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AUGUST 3, 2016

Williams at a crossroad


Valtteri Bottas, Hungarian GP 2016
© The Cahier Archive

There is no hiding the 2016 season has been disappointing for Williams. After two years during which Sir Frank's team punched above its weight, finishing third in the Constructors Championship both in 2014 and 2015, the Grove-based team has not only dropped clearly behind Red Bull and Ferrari, but also started to fall into the clutches of Force India and, more recently, Toro Rosso and McLaren-Honda.

The best Williams can hope for from this year's campaign is to salvage fourth place in the Constructors Championship, which won't be easy because there are still nine races to go, Force India is just 15 points behind and going through a much better run, but even that will mean a loss of seven million dollars in prize money. Dropping to fifth place would cost another three million dollars in prize money, so there's the serious possibility Williams will be collected ten million dollars less from Bernie Ecclestone next year, compared to what it's getting this season.

Even with what is a sizeable chunk of prize money in the bank - Williams is reportedly receiving 87 million dollars from the Formula One Group this year - it has been clear, since the start of this season, that the team hasn't developed its car as quickly as those it's fighting directly on the track. Worryingly too, most of the recent new aerodynamic parts that have been introduced, have failed to bring the enhanced performance the team expected and the results show it: during the four July races Valtteri Bottas scored just six points, while Felipe Massa has collected only two points from the last seven Grand Prix!

Significant too is the fact that when important new parts are introduced - new front wings, new floors, etc. - Williams tends to bring just one of those to a race, for one if its drivers to try on Friday and eventually Saturday morning, before deciding if keeping it in the car for qualifying and the race will bring better performance. Then, one race later, that part may be tried by the other driver or there will be two new elements available, while teams like Force India and Toro Rosso bring at least two new parts to run all weekend as soon as they're ready and with a couple of spares too, just in case they're needed. This seems to indicate Williams' production budget is quite limited in comparison with the other midfield teams, which can only mean one thing: the management has decided to clear as much debt as possible in the short term - as demonstrated by last year's financial report - and has done that at the detriment of the team's racing budget.

Which leads us to the main point of this column: the choice of drivers for next year. It's more or less accepted by everyone involved in Formula One that Felipe Massa won't be part of Williams' plans for 2017 and it seems increasingly clear the veteran Brazilian driver has been told as much. As for Valtteri Bottas, we understand Williams has an option for his services for 2017 but the Finn insists he hasn't had any assurances he'll be retained for another year. At the same time, there are quite a few in the paddock who believe Williams will be running Jenson Button and Lance Stroll in next year's championship.

Replacing Massa with Button is just a short term solution, given they are roughly the same age and are right at the end of their respective Grand Prix careers. Looking at the way they've been performing this year, it's fair to believe there's a bit more Formula One life left in Button than in Massa, as the Brazilian has been comprehensively beaten by Valtteri Bottas, while Button has been sort of holding his own against Fernando Alonso - more in the races than in qualifying - so even from a pure performance point of view, it's a decision that can be easily accepted.

But the reasons Williams has been giving to explain this swap are more financial than sporting, as there's the feeling it will be possible to get more out of the current sponsors and even secure a few new ones if Button is on board, as he's seen as more marketable than Massa, so this was the first indication we had that Williams' driver choices may be dictated by factors other than pure speed and performance.

Far more puzzling is considering dropping Bottas, just one year after they were demanding too much money from Ferrari to let him go. That was a very good sporting decision, for the Finn is a potential World Champion and should be kept at all costs, but letting him go now, for free, and losing the backing of his Finnish sponsors - valued at around eight million Euros by those in the know of financial deals in the paddock - seems an illogical move.

There is no doubt young Canadian Lance Stroll could make a financial contribution to the team that would put Pastor Maldonado's record-breaking PDVSA support to shame, as he's reportedly paying 24 million Euros to test - from early this month - a 2014-spec Williams for 20 days in preparation for a jump into Grand Prix racing. If that seems an unreasonable amount of money to you, just consider that Williams had to put together a small test team and will be testing in tracks Stroll doesn't know outside Europe - Sepang, Austin, Mexico and possibly Bahrain and Abu Dhabi - so the logistic costs involved in this programme are quite high too.

Even with 20 days of testing on his own, the young man that seems set to win this year's European Formula 3 Championship won't be able to bring home, at least in 2017, the kind of results an experienced and highly talented driver like Valtteri Bottas can guarantee. While the current generation of Formula One cars seems reasonably easy to drive - just look at all rookie tests from the last two and half years and see how quickly even those struggling in junior formulas run very close to the pace - it's expected next year's cars will be around five seconds per lap faster, much more difficult to drive, much more physical to handle and a lot trickier to drive on the limit.

While Stroll clearly has a bright future in the sport, putting him against a seasoned veteran like Jenson Button, in a season where experience will count for quite a lot in terms of driving the cars, could be a step too far and do more harm than good to his long term prospects. As his father owns Prema, the team that is dominating this year's GP2 season, doing one year in Formula One's prime feeder category would be a much more sensible step for the Stroll family.

As for Williams, even with all the development now focused on next year's car, there are no realistic hopes to battle Mercedes, Red Bull or Ferrari in 2017, unless one of the top teams drops the ball - as Ferrari did in 2014 or Red Bull the following year. Keeping the best possible driving pairing would help the team fight off the inevitable challenge McLaren-Honda is going to put and keep Force India and Toro Rosso - as well as Renault, who should be 2017's most improved team - well under control. If dropping to fourth place in the Constructors' Championship has the financial implications mentioned above, dropping down the order to 6th or 7th place would be a financial disaster, not only because of the loss of direct income from the prize money fund - it would also drive away the team's main sponsors, as others would be keen to snatch Martini and other companies away from Williams.

What Williams will decide in the next six to eight weeks will tell us which way the team will go in the near future. A purely money-based driver choice will bring the team back to where it was four or five years ago, fighting at the back of the field; a more ambitious decision will help Williams remain a strong contender for another year, which is the only way to keep attracting good sponsors.