DECEMBER 26, 2003

Review of the Year: 2nd - BMW Williams

When one sits back and analyses the 2003 season, the conclusion that one is forced to draw is that the BMW Williams team should have won both the Drivers' and Constructors' titles.

Admittedly, the team was not really ready at the start of the year but the FW25 moved on quickly and the team was soon enjoying a big advantage in performance over Ferrari and McLaren. The problem was that the drivers Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher made too many mistakes.

The FW25 appeared at the end of January and it was no surprise that it was a very different car from the previous Williams-BMW FW24, which won only one race in 2002. Over the winter the team has invested heavily but some of the new work was not yet ready to come through the system. The new car featured the same style of low rear end, which made Ferrari so competitive in 2002. Much of this came from the recruitment of ex-Ferrari aerodynamicist Dr. Antonia Terzi, who joined the team in the Spring of 2002. There were a series of political battles within the Williams aerodynamic department and it was not until the early part of this year that Terzi gained complete. In the early races Montoya threw away a win in Melbourne with a spin; in Malaysia Ralf was off the pace all weekend, disturbed by some lurid allegations in the German press and Montoya was involved in a first corner crash; in Brazil Montoya crashed and Schumacher was a wild afternoon. By the time the teams headed for Imola the pressure was really on. BMW was in the process of negotiating a new deal with Williams and was putting the pressure on big time in the negotiations. Doing this in public was really not that smart but one must suppose that the men in Munich were feeling pressure from within BMW and were looking for someone else to blame...

At Imola Ralf was fighting for victory but was beaten by his brother and then in Barcelona the cars were struggling badly, being unstable in high-speed corners. Some teams would have panicked but Williams shrugged off the criticism and got their heads down and worked. Montoya got a new race engineer in Frank Dernie, one of the original Williams engineers back in the late 1970s who did much of the aerodynamic development work on the Williams FW07, and their relationship flourished. Also joining the engineering team on occasion was Dr. John Davies, another top level recruit with a particular expertise in making sure that aerodynamic research resulted in performance on the tracks. The hard work resulted in a much more competitive car and Montoya drove a faultless race in Monaco to win the team's first victory of the year, beating Kimi Raikkonen's McLaren and Michael Schumacher's Ferrari. The victory did a lot for Williams and silenced complaints from BMW about the performance of the Williams chassis. There would then be three more victories in the next five races with Schumacher getting two and Montoya adding another. But things were turning also turning sour: at the French Grand Prix Montoya and Williams's Chief Operations Engineer Sam Michaels had a very frank exchange of views over the radio during the race after Montoya lost his temper believing that the team was favouring Schumacher. Michael read him the riot act.

There is no doubt that within the team the feeling was that Montoya is prone to mistakes and is a little too lazy and too reliant on his natural talent. Montoya was already by then in negotiation to move to McLaren in 2005 and the fight obviously did not help. By July there were rumors that a deal was done and there was a lot of action as McLaren tried to figure out a way of getting Montoya in 2004. Williams went after Mark Webber but no deal was possible and so Montoya stays in 2004.

While all this was happening Ralf's season started to go off the rails when it was ruled that he had been responsible for causing the crash at the start of the German GP. The team appealed the decision and the FIA International Court of Appeal agreed that dropping 10 grid positions in Hungary was too harsh a penalty and that he should be given a $50,000 fine instead. Then Ralf blew it at the start in Budapest and effectively wasted all the time, effort and money had spent trying to save him all those grid positions.

And then he had a huge accident while testing at Monza when his rear suspension collapsed and the car flipped. Schumacher was not hurt but he was later forced to pull out of the Italian event because of dizzy spells. His World Championship hopes were over. Test driver Marc Gene stepped in and did a highly competent job.

All of this was happening against a backdrop of Ferrari's attack on Michelin tires and the complete disruption of the Michelin and Williams test programmes because they could not be certain whether the FIA would agree with their interpretation of the rules or whether Ferrari would win the complaint. That was a key moment because Ferrari were suddenly back in the picture. Montoya chose settings which were not what was needed and Michael Schumacher beat him. And then came the disaster at Indianapolis where Montoya punted Barrichello off and was penalized for it. This and the changing weather meant that he had no chance. He was out of the title race when the circus went to Japan.

And so the year ended unhappily with the team winning neither championship and only four victories to Ferrari's eight. Formula 1 is a cyclical business and Williams knows that it must win soon or else the top of this wave will have been wasted. The team is now concentrating all of its efforts on not making the same mistakes again in 2004. The team has always worked with the philosophy that money spent on a car gives mediocre drivers a better chance to win the World Championship and in the past this has often worked and the team will be working this winter to give the drivers an even bigger advantage next year and hopes that they will not screw it up. It looks likely that neither will be with Williams in 2005 and the latest suggestion is that Williams will be going for Jenson Button and Mark Webber. Others are in the picture. There is no hurry as if the team has the best cars in 2004 the drivers will come to Williams...

The FW25 was the first of a completely new generation of cars and so many lessons had to be learned. The FW26 will be a development of the current car and should therefore move the level forward still further. One of the team's biggest advantages this year was the strong relationship it enjoys with Michelin and both sides are intending to make the most of that to build an even bigger gap to Ferrari.

The uncertainty over BMW is over, a new deal is place for 2005 to 2009 and next year there are really no excuses.

Sponsors recognize that Williams is the coming team at the moment with the team picking up big sponsorship deals this year from Budweiser, Western Union and from the giant GlaxoSmithKline drug company's NiQuitin CQ brand.

The smart money is therefore on Williams in 2004. It is now down to the drivers...