Formula 1: Mid-season F1 review: How Williams slipped further into backmarker status – Motorsport Week

A historic team fielding the reigning F2 champion and the sport’s heroic returnee. The ingredients were there but the recipe has faltered. Motorsport Week begins its team-by-team mid-season review pieces at the back, with Williams in the midst of its worst season, the recent races at least bringing a glimmer of hope.

High point: Probably about 7pm on December 1, when 2019 can be consigned to history

Low point: Roll a dice, take your pick

At the point when nine Formula 1 teams had their cars ready bright and early to greet the start of testing on February 18, and even before for filming purposes, Williams’ FW42 was not yet born. It finally joined the 2019 party two-and-a-half-days later. It was not a case of saving the best ‘till last. The positive was a car that, at least initially, was more compliant than 2018’s unloved and unpredictable FW41. The negative was the car was chronically off-the-pace and a lack of spare parts limited running, hampered data-gathering, and left George Russell and Robert Kubica desperately short of understanding and experience. An “embarrassed” Claire Williams had ample chance to blame external factors but her reluctance to do so spoke volumes as to where, and perhaps more accurately who, she attributed the fault. Paddy Lowe took a leave of absence and while there was not a display of sword-falling, owing to protracted legal on-goings, his departure was eventually ratified.

The depth of Williams’ plummet was starkly underscored in Australia as it lapped over a second down on its rivals and finished two laps adrift in the race, prompting its drivers to accept the opening rounds would be an extended test session. A shortage of spare components accentuated matters, limiting the already restricted potential, while alleged discrepancies over the cars’ performance arose through the following rounds. “The car characteristic with the same set-up is completely different,” said Kubica in Bahrain, with Williams suspecting – but not confirming – it was down to the floor of the FW42. That became a non-issue after the tragi-comedy Azerbaijan weekend in which an unwell Russell smacked a loose drain cover, destroying the underside of the car, which then copped further damage when the recovery truck hit an overhead advertising structure. Kubica’s qualifying crash just topped it off. Russell switched to Kubica’s old chassis, Kubica took on a new chassis (one round later than planned), and the respective performances meant baseless rumours over favouritism could be nipped in the bud.

Williams is in effect still playing catch-up and for much of the European season it has been a case of understanding as much as it can from its FW42 with a familiar pattern: Q1 exits, Russell ahead of Kubica, and a blue flag party in the race. Russell has been lapped by the leader 18 times in 12 grands prix, Kubica 23. The encouraging element is that the team’s predicament gives it the largest improvement potential, but the initial delays and simple factor of getting to grips with its car meant early on it knew substantial gains would be months not weeks in the making. A considerable update package arrived at Hockenheim and, while understanding it was compromised by bodywork lost on the installation lap – according to Kubica – it shows the team is not idly sitting by and waiting for 2020. Williams could also carry a twinge of optimism into the summer break. It renewed its new title partner ROKiT through 2023, picked up a point courtesy of Kubica at the wet and wild German Grand Prix (albeit provisional due to Alfa Romeo’s appeal) while Russell’s weekend-long display in Hungary was the first time all year that Williams legitimately battled rival teams. The Hungaroring layout was naturally more suited to Williams’ car and Russell felt the updates, allied to a greater focus on tyres – the importance of which was potentially underappreciated through the worst of Williams’ struggles – played a factor. It is too early to label it a breakthrough. The trajectory through the next events will determine if Hungary was the outlier or the start of the recovery. For the sake of the team and its fans hopefully it was not an anomaly. A word too, for the pit crew, which has proved to again be one of the best and most reliable.

Russell followed in the footsteps of Charles Leclerc by graduating to Formula 1 with a backmarker team after successive titles in GP3 and Formula 2. But while Leclerc’s progress coincided with Sauber’s gains, Russell has been lumbered with an uncooperative car that has left him fighting for scraps. But he has already made a positive impression. The naturally self-assured Russell has recognised the importance of maintaining morale at Williams and has embraced the responsibility of trying to guide the team through its malaise. “In junior formulas all you have to play with is the set-up,” commented Russell in Canada. “Now myself and Robert are a big factor in the upgrades and which direction we take. There’s a lot of weight on our shoulders. I’m quite enjoying that leadership role and being the one along with Robert and the top designers to turn this around. It’s our duty now.” Russell’s experience as Mercedes’ reserve driver has left him in good stead in that regard, transferring what skills he can into his 2019 situation. On-track he has led Williams’ charge and he can consider himself unfortunate that the one race in which he erred, sliding wide in Germany, it cost him a point. It remains difficult to fully assess Russell’s season and ultimate potential given not just the limitations of the car but also the identity of his team-mate. There have been a few errors but that one of the most memorable was misguidedly taping up his helmet air vents in Bahrain shows he has had a relatively clean year. He can be content with his season so far. 

The Kubica hype train no longer resembles a glistening Shinkansen but rather a rickety rail replacement service. It is a shame that the story has unfolded in this manner. It will always go down as one of the greatest comeback tales, not just in Formula 1 but in sport generally, of a driver who remained determined and resilient, in the process inspiring a legion of supporters who already regarded him as a hero. If a film is ever made charting his eight years in the Formula 1 wilderness amid his life-changing injury then the final scene should be on the rooftop of Williams’ hospitality in Abu Dhabi last November when his 2019 deal was announced. The on-track results do not lie. He has struggled to keep up with Russell and has regularly faced a half-second deficit in qualifying, a figure which has occasionally grown to over a second, and has never once been in his favour. Sliding, no grip, a balance change, understeer, oversteer. The reasons have been familiar. “You can imagine it’s pretty difficult to extract anything if you are just sliding and degrading,” he said after a desperately dismal showing in Austria. “It’s not that I’m not trying.” Tyres have been a major frustration point. Kubica has been out of competitive Formula 1 action for eight years, during which time the championship has undergone substantial changes, most prominently that change to Pirelli, and a lack of rhythm is understandable. It should also be noted that respected youngsters, such as Pierre Gasly and Antonio Giovinazzi, have also looked average next to their team-mates. Would he be faring better at a team that didn’t begin 2019 in a shambolic state? That is a tantalising question. For now Kubica has nine grands prix to apply the lessons gathered across the opening 12 events and prove that he warrants a 2020 seat at the team – if he wants it.

How do you rate Williams’ season, and how do you feel Russell and Kubica have performed? Let us know in the comments section below!

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