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. It’s a real shame what has happened Williams over the last years. Their performance is a shame but it’s also sad that with all their history and championships they haven’t been able to create a strong brand.

    Actually is sad that most F1 teams aren’t able to create strong brands. I think that is the main difference between Ferrari and the rest of the teams. The italian team whether they win or not they will always have lots of supporters because they have created a strong brand. Ferrari is even one of the strongest brands world wide and in all kinds of industries.

    Mclaren has also begun to create a a brand in the last decade but appart from them i dont think there is any other F1 team thats done it or that its trying to do it.

    Williams with all their history and title should have a strong brand by now. Not as popular as ferrari. But at least same or stronger than McLaren.

    Overall I think branding is a subject F1 teams have to revise. If they could create strong brands they could earn money from commercializing those brands and stop depending so much on sponsors. Plus teams would be worth a lot more. How much is worth the ferrari team and factory and how much is worth the brand itself?

    Teams could at least start with carefully choosing their color and car livery, and sticking with it forever.

    1. I think it would be nice having a discussion of WHAT SHOULD F1 TEAMS BRANDING BE LIKE

      1. i think it has a lot to do with the fact that ferrari and mclaren make super cars. super cars always attract huge attention. williams do not have a product such as a super car promote their brand. and then again, who really wants to buy a super car named ‘williams wx15’ lol

        1. I would if it was the quickest out there in it’s class :)

          Who would of thought some years back that people would be falling over them selves to buy a Suburu ? then along came the all conquering Suburu WRC and bang Bob’s yer Uncle Fanny’s yer Aunt everybody wanted one .. well almost ;)

  2. I don’t think Williams doing anything this season, they will be lucky if they even get a podium.They have good guys like Patrick Head & Sam Michael but still it’s hard to believe that they haven’t had any major success for the past six years.I think when they split with BMW that was the time they just fell on the ground.They have to do some good work on the car to get back on track in the near future or else we may have a situation where they may decide to quit F1.

  3. I spoke to a member of the factory staff last week, and asked him if its going to get any better this season. He just laughed and said ‘no’. He didn’t seem confident at all.

  4. Sam Michael must smile.

  5. Williams Porsche sounds like a good name :)

    1. If Volkswagen do come in F1 then they may take over this team if Williams are ready to see it to them.

  6. Williams needs a period of continuity with an engine supplier. Without revisiting the episode, we all know the reasons behind the decision to go with the Toyota engine. It helped Williams to stabilize its finances. I also thought that it was a possibility that Williams would have picked up the works-deal from Toyota. I have been a Williams supporter for a very long time now. Over the years it is clear to see that Williams has heaps of the Marmite factor. People either respect the team and what it stands for or else they despise it.

    Williams was being called ToyotaF1’s ‘B’ team by an element of the F1 fraternity along with predictions of doom and gloom for WilliamsF1. I see similar sentiments being expressed in this thread. They may be correct. This may be a bridge too far for Williams. Time will tell. However, I would rather place my trust in the man that created and shaped Williams. A man who lives for F1. The same man that has been written off time and time again in the past. Since 1969, I have shared some very dark days with the team. In those days winning championships was a dream. The biggest question was would we get to the next race. So long as there is a car with the Williams name on it, I will continue to follow and support it. I do not understand the football mentality that compels people to follow one driver or one team to the exclusion of everything else in F1 by wishing misfortune on other teams or drivers. It is my conviction that misfortune in others dilutes success. When Williams have been strong, I have always enjoyed beating other teams more when they are at their strongest. F1 is more important than anything else within F1.

    Getting back to the Rise and Fall of Williams and having set my views in some context. Williams’ decline began when Patrick, by his own admission, lost focus and began to switch his attention to other projects. As Sam is Patrick’s successor, he always comes in for criticism. I have no idea whether Sam is a good or bad TD. Sir Frank and Patrick have had plenty of opportunities to replace him since the departure of BMW. The fact that he is still there and has the confidence of Williams’ founders stands to endorse him in my opinion. So a few words in support of Sam. Leaving aside the financial restrictions placed on him, he is now working his way through his third engine change in around six years. For the last two years he has had the most inexperienced test-driver line-up on the grid. Most race winning cars these days have at least one race winning driver somewhere in their development programme. Rubens’ input is vital and is being taken seriously by everyone at Grove. It will be very interesting to see what kind of improvement is produced from Rubens’ input when we get to the first racing circuit after Monaco. As stated earlier, Sam and Williams need a period of settled development.

    Diversity for Williams is long overdue. WHP and the F2 chassis are income streams that can only help Williams’ financial position. I am also intrigued by Toto Wolff’s investment in Williams and the speed of the Porsche deal.

    Don’t write us off, we might just come back and bite you!

    1. Well said pgj ! I hope your correct

  7. the Sri Lankan
    29th April 2010, 8:35

    now for my 2 cents to the question…i highly doubt it…i read somewhere in autosport about the CEO’s at Ferrari Laughing their ***** off at Williams calling them a team that hasn’t won in a while. With that mentality you are talking about daydreaming. and i doubt Mercedes will supply them either. And going back to the engine issues, the Toyota supplied Williams with one hell of a good engine. they were pretty much bullet-proof at least while they were with them. What I don’t get is some one like frank Williams with all his wisdom couldn’t lure Toyota into a long-term deal with Williams. im a Toyota Fan and i fully still believe that after their withdrawal from F1 its still possible to bring them back into F1 as an engine supplier. its not like they lost their edge. they still have a factory in cologne that’s been building F1 engines for good ten years. but looking back at the three year spell Williams Had with Toyota i think its safe to say their decline isn’t due to some issues with Toyota engines. Consider seasons 2008 and 2009 where Toyota’s Built by a tire-man from France simply beat Williams with the same engines up and down the road…they couldn’t even make their Double diffusers work in 2009 and were beaten by force india. But lets not forget even backmarkers can pull some cracking drives – consider vettels drive to 1st in monza in 2008. and yet with all their experience the best williams could do in the past five years is some shoddy 2nd place finishes. i really think frank needs to embrace a manufacturer and hire proper designers and drivers. Till then Williams can forget winning.

    1. The Toyota was one hell of a good engine? Seriously? Yes it was reliable, but it was a poor block overall compared to the ones from Mercedes and Ferrari. It was a shocking unit that was by far the poorest on the grid.

      As for how they faired against Toyota as a works team, what was each team spending annually? Williams had a budget only a quarter of that of Toyota at best? $80 million a year vs $400 million a year. So were Toyota 4 times as good and 4 times as fast as Williams? Nope.

      And which manufacturer should they embrace? Toyota? BMW? Honda? Renault? Ford? I ask because its not like manufacturers have any commitment to the sport. Yes they have money, but they will run when they feel like it with no thought or respect to the sport. Toyota left nothing behind them, and it was privateer enthusiasm and hardwork that meant that Honda and BMW didn’t completely destroy two more teams.

      Given that Williams have seen dozens of teams come and go over the years, why does everyone think their survival is reliant on the most fickle element of the F1 world?

      1. the Sri Lankan
        30th April 2010, 11:14

        hold up a sec pal…i never said that the Toyota’s engine is a better option than anything out there. i never compared it to Merc, Ferrari or Renault. but since you want to get on that note, consider the fact that Toyota’s were far reliable than all three of them. this is a fact. Redbull could have and should have won the championship if it wasnt for Renault engine related issues. Ferrari? i remember them pulling DNF’s like no other in the first half of 2009 thanks to the engines again…dont ask me, just look up how many engine related issues resulted in DNF’s those particular engines and you’ll get a clear picture. i doubt that the renault was a quicker engine than the Toyota. where’s your backing to this? i can agree the MErc and Ferrari was on a league of their own. and you’ve compared budgets…if thats the case why did a poorly fuded Force india beat Williams with better financial backing last year?

      2. Because the most fickle element of the F1 world offers the most money maybe? McLaren won championships with Honda and Mercedes. They didn’t win a championship with a customer Ford engine in 1993. Williams won championships with Honda and Renault, but the didn’t win championships with Judd or “Mecachrome.” And though they didn’t win a championship with BMW, neither did McLaren-Mercedes win a championship in the same time span. I think Red Bull may be the only F1 team in the last 20 years which has competed for championships on mostly sponsor money as apposed to manufacturer money. I say that because I think in 1994 Benetton was the works Ford team and in 1995 they had parity in priority with Williams for Renault engines. And that’s the only team I can think of which has been successful and been Sponsor owned.
        Could you comment back with more information on the Toyota issue? Specifically on it being a poor engine overall. I don’t recall hearing anything negative about their engines, just their chassis. Just curious as you what information your assertion arose from.

        1. the Sri Lankan
          1st May 2010, 2:42

          nah i never opposed the Toyota Engines. generally they are a better block than renault in just raw pace, and merc and ferrari on the basis of reliability. its just that williams failed to capitalize on that and make it stick .

          1. Nutritional
            1st May 2010, 6:46

            Sri Lanken, if you response is directed to my response, my response was actually directed at Dougal.

  8. The only way Williams will get back on top is if they start the season with the intention to win.
    They have always been very conservative and poor in strategy. That could be done when they had an Adrian Newey car.
    Now they are at the back of the midfield, and still no sign of any attempt to an aggresive attacking strategy. They fully support Kers now, but when they had it, they didn’t use it. When it is reintroduced they still won’t use it unless everybody else does.
    They always build good cars. Williams was always better than the original toyota. They are easy the fastest Cosworth car on the grid.
    But while Nico Hulkenberg will grow into F1, Rubens will not. Rubens was a very very conservative choice. Why buy in a load of drivers expericence if you have one of the most experienced engineering teams in the world? They should have bought an aggressive drive-on-edge driver to replace Nico Rosberg.
    If they continue like this they are not F1 material anymore and will go the Tyrrell way. That would really dissappoint me.

    1. Please! That tired Tyrrell cliché is all over the Web. If you must then Lotus is probably a better comparator.

      Rubens is exactly what Williams needs at the moment. Our only chance to retain Nico is to provide him with a competitive car. That would be less likely without the input into the test team from a race-winning driver. At his age Rubens knows he is not there for the long-term and acknowledged the fact in earlier statements.

      Williams has stated that the FW33 will have KERS. Williams developed two KERS systems in 2009. It remains to be seen whether a WHP KERS is used for 2011.

      Williams agreed to not use KERS in 2010 in exchange for a FOTA agreement on a standard KERS for 2013. This announcement indicates that a KERS agreement is not close.

      1. Rubens did not improve any car he has ever driven in F1. He is not consistently dedicated to winning enough to make that happen.

        Brawn/Schumacher can use pitstops to gain places. Williams/Rubens will never do that. They will always lose places in pitstops.

        They compete tio finish the race. But they should be competing to win. There is nothing but WIN for Williams. If you don’t think like this, you can not imagine to ever win a pole position, race or championship again.

        1. Bold statements:

          (1) Rubens works for two teams that go onto win championships. You know for a fact that Rubens had no input into either car do you? You must have some very impressive sources.

          (2) Where do you get your information from that Williams is not racing to win? I see no link between failing to win and intentionally not trying to win as you claim Williams is doing.

          Without reference sources, it would be very easy for the casual reader that conclude that you are speaking from a biased and uniformed position.

          1. You can’t really call it either way with Barrichello. The year joined Ferrari, they won the championship, but they had Schumacher. And I personally think that had Schumacher not broken his leg he would have won the championship in 1999 when Barrichello was not on the team. Ferrari also almost won the championship in 2006 after a winter of testing without Barrichello. In addition, it’s easy to claim that Rubens was a big factor in Brawn’s success, but lets face it, until last year no one knew how good Button was. Going forward, look and what Button is doing at McLaren – he’s won two races, Hamilton hasn’t won yet, and Hamilton is a great talent. So you can’t say for certain that it wasn’t Button who was the major factor in the development of the 2009 Brawn chassis. Now I can’t say for sure that Barrichello wasn’t the major testing factor in both cases, nor am I necessarily claiming he wasn’t, but you can’t really say he was either. Now, I personally don’t dislike Barrichello, he has had some great performances, but when I look at him I see Patrese with more starts. That is to say I think Barrichello is the the greatest “decent” driver in F1 history. I justify that assertion with his 2009 performace. He had a real chance, mid-season, to challenge Button for the championship, but couldn’t do it because he’s not a consistent enough top performer. He’s just decent. There is also what he didn’t do in terms of consistent performance at Ferrari. However, I think its completely wrong to say he doesn’t want to win every race he enters. I just don’t think he’s THAT good. In regards to Williams hiring him, what difference does it make? If Hulkenberg is good, and Williams does not improve, Hulkenberg leaves and goes somewhere else like Rosberg. If Hukenberg ends up being generally useless, Williams loses potential points they may have received with a different driver. At least with Barrichello he’s consistently decent and hence a known quantity for Williams. Also, I don’t really think at this point in his career that’s he’ll be leaving Williams for bigger and better things.

  9. i miss the dominant days of the rothmans-williams-renault

    1. I agree. I also miss the Honda days.

      1. Out of the three manufacturers who’ve recently left F1, I’m guessing Honda is the most likely to come back somewhat sooner than later as an Engine manufacturer. However, I’m guessing that it will be with McLaren, because of the Mercedes situation and because with McLaren, Honda can pretty much guarantee championship competitiveness as long as their engines are up to snuff.

      2. the Sri Lankan
        29th April 2010, 13:25

        i just simply miss the Toyota days

        1. I miss the sight and sound of Alan Jones flat chat around Silverstone at an average speed of 150 mph, something we sadly will never see again.

  10. Stuart Fenton
    29th April 2010, 11:50

    I think for a lot of british people, williams means a lot. What ever generation, you will have a fave driver line up and car. Two great british drivers, and champs, driving for a very british company. That rothmans car was the best looking vehicle to have ever raced. If the VW stuff is true then Im chuffed. I always liked the idea of Lewis doing with Williams what Schumi did with Ferrari. Once hes had a few championships under his belt, going for a new challenger and re-establishing a once great team

  11. @Nutritional

    I was not defending Rubens’ driving ability. It was his input into car development that was under discussion. A drivers’ performances are there for us all to form an opinion on. Everyone forms their own opinion and every opinion is correct. I was challenging Peter’s claim “Rubens did not improve any car he has ever driven in F1”.

    1. pgj, don’t get me wrong either. I wasn’t saying Rubens did not improve the cars he drove, and tried to make it clear that I wasn’t saying that. I was trying to say is that neither you or I could say that he did anymore than PeterG can say that he did not. However, I’m also assuming that when PeterG made that statement that he was exaggerating, and actually meant that Barrichello was not most important driver or overall factor in improving the cars that he’s driven.

  12. As soon as Adrian Newey left it’s gone down, the same will happen to red bull when he leaves them.

  13. I completely agree with what zoid9969,Accidental Mick have said,i jus don’t see it coming from williams.The dooms day is nearing them.And by the way instead of playing golf,they can sit and think about how to get their act right.

  14. I’m a huge admirer of Williams and really hope to see them on the top step of the podium soon…

  15. Mark in Florida
    30th April 2010, 0:09

    Williams at one time was a great team and they have a great legacy to look to.But they face the same problem that affected Richard Petty’s team[King of NASCAR,200+ wins etc.]The racing world shifted away from Petty`s old way of doing things.Instead of investing in a seven post chassis tuner Petty was still doing it the old way.Petty also did not realise that the sponsorship structure was changing.Instead of one main sponsor you might need two or three at different times of the year.Williams looks to be in the same boat as Petty Enterprises. They have sat still while the racing world moved out from under them.For better or worse F1 is not geared towards privateers anymore.The FIA may give lip service about “helping the little guys”. But lets be real,the big manufacturers control the sport.If Williams does not merge resources with someone they will be a continuing sorrow and shadow of their former selves.You can`t keep doing things the same way and expect a different result. Williams needs a shakeup in structure or they to will be like Petty…a fond memory of what used to be.

  16. If you make it almost company policy NOT to retain the services of a driver who has just won the drivers/constructors title(s), what do you expect?

    Mansell ’87 > no points in ’88
    Hill 96
    Villenueve 97 > no points in ’98, ’99, ’00

    How you build a consistently high performing team if you don’t focus it around a winning driver? Ferrari had Schumi, McLaren had Mika..

    1. that Mansell stat is obviously wrong. gaah.

    2. If I recall correctly, Frank Williams is on record as believing that it has always been his cars and not the drivers who have won championships for his team. Again, I’m not sure is a perfect paraphrase. I don’t think it’s a smart opinion either.

  17. Scott Joslin
    30th April 2010, 16:37

    The Williams story is in a depressing chapter of its life.

    It saddens me to see a great team that was so strong in the 80’s and 90’s slowly fading away like that of original Lotus team.

    I think they are ultimately paying the price for not saddling up to a major manufacturer. I accept that BMW didn’t work on many levels, not least because of the differences at the top of both organisations, but what used to be the teams strength in its two leaders, Frank and Patrick, now seems to be there weakness.

    Who am I to say they are out of touch but they always seem to be the grumpy grand parents at the party. I know they have passed on power and control to other key individuals, but there seems to be very little improvement, instead it seems to be going backwards each year.

    Their decision to use Cosworth engines summed up their aspirations for me, and if Frank and Patrick had anything about them they should sell the rest of the business to party that can compete financially without the scars of war that the current team carry.

    I agree also with some comments that their driver selections have also contributed to their downfall. I remember watching documentaries about Williams were they always said they always looked to have real racers in their cars, well that hasn’t been true of them for the last 10 years since say Montoya. How the likes of Ralf Schumacher, Nick Heidfeld, Alex Wurx, AntĂ´nio Pizzonia,Kazuki Nakajima, and H.H.Frentzen managed to find seats there is beyond me.

    Their driver selection policy also lost them Adrian Newey, who as we know moved to Mclaren because he was furious at the dropping of world champion drivers like Mansell and Hill, while they were at peak.

    I would love to see the Williams name return to the top step of the podium, but I just cannot see it happening unless there is an imposed budget cut on the teams to help Williams out.

    Williams have produced some legendary drivers and cars, but that is all in the past, I feel that we should celebrate that and let someone else try and take the team further.

    However knowing what fighters Frank and Patrick are, its doubters like me that motivate them to continue to prove us all wrong.

  18. Its just poor management. Nothing to do with resources, they sure haven’t got less than Force India! Infact, its time they handed reins to someone new and competent instead of just dragging on with PH and FW. The old man needs to take some rest and get someone new who can turn it around. Its still possible, but I think the 1st step is to get rid of that Cosworth and somehow lure VW into the sport(those Audi plants could do something good!). They could try for the FO 108X but Mercedes wouldn’t supply to any more teams as far as I can see. Force India were fortunate to have struck a deal before Merc stepped in with their works team. Ferrari engines are not the best and neither are the underpowered Renaults.
    So, an engine change and a change at the top of the management is what can save them from fading away.

  19. I don’t think Williams should worry.Great F1 teams will always have bad times.Ferrari went 4 years without a win and 21 years without a championmship.McLaren also went 4 years without a win and 9 years without a championmship.Williams will come back to glory sooner or later.

  20. It’s not about the engine, pit wall strategies,or the drivers. It’s (as always) all about the car design and sponsorships.

    If Williams have any ambitions to see the top again they need to come up with a pool of cash, offer Adrian Newey a full partnership (Williams-Newey Racing?) and get to the front of the grid. THEN sponsors will take notice and come back, not a moment before. THEN they also have a shot at a better driver selection.

    They have unfortunately rode their legacy as far as it can carry them, and with the debt they are accumulating their future looks bleak.

    What has become of the new German investor/partner they recently touted (can’t recall the name). No specifics as to the money he’s come up with or the percentage of the team he bought. Any hope on that front????

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