The rise and fall of Williams

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

Juan Pablo Montoya scored Williams' last win at Interlagos in 2004
Juan Pablo Montoya scored Williams' last win at Interlagos in 2004

If you tuned into an F1 race for the first time this year you wouldn’t suspect the blue-and-white cars mired in the midfield once were the sport’s most feared competitors.

Williams have known slumps in their time but it’s now six years since they won a race and you have to wonder if they can climb out of this trough.

Williams: wins, pole positions and fastest laps

The rise and fall of Williams
The rise and fall of Williams (click to enlarge)

Williams have had periodic slumps in form throughout their 35-year history, usually when in transition between engine suppliers:

1982-1984: Few race successes in 1982 but consistent points-scoring made Keke Rosberg world champion for the team. The switch from Cosworth V8s to Honda turbo power took a while to come good.

1988-1990: A split from Honda is followed by a joyless year with Judd engines. The team forge a new partnership with Renault and are soon winning again.

1998-2000: A double-whammy as both Renault and star designer Adrian Newey leave the team. Although a new engine supplier was found in the shape of BMW from 2000, arguably the team has been lacking on the chassis side of its operation ever since.

2006-present: BMW’s offer to take over Williams is spurned and they move in at Sauber instead. Williams spend a year with Cosworth, three with Toyota (requiring them to run Kazuki Nakajima for two seasons), then return to Cosworth power.

The future for the team

Can Williams get back on the top step of the podium? They don’t look like getting there are time soon as it seems the FW32 is only the seventh-quickest car out there.

The big four were always going to be out of reach but Renault are ahead of them as well and so are Force India – something which would have been unthinkable even 12 months ago. Williams must be thankful BMW and Toyota are no longer around or they’d be struggling to score even with points down to tenth place.

It’s not all doom and gloom for their supporters, however. Losing Toyota engines has at least allowed them to bolster their driver line-up. The loss of Nico Rosberg is unfortunate – he’s gone from strength to strentgh with Mercedes – but the combination of super-experienced Rubens Barrichello with promising newcomer Nico H?â??lkenberg is a good one, on paper at least.

They are throwing a lot of effort behind KERS development, even though the technology is not being used in F1 this year (a move the team opposed).

Its new technology centre in Qatar, where several engineers from the University of Cambridge have been recruited, is working on applications for the technology outside of motor racing. But their flywheel KERS could yet find favour in F1 as concerns remain over the safety of battery-based KERS, both in terms of what happens when a KERS car crashes and disposal of the chemicals in the batteries.

Today Williams announced it has purchased a majority stake in the company behind the technology, Williams Hybrid Power. It could a very shrewd move for the future.

Do you think Williams can ever recapture their all-conquering form of the eighties and nineties? Will their KERS development play a role in their recovery? Have your say in the comments.

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191 comments on “The rise and fall of Williams”

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  1. No. unfortunately.

    1. Sideshow bob
      29th April 2010, 0:12

      For some reason Williams kind of disgust me. They’ve been useless since Villeneuve (okay, they were all right in ’03) and they don’t seem to be doing anything about it. I admit I’m hardly an expert on their situation, but it’s like they don’t have the drive to fight for the top. You’d think they’d kill themselves to at least sign a top driver for once. They seem content with mediocre lineups like Rosbert/Nakajima and Hulkenberg/Barrichello.

      I think they’re doomed to be a middling team at best.

      1. If your Stoke City, how do you get Wayne Rooney to sign for you? You have 2 problems. first your Stoke City, and secondly you can’t afford the salary.

        I don’t know but I assume there is also a similar problem with the technical staff your trying to hire.

      2. THe decline of Williams has perhaps less to do with how Frank Williams and the management run the team but probably could be explained on the sponsorship front. During the financial crisis of just last season (remember this?) Frank William acknowledged the difficulties and concerns of running the team as an independent race operator – with no car manufacturing line on the side (Ferrari and McLaren) or sponsorship by a major road car company.

        The fact that it is still there on the grid today with great drivers to boot is a testament to how Williams have chartered these ostentatious days of F1 racing.

        1. I think the other way round – it’s the management of the team. The lack of sponsors is rather a consequence.

          There needs to be a strong character pulling it ahead. Sir Frank Williams used to be one, but I guess many things got the better off him.

    2. I remember watching Williams in 2005 and they started the year really well, getting 2nd and 3rd at Monaco and then Heidfeld’s pole at the Nurburgring (where Webber qualified 3rd) seemed to turn things around. Suddenly Williams were a midfield team qualifying around 14th and 15th, but then by the end of the year they were recording good finished again. Anyone know why this was?

  2. I would love to them back in the top but i just cant see it happening in the near future. Maybe this KERS system could be a thing to give them en edge, but how long will they be alone with this?

  3. Ned Flanders
    28th April 2010, 12:13

    I know F1 is going through a manufacturer withdrawal at the moment, but I still think what Williams ought to do do is allign themselves with a big manufacturer again.

    I thought signing up Toyota in 2007 would turn out to be a great decision. I thought Toyota would eventually grow tired of wasting billions of dollars on their own team, and simply pull the plug on and concentrate on Williams. Of course, that’s exactly what has happened, but Williams had already ditched them by then.

    Would they have continued to supply Williams if they had of honoured their contract? Who knows. Presumably Kazuki Nakajima or Kamui Kobayashi would’ve been part of the deal, which wouldn’t have been ideal. But Williams can’t get much worse than they are now. They epitomise mediocrity

    1. I thought Toyota would eventually grow tired of wasting billions of dollars on their own team, and simply pull the plug on and concentrate on Williams. Of course, that’s exactly what has happened, but Williams had already ditched them by then.

      Or maybe Toyota weren’t interested. Or maybe they were and Williams didn’t want to sell up – they didn’t sell to BMW, so why should they sell to Toyota?

      Accepting a lesser quality driver is a false economy in this situation. Nakajima scored nothing last year, and just two points would have been enough to put them above BMW in the constructors’ championship.

      1. Ned Flanders
        28th April 2010, 12:46

        I don’t neccessarily mean they should sell the team off. I may well be wrong on this, but BMW and Renault didn’t buy into the team when they were engine suppliers, did they?

        Although, come to think of it, why is Frank so desperate to keep ownership of the team? He’s an old man, he can’t stay in charge forever. Obviously, he’ll be mindful of the BMW Sauber mess- ie a manufacturer buying a team and then pulling out and leaving them in the lurch- but surely the team needs a breath of fresh air. They’re going nowhere under PH and FW

        1. From what I’ve heard, Sir Frank and Patrick Head weren’t the easiest of partners to work with during the BMW collaboration.

          Had it worked, and BMW not gone their own way, Williams would probably have stayed at the top a lot longer.

          1. they are difficult people to work with, period.
            They were pretty bad managing drivers, they pushed away hill and mansell during their championship years. They didn’t give reuteman the support he needed, and lost to piquet in 1981.
            They lost many key personal to mclaren, and very few were gained the other way around.
            They are the kind of team, that spends several millions to gain a couple of teths, and demorilize their drivers, to lose half a sec.
            I think their best times are in the past. Very good record though.

          2. Frank wants to keep the team independent, a privateer, as all F1 teams should be.

            And I believe pushing away Hill was closely related to Senna’s death.

          3. I seriously doubt that. Had BMW not gone their own way they probably would have done to Williams exactly what they did to Sauber, and look at the mess they’ve left behind there.

        2. BMW bought Sauber, and eventually ran away from F1.

          Honda bought BAR and eventually they too ran away from F1.

          Toyota began from scratch, but they too finally called it a day.

          Renault bought Benetton, and now they have just 25% left in the team.

          Yes, it is clear that Frank Williams should leave his legacy to the fickle whims and boardroom politics of a major manufacturer, because that is a very safe option isn’t it?

          1. I agree with Kowalsky’s comment.

            Williams havent managed their drivers too well, Mclaren will probably be the only other team thats worse off.

            Not going back too far, if you look at the Montoya years, they had the car and driver capable of winning the title, but they didn’t. It could be put down to bad luck and some very brash driving from Montoya (which is why he’s my all time fav!), but as a team, its their duty to control the driver and guide him to victories.

            Do you think would have won at least 1 WDC between 01 and 04 if they had Ross Brawn as team principle? I would like to think so.

        3. Ron Dennis never wanted to sell out to Mercedes and never gave up his majority voting rights in the group.

          This is about being in control of your own company and its racing legacy.
          As Douglas points out, most Manufacturers were interested for a while and then left. He forgot to mention Ford buying Steward GP and later selling to Red Bull

          1. Well pointed out Bas, the Jaguar days did indeed slip my mind.

      2. I agree, Keith. Williams has shown a greater preference of not selling out its soul, keep the spirit of an independent team in racing alive time and again. This act takes bravery and courage and should not be held against them.

        1. not only should it not be held against them, its well and truly been proven to be the correct decision.

          1. WidowFactory
            29th April 2010, 10:31

            Although not selling out to a manufacturer has been to Williams’ credit, not giving Adrian Newey a share of the company shares was the worst thing they have ever done. If they hadn’t been so stingey and stubborn, they would have the car Red Bull have now.

          2. Ferrari has never had an Adrian Newey designed and they’ve won 6 championships against Newey’s Mclarens and Red Bulls. McLaren has won a championship after losing Newey and Newey’s Red Bulls have yet to win a championship. I see no reason why one should talk about Williams losing Adrian Newey like it was the day the world stopped turning.

  4. It would be good to see a team who has such a proud history at Williams, to reach the top step again. I think it wont be for a while yet. I hope they do it though, would be good to see hulkenburg give the title a good shot in a couple of years (couple of big ifs and maybes there) :)

    1. Consider they only had one good driver last year (the toyota engine/driver deal was just bad all around) this years car couldn’t be developed properly IMO and on top of that start with a new engine for this year.

      New engine, one experienced driver/car developer and new regulation opportunities I think that 2011 they could move up the field but don’t expect to see that happen this year.

      Like Honda just because they got Brawn he couldn’t make his midas touch make the horribly backwater car of 08 be anything else but a backwater BUT he developed and built for the next years car all the time and well we know how that delivered.

      Not that I believe Williams can do a Brawn turn around but I think they can deliver a lot stronger package next year as long as key personal in development don’t move out or in. Fluctuations and changes is not a good deal for a team and ususally take a year or two to get stability and make result. RedBull, Brawn, Force India are the latest examples of teams that turned thing around and moved up the exception would be Torro Rosso but they are designed to have movement and be a development team so yeah don’t expect them to be like these other three unless a complete change of priorities happens within the team.

  5. I miss the old Williams team, but i belive they are the new Tyrrell. Was same with old Lotus team too, from cutting edge champions to also-rans….

    1. Same with Brabham. Some teams just naturally reach the end of their lifespan.

      1. I don’t think they are quite also rans yet!

  6. Ned Flanders
    28th April 2010, 12:23

    Oh, and here are some more stats which should illustrate quite how crap Williams have been of late:

    Their last pole position was at the Nurburgring in 2005. Since then, 11 other teams have taken pole: McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes, Honda, BAR (all technichally the same team I know), Red Bull, Toro Rosso, Force India, Toyota, BMW Sauber, Renault.

    Since Nurburgring 2005, they have taken 3 podiums. By my reckoning that puts them behind all of the above team minus Toro Rosso, Force India and BAR (who left F1 at the end of 2005). Also, all 3 of their podiums have been pretty lucky ones, on street/ temporary circuits

    Williams last won a race at Brazil 2004. Since then, Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull, Brawn, Honda, Toro Rosso, BMW Sauber and Renault have all won one or more races

    1. Ned Flanders
      28th April 2010, 12:50

      Oops, Schumi the Greatest has just corrected me that Mercedes have never been on pole yet. (Although in their 4 races they have taken one more front row start than Williams have in the last 80+ races)

      1. Mercedes haven’t, but Brawn did. Same team, of course!

  7. Well, it’s not like soccer is it. If you’re not racing at the front in F1, then there are no other competitions that you can enter into that you can do a spot of ‘giant killing’ in and it’s not as if you’re going one-to-one with another team either, as they do in soccer. There’s nowhere to hide in F1.

    How long a team like William’s can go on being unsuccessful for is probably not as long as it usec to be, at least in terms of sponsorship.

  8. Prisoner Monkeys
    28th April 2010, 12:33

    I think they can do it. I think Sir Frank will hold onto the team long enough to reclaim soome of their former glory. But right now, their biggest problem is stability. From 2005 to 2009, they finished 5th, 8th, 4th, 8th and 7th. They’ve been all over the place, and an inconsistent line-up hasn’t helped. I think Rubens Barrichello is good for the team – I’ve long thought a Barrichello-Williams combination would be a good idea – but Nico Hulkenberg as so far disappointed. One has to wonder how he would fare if the new teams were on par with the regulars.

    1. I am with you in this line of thinking. I have the feeling there is some drive or vision missing to really target a way to succes and follow up on it.

      I would love for Baricello to give it his last 2-3 years of racing and maybe a year or so of testing to help the Hulk develop and bring the team to new succes.

      Their KERS could be a good way to keep a acces to a great pool of engineers (maybe team up with Cosworth to build an Engine/Kers unit together for 2013) as well as diversify the income, somewhat similar as McLaren did with their applied technology and electronics divisions.

  9. I agree! They need big manufacturer backing again as their infrastructure has fallen behind the modern F1 standard. Much has been made of warehouses full of CFD computers and state of the art wind tunnels a la Hinwil yet Williams don’t appear to be following suit, instead sticking with their old one. Probably a money issue more than anything.

    Also, they just aren’t capable of attracting the big guns of the design world because they can’t pay the wages and they don’t have the results. If they could at least pay the going rate for the big designers they might have a chance of getting them. I can’t believe they let James Key leave Force India for Sauber, he could have been good for Williams. They need new blood in the design office, they have adopted a culture of holding station when they need to be radical.

  10. Williams4ever
    28th April 2010, 12:41

    Keith, While the article on surface was about “Will Williams be able to scale the heights of their glory days”, your reporting got bit off track and based on Unverified facts. I am referring to Kazuki Nakajima part of the post.
    a) Have you/anybody in F1 fraternity indeed verified what was or was not in the Toyota contract.
    b) What kind of Bolstering of driver lineup are you referring to? Nico Hulkenberg has continued where Kaz had left (finishing dead last or getting tangled up in DNF).
    c) Nakajima had good debut for Williams and good first season where he did keep the Much Hyped Nico Rosberg honest. If not for Williams Pitwall/Garage Blunders, the Japanese driver would have scored 3 times last year(read Williams F1 post race debriefs from 2009)
    d) For all the hype surrounding Rosberg – barring his brilliant debut race, Rosberg was half the time crashing in 2006.

    As a Williams fan, I consider two areas where the team is struggling
    a) lack of resources – this has resulted in team not being able to attract good talent in term of drivers and designers. In 2004 when Williams bungled on car design aero dynamically, a race winning driver like JPM used to put the Williams car in position where it normally wouldn’t have finished. Williams’s last win at Brazil’04 is good example what race winner can do to an ordinary car. Unfortunately Williams has not been rich on resources as it was before.
    Same goes for the Designers. And again we need to bear in mind in hey days of Williams under Newey, reliability was not exactly virtue of F1.

    Taking Redbull equivalent, money can buy Williams Adrian Newey and his services, but will that mean a car that is reliable while being fast that is question for debate.

    b) Lack of Fresh Blood on Pitwall – Its time Sir Frank and Patrick Head take a hard look at the race team that goes to races and makes those crucial decisions which can get some results which wouldn’t have been possible with normal thinking. Renault this year is prime example. Renault is not necessary the fasted car out there, but they have been agile on their strategy and made points which normal strategy wouldn’t have fetched them. Compare that with Pitwall bungles I have referenced in case of Nakajima.

    Again this is tied with resources which Williams is running thin on and which maybe one reason why they have not been able to get fresh blood on their pitwall.

    Hope for Williams – Cost cap which will force the McLarens, Mercedes and Ferraris to reduce their resources which can result in unreliability of car, more pitwall gaffes, more garage botchups.
    So essentially, for Williams to look good on current resource level and operating model, other teams have to go bad and even then an agile team like Renault will trump them, unless of course Carlos Ghosn executes his threat of closing Renault F1 program, if program is not viable not producing results, something that he has been doing ever since he has taken charge of Renault group

    1. Nice summary, I agree.

      Nakajima might have received a little push by Toyota to get into the race seat, but it was absolutely sensible to keep him after his good 2008 season (In which Rosberg was doing most of the crashing)

      In my opinion, the biggest problems are on the team side, especially concerning strategy. For example, that great decision to put Hulkenberg on slicks last race or in Singapore last year, when a radio message by the team suggested that Rosberg should take his penalty the same lap that the safety-car pulled in (With a little bit of thinking every TV viewer could see that this was a crap idea).

      1. >>In my opinion, the biggest problems are on the team side, especially concerning strategy.

        I agree with this completely. I remember in the mid-90’s, Williams was outfoxed by an upstart team in several races. They seem to do well when the car is vastly superior and any mistakes are covered by the car.

  11. Schumi_the_greatest
    28th April 2010, 12:41

    ned when did mercedes take a pole?

  12. If they find a crack chief designer to rival Newey, and a solid engine package, they can go back to winning.. they know how to win, and what it takes to win, they just don’t have the ingredients… and I doubt Frank will go a long way financially to make it happen.

    i always thought Williams would do well with a Ferrari Engine, but then again, will Ferrari ever give its engines to a team that might beat it?

    1. If they find a crack chief designer to rival Newey

      I reckon it would be easier to hire Newey than it would be to find someone as good as him :-)

      Getting him away from Red Bull would be expensive but its not impossible, finding someone as good as him just may be…

  13. Robert McKay
    28th April 2010, 12:45

    Will Williams get back to the top? It’s hard to see that right now, with Red Bull, Mclaren, Mercedes and Ferrari in front.

    But I’d be more surprised and dissapointed if, over the next few seasons, Williams couldn’t overpower Renault and Force India.

    Renault look good at the moment due to inspired Kubica and reasonably good development, but somehow over the next few seasons I suspect that the strange shareholding situation they have will not work well. Force India have made massive strides but I don’t know if they can take the next stride of being top 4.

    Having said all this, remember the top teams are mostly all due to go through quite large downsizing soon, with the resource restriction agreements etc., which Williams will probably not have to (or at least feel much less). Somewhere along the line small efficient teams will get their chance again, I think.

    Main thing for me with Williams is that they – almost alone – survived the manufacturer dominance of the 2000’s. It might take some time, but if we’re looking at a mostly-independents formula for the next 6 or 7 years at least, I’d expect Williams to be more competitive within that than the 2000’s.

    But they are appearing quite disappointing so far this year. And they also need a decent post-Frank’n’Patrick plan, in much the same way Mclaren have went post-Ron and Ferrari post-Brawn/Todt.

    In summary: future brighter than 3-4 years ago, but outlook still very challenging.

  14. Williams have lost their way, despite the core team and professionalism spoken about by many over a number of years. Those such as Patrick Head are noted as being excellent engineers.

    Their best chance at a comeback of sorts was last year with their DDD being a good and early one, but they didn’t really go anywhere with that.

    Fresh blood perhaps?

  15. That graph looks worryingly symmetrical, with the peak in ’92 and similar smaller peaks either side. Trouble is ’92 is in the middle, with a pretty much equal number of years either side. Makes you wonder if the next few years will be the end for the Williams team. I sure hope not though.

  16. Push the Button
    28th April 2010, 12:58

    It’s interesting to see that Williams most successful periods were when the Brits (Mansell or Hill) were driving or, in the case of ’93, helped develop.


    1. You can add David Coulthard to that list too… he did millions of testing miles after Damon got the race seat in 1993.

  17. Williams always seemed to go better with rough drivers that could wring the cars neck, rather than smooth drivers. Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansel etc…. Ok Damen Hill was quite smooth, but far less so than Senna who struggled. I have no idea why, but I can’t see Williams coming back until they get a real talented driver who isn’t smooth…. (did somebody say Raikkonen?)

    1. Kimi sure didn’t! Watch me eat my words! I can’t remember who offered him a drive, but they were in a far better position than williams are. He obviously didn’t take it. He is a ragged driver though, you’ve gotta be to rally race! I think Barrichello and Hulkenburg are great choices. Barrichello may not be what he was in ferrari days, but he’s still showing he is on fast mo fo, and can set the car up, probably better than anyone else on the grid.

      1. Toyota were another team apparently interested in Kimi

  18. I remember reading an article in autosport a couple of years ago I think which argued that Williams was in permanent decline and would go the way of Team Lotus and Tyrrel and would never win another race. At the time I though the idea the team I’d seen dominate F1 when I was little would never win another race, but with every passing season i get the sense that that article may have been right.

    This year the team is at the back of the established teams, and with Frank Williams and Patrick Head not getting any younger I do fear for the team in the long term.

  19. Williams have been disappointing of late but things should get better; Rubens still has the fire, experience and is supposedly very good setting up a car (also if he could get that dog of a Honda on the podium in the wet maybe something good could happen if some madness took place again) while the Hulk -not great so far- has potential.
    Williams know how to win and they desperately want to again. Long term Cosworth should be better than Toyota, although as they have just returned there could be some reliability issues.
    What they need is to really learn how to make the most of strategies. That is their big flaw on the track.
    They seem to understand the aero side and we can’t really judge how much Rosberg got out of the car last year. I know this is apparently a “clean sheet” but they seem to have a grasp on things. Long term things look better and Williams did sell a small part of shares or whatever so that is some new blood although perhaps they need some on the front line but they’ve got a long way to go for regular wins. Williams can do it though.

    1. the Sri Lankan
      29th April 2010, 8:32

      steph, are you serious? i could bet my left one a Toyota Engine is far more reliable if not faster that a Cozzy

      1. Yeah I’m serious. Patrick Head said and James Allen reported the Cosworth block was more powerful, I;ve already said the issue will be reliability because Cossie have only just came back but long term for the next few seasons it’s a step up from Toyota in my opinion.

      2. Nutritional
        29th April 2010, 8:45

        Considering the rules on how many engines teams are allowed in a season. I’d be willing to bet that a Cosworth is just a reliable and, because of the limits put on engine performance, just as powerful as a Toyota engine. Either way, neither engine comes with huge sums of money for Williams to develope their cars with anyways.

  20. What really finished Williams was BMW pulling out so much money.

    Since then they’ve been trapped by a certain amount of debt, but they do seem to be rebuilding themselves, there arangment with Porche seems to be going well, an Hulkenburg needs time.

    What they need is a Mercedes style partner, a manufacutor that understands the sport, will supply them with engines, but won’t approach the deal all hostile. Williams is making noises about trying to attract VW for the new engine regulations, I’d love to see them make it back, but I don’t see it happening any time soon.

    1. Just thought I’d add a rather interesting quote from Joe Saward in here

      “It is worth noting that there has been a quiet switcharound of roles at Williams in recent months with Adam Parr becoming the chairman of the company. Alex Burns is now the chief executive, while Sir Frank Williams remains team principal.”

      in fact here’s the article
      seems the company is finally diversafying from the rather dead buisness model of pure racing, either you’ve got a backer with a buisness or you’ve got to have a way of making money.

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