship in 2017. This proved to only be part of the case as Renault and McLaren didn’t make big enough gains over the winter and reached Williams’s level too late to challenge them in the standings. 

Force India were very much the thorn in the side of Williams, though, as the pink panthers maintained their 2016 superiority despite the change in technical regulations. 

Overall, not a bad season for Williams, but given other teams’ struggles they perhaps should’ve capitalised far more than they did. 

Development record and constructors’ performance

Losing out on fourth place in the 2016 constructors’ championship was a real hammer blow to Williams, as in both of the previous hybrid-era seasons they’d occupied a lofty third position. To rub salt into the wounds, the team which bested them was Force India, another Mercedes-powered team, so they lacked on the chassis front. 

2017 was more of the same, if not worse, as despite their best efforts, the gap between them and fourth place grew. It was clear early on that Williams didn’t have the pace to compete with Force India and by the end of the season the Silverstone outfit had amassed over double their points tally. 

They say that in the fast-paced world of Formula 1, to stand still is to go backwards and that’s absolutely true. Some teams such as McLaren and Renault steadily improved relative to the other constructors throughout the year, whereas Williams largely remained static, unable to catch fourth but staying clear of the chasing pack behind. Given their budget and expectations, that’s satisfactory levels of development.

Driver head-to-head

Lining up alongside a seasoned veteran like Felipe Massa when you’re a rookie is an unenviable task in normal circumstances. Lance Stroll, though, had the extra pressure of being labelled a “pay driver” and that told in the early races of the season. The Canadian teenager was out-raced by Massa in all of the first six grands prix, whether through unreliability, lack of pace, or simply inexperience, nothing seemed to be going Lance’s way. Stroll picked up his first points in his home race and his first F1 podium a week later, showing the youngster’s potential.

Overall, a 13-6 advantage for Massa in races where both started doesn’t make good reading for Stroll, and the Canadian had to wait until Italy to out-race Felipe in a straight fight. Massa was the better driver this season, there’s not much doubt about that, but I think Stroll did a solid job once he found his feet in the sport. In fact, the gap between the two drivers was only three points by the conclusion of the season, not a bad record for someone branded as a pay driver. 

Best and worst weekends

The most successful weekend for Williams, both in points scored and their highest position for any of their drivers, was Azerbaijan. Massa could’ve won had his suspension not failed midway through the race, but Stroll put in one of the performances of the season to become the second youngest man to ever stand on an F1 podium. Indeed, Valtteri Bottas only took second place away from him on the line, with Stroll unlucky to miss out on the runner’s up spot after running in second for a long period.

The worst weekend is less clear, Williams have had some shocking grands prix where their car has appeared to be fundamentally off the pace. China and Spain were both poor showings but I’m nominating Hungary as the one they’d most like to forget. The tight and twisty Hungaroring was never going to suit the FW40, but neither of their drivers looked to have a prayer of a points finish. Massa was forced to withdraw through illness and reserve driver Paul di Resta was drafted in as the Brazilian’s replacement. 

With no practice, di Resta did a sterling job to qualify 19th, while Stroll struggled to get his Williams onto the ninth row. The situation didn’t improve much in the race as both of Frank Williams’s cars lacked pace in boiling Budapest and only ever threatened the leaders when they were being lapped, much to Kimi Raikkonen’s annoyance. Di Resta retired with ten laps to go with an oil leak and Stroll finished 14th, nearly two tours behind Vettel. Definitely one that won’t live long in the memory.

Looking to 2018

Felipe Massa’s second retirement from Formula 1 seems like it’ll be his last, which leaves the second seat alongside Lance Stroll currently empty. Robert Kubica, though, looks to be all but confirmed for 2018, after many rumours and the recent Abu Dhabi tyre test. 

The Pole has spent seven seasons out of grand prix racing since his rallying accident before the 2011 season but says his injury won’t affect his driving. Whether that’s an honest assessment is yet to be seen, but Kubica completed over 100 laps (nearly two GP’s distance) and was fastest of all the Williams testers, so the signs look promising. 

If Kubica’s comeback doesn’t go to plan, Paul di Resta proved that he is a solid stand-in driver after his performance in Hungary, so Williams have a safety net. 

On the car front, Williams will keep their Mercedes engines and with the regulations not being too indifferent to those this season, it’s up to them to maintain their fifth place in the constructors’ table. That will be a very difficult task, though, with Renault and McLaren looking to make big gains and the top three teams showing no sign of slowing down.

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George Howson

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