By Dan Barnes
Williams launched its 2009 Toyota powered car, the FW31, this week in Portimao. The sight of the blue and white car being rolled out of the garage would have no doubt come as welcome relief to the team’s senior managers back in Grove after rumours surfaced earlier in the year that the team could follow Honda out of the sport as a result of the global economic crisis.
But survival for Williams is a given, unsaid objective for 2009 – punching above their weight is just what they do. Their primary goal this year is instead a return to the sharp-end of the grid, and sweeping regulation changes, the team chiefs say, is the perfect springboard.
Mixed fortunes in 2008
Williams by their own admission had a disappointing campaign in 2008 despite having declared before the season had even started that they had made a considerable step forward in performance. The season began impressively with Nico Rosberg taking third place in Melbourne, the team’s first podium in over two years.
But after the fly-away races the team struggled to keep up with their rival teams and found themselves locked in the wrong end of the midfield, fighting to stay ahead of Honda, Force India and Super Aguri.
There were a few good performances along the way, notably Rosberg’s points-finishes in Monza and Singapore but the team still failed on outright pace despite a major improvement in reliability.
Off the track a bigger storm was brewing for the plucky independent outfit. Towards the end of the year the global economic crisis which hit Formula One hard, triggering the demise of Japanese giants Honda. As a non-manufacturer, Williams perhaps hasn’t suffered as much as its peers as a result of a slump in car sales. But it immense financial backing and prides itself on its enviable sponsors; AT&T, Accenture, RBS, Phillips, Allianz, and Thompson Reuters etc all of which are prone to economic hardship.
The current economic crisis though has affected many sponsorship deals globally and much worry has been cast about Williams’ dependence on its sponsors, specifically the embattled RBS. The team has, however, either renewed or upgraded ten of their contracts since last summer.
Dominic Reilly, Williams Head of Marketing discusses the upgraded deals: “Since announcing this new agreement [with Phillips] in late 2008, a further nine agreements with existing partners have been signed including Allianz, PPG, Oris, Man and the recent announcement of another upgraded and extended agreement with Randstad, who now become on of the team’s senior partners..”
Adam Parr, Williams Chief Executive discussed the links between partners, the new rules and performance: “We are very grateful for the loyalty and steadiness of purpose of our partners. We never take anything for granted but our 2009 and 2010 budgets are in place thanks to the support of our partners as well as the increased revenues from FOM and the work being done by FOTA and the FIA to reduce costs. It’s now our responsibility to make sure that our partners and the many other people who support the team enjoy a return on that investment”
The challenge of 2009
So with the stability and security underpinning Williams’ budget in 2009 the team can begin to focus on clawing their way up the grid.
This year provides all teams with a clean slate and a team such as Williams, with its racing pedigree and esteemed technical leadership, should be well placed to engineer a competitive car. Sam Michael discussed the rule changes at the FW31 launch “The changes to the aerodynamic regulations are the most profound and will have the most impact on lap time. Of course the re-introductions of slick tyres are another significant change as it has an influence on the overall dynamics of the race car. Finally, of course, the introduction of KERS is anther aspect to the technical picture for the year ahead.”
With regards to aerodynamic changes and the introduction of slick tyres, it is hard to gauge a teams progress from the appearance of the car, but Williams’ unique decision to use a Flywheel KERS device could prove to be a master stroke.
A reduction in testing and ban on in-season testing as well as other moves to reduce costs might allow Williams be more competitive as the likes of Toyota will face the same testing constraints as Williams limiting the chance of the Grove outfit being out developed mid-season.
As for whether they will succeed in 2009 Frank William’s had this to say: “â€¦By the time we get to Melbourne I would expect the usual suspects to still be dominating the top two positions. More importantly I hope Williams will have made a significantly large step forward with the FW31.”
Although Frank Williams shows his experience in his assessment of 2009, this year provides the perfect opportunity for Williams to take a competitive leap up the grid. Unfortunately the team’s form will remain uncertain until Melbourne but what is certain is that they will be on the grid fighting to return to their former glory.