Can Williams hold on to Nico?

rosbergIt all started so well for Williams: cream of the crop in winter testing and then a triumphant charge to the third step of the rostrum at the chaotic season curtain-raiser in Melbourne. True, the Australian Grand Prix was a one-off with a final classification of only eight cars, but the manner in which Nico Rosberg hustled the gearbox of Nick Heidfeld’s BMW Sauber underlined the raw pace of the FW30.

Since their podium success in Albert Park things have taken a downward turn for the Grove-based outfit. In Malaysia the team struggled to adapt to the new track surface or at least this was the reason they gave despite the fact that it caused no such problems for any of the other teams and drivers. Rosberg and Nakajima languished down at the rear in qualifying and Nico’s race was ruined by a coming together with Timo Glock on the opening lap.

In Bahrain we got the best indication yet of where Williams were with Rosberg lining up eighth on the grid and following Jarno Trulli home to finish where he qualified. And in Spain a week ago Rosberg’s charge to seventh place from fifteenth which unfortunately ended with an engine failure underlined Williams’ status as one of the front-runners in the ultra competitive mid-field alongside Toyota and Red Bull. There would have no doubt been frustration in the camp to see Renault make such a jump forward in performance however.

rosberg4The big problem for Williams of course is that without the magic of Nico Rosberg behind the wheel, the FW30 is probably not the car it appears to be. It wouldn’t have been challenging for points in the last few races and it certainly wouldn’t have managed a podium in the opening race. One wonders just how much longer Frank Williams can hold onto Rosberg. As for the young German himself, how much longer before the frustration of seeing his peers, particularly Lewis Hamilton and Robert Kubica, battle it out for victories begins to seep in?

Whether or not Rosberg will remain at Williams for 2009 and beyond really depends on both the availability of other drives and whether or not Williams can provide the German with a front-running car. Both Frank Williams and Patrick Head have been publicly open about the need to achieve the latter.

Indeed, Williams’ very survival depends on being able to raise enough sponsorship, through improved performance, to challenge the manufactures. Rosberg has a crucial role to play to this end but the half a second or so that he brings to Williams is only useful if the car can be seen to make progress.

You also have to ask just how stretched the relationship is inside Williams. The team’s PR in Bahrain made for fascinating reading. On the face of it Rosberg’s eighth place grid slot, a scant two hundreds of a second shy of Jarno Tulli, was solid. It was made even better by the pre-race talk from Rosberg himself that the overall strategy was good and that the car was better in race conditions.

rosberg2As things turned out, Rosberg was running considerably lighter than the rest of the front-runners and ended up pitting four laps earlier than Trulli. He was never going to manage anything better than eighth place. In the post-race press release from Williams, Sam Michael, the team’s Technical Director, essentially said that Rosberg didn’t qualifying well enough given his fuel load. Whether or not this was a dig at the team or Rosberg himself is beside the point, there was no such acknowledgement from Rosberg on either Saturday or Sunday.

It will therefore be interesting to see how the Rosberg-Williams relationship pans out. The German is contracted until the end of 2009 but you would have to assume that he could negotiate his way out of things ‘Button-style’ should the team fail to deliver. Williams must show signs of improvement and begin to challenge for podiums again if they want to have any chance of holding on to their trump card.