Since 2018, the historic and iconic Williams F1 team has languished at the back of the pack. The blame for this can be attributed to a variety of factors, but what they all have in common is the idea that the team was antiquated. From its team structure to its aerodynamic understanding, Williams was behind the times, but now in 2023 things look to be turning around and for longstanding F1 fans it’s been a joy to watch. How did they do it? What’s the secret sauce? Let’s look into it.
Not since 2017 have Williams finished above P8 in the Constructors’ Championship and their P7 finish in 2023 brings in some much-needed cash for the team, who reportedly are “throwing away… tens of millions” in investments to get the team back to the front.
While the roughly $9 million prize money for seventh won’t make a massive difference for Williams, team principal, James Vowles, believes it highlights the team’s success in achieving their late-season goals despite a much improved AlphaTauri looking to take P7 from them.
“Probably the most important thing is that it sets the foundations for the team, that they have something to build on now,” Vowles told the media.
“You lose out on wind tunnel time and it’s not the financial element that we are particularly worried about.
“But what I wanted them to do was to stand up and go: this is the start of our journey. By the way, we’re not going backwards from here. This is a new de facto standard and a spring for us.”
Vowles went on to add that while $9 million is nice, far more is needed to get the team back to the front.
“It always helps having money in the bank account,” he added. “But I’ve been very open and public about the fact that we’re throwing away, in terms of losses, tens of millions.
“But we’re here to invest, to go back to the front, whatever that costs us in the short term.
“What it does is it pretty much helps the discussion when I’m going behind the scenes and asking for $100m more, which is the numbers we’re sort of talking about. It makes a massive difference for that.”
So the investors and team owner, Dorilton Capital, are happy, the team is happy, and Williams fans are happy. Their success might not be as monumental as Red Bull’s 21 out of 22 races won this year, but it is impressive nonetheless.
How and Why Has Williams Improved?
Williams isn’t the only backmarker that has struggled in recent years. Haas joined Formula 1 in 2016 and has only ever finished above P8 in the Constructors’ once in 2018 where they took home a respectable P5 with 93 points. Since then, they have struggled due to a mixture of development issues, sponsorship issues (e.g. Rich Energy), and just straight up budget issues. Williams faced plenty of these issues as well but have since overcome them or are at least in the process of doing so.
Before Williams was sold to Dorilton Capital, the team was behind the times. They hadn’t built up powerful aero departments and their team structure was archaic, being heavily centred around the technical director. The former is what hurt them most. From 2019 onwards, the team’s lack of investment into aerodynamics was very clear and they fell to the back of the grid.
Vowles has been very candid in his admission that “20 years of underinvestment” was what put Williams in the position they were by 2020 when Dorilton Capital bought the team.
After the purchase, the team was restructured and plenty of money was pumped into the team. It might seem like a smart investment now, but at the time there was no guarantee that investors would ever see any results. Yes, the team are still posting significant financial losses, but the results are starting to appear so within a few years, Williams’ financial situation may start to improve.
They have also been helped by the cost cap. Before it was introduced, the bigger teams were simply able to spend more which typically correlated to better results. Since the introduction in 2021, the midfield started to expand, absorbing the backmarkers like Haas and Williams. Each team now has the opportunity to score points at different circuits rather than relying on something strange happening on race day or wet weather.
Considering that this is only a recent introduction, the cost cap’s full effects won’t be made clear until well into the future as the teams at the front have a large advantage that is slowly being whittled away.
That’s not all though, the new regulations have allowed Williams to simply “get it right.” Additionally, these regulations have allowed for closer wheel-to-wheel racing which has tightened the midfield further. Just look at the 2023 season overall – yes, Red Bull dominated, but behind them every team was close and who came out on top on a given weekend was often determined by the circuit.
As McLaren Racing CEO, Zak Brown, put it in 2022, “Anytime you have a new regulation that came out like it did [for 2022], someone gets it right, and someone gets it wrong. Then what ends up happening is everyone sees who got it right, and they gravitate towards what they’ve seen.”
Red Bull got it right, but so did Williams if only to a lesser degree. Once again, if we compare them to Haas, you can see that one has stagnated and one has improved.
Haas might have had some impressive qualifying appearances in both 2022 and 2023, but since 2019 have struggled with the same issue – severe tyre degradation. Not to say that is the only thing wrong with Haas, but it highlights the domino effect that getting things wrong or right produces. If you don’t adjust your development strategy or plan, whether it be through a change in personnel or significant financial investment, the problem will only get worse.
It isn’t luck either, everyone is presented the same regulations and it is up to the teams to interpret them and apply them effectively. No team that “got it right” did so by accident. Which is what makes Williams’ success all the more heartwarming.
The issue Haas have faced is their struggle to obtain further financial backing, whether that’s from Gene Haas himself or sponsors. Williams faced this as well, but obviously found a far more enthusiastic or at least hopeful backer in Dorilton.
So is this whole piece one big thank you to Dorilton? Maybe not, but they were the catalyst for change at Williams by providing cash where it was needed and changing their personnel to reflect their ambitions. Williams now have momentum and we’re hoping that things continue to go well for them in 2024.