A year ago Frank Williams was told his business model was dead. His Williams F1 team â€“ founded on the back of a spare-parts business and moulded with grit and determination into a championship winning machine â€“ had just suffered one of its worst seasons in motor-racing and doubt was being cast over the future of independent constructors in F1.
Now, after a radical restructuring within the team, a strong finish to the 2007 season and some impressive showings from the FW30 in winter testing all the signs are that Williams are poised to bounce back in 2008 despite spending only a third of the dollars that the manufactures have at their disposal.
Williams last won a world championship in 1997 and have not won a grand prix since 2004. The dream ticket partnership between BMW and Williams never really materialised and since then progress has taken a downward turn. 2006 was a particular low with a string of reliability problems and only 11 constructorsâ€™ points.
Patrick Head, Williamsâ€™s director of engineering, blames a combination of problems for the teamâ€™s dip in performance.
â€œAs is normal in these cases, a number of factors all came together: some of it was just not good design; some of it was not good enough fault-correction; and some of it was driven by internal systems that were faltering,â€ he told F1 Racing this month.
But last year marked something of a turning point for the Grove-based outfit. In the second half of the season Nico Rosberg was consistently qualifying and finishing in the top 8 and the team hauled in 33 points in total, enough for 4th in the constructorsâ€™ championship.
A key factor in this turnaround has been extensive restructuring within the team according to Head. Among the more high profile changes was the decision to off-load Sam Michael, the teamâ€™s technical director, with some of the responsibility for racing operations. Rod Nelson, who joined the team as senior operations engineer from Renault, took over the running of the team at race weekends enabling Michael to focus on technical development.
â€œWe now have other people in senior positions as well,â€ Head said.
â€œWe restructured the company internally to make sure there was a good authority flow, a structure down through the company. Weâ€™re quite different internally now in terms of structure and much healthier for it.â€
Citing the problem of younger staff failing to pick up the methods and procedures of retiring staff, many of whom had been influential in Williamsâ€™ glory years, Head added: â€œJobs are much better documented, and much more process is control is in place.â€
Things finished on a high at Brazil when Nico Rosberg powered his way to a career best fourth place after starting tenth. The drive was understandably overshadowed by Raikkonenâ€™s championship winning victory and later the controversy over fuel irregularities but the damage had been done; Williams had got the jump on rivals BMW and had significantly closed the performance gap to Ferrari and Mclaren.
Encouragingly for the team, this momentum has been carried into testing where both Rosberg and Nakajima have been lighting up the timesheets. Rosberg split the Ferrariâ€™s and Mclarenâ€™s at Valencia while on â€˜long runsâ€™ and Nakajima has not been far behind him. The FW30 also seems to be benefiting from some innovative design modifications, according to Autosport. Right up there on the â€˜cheeky listâ€™ is a modified nose cone featuring new fins. Through clever design and positioning of the mandatory TV camera, the nose fins subtly extend the width of the aero component without breaking the regulations.
The team have also reportedly unlocked some speed by widening the top of their central â€˜rearâ€™ diffuser. The modification is an adaptation to an already successful design based on Ferrariâ€™s model of separate side channels accompanying one central diffuser to maximise airflow.
Despite these improvements Technical Director Sam Michael downplayed talk of the team mounting a challenge on Mclaren and Ferrari.
â€œWeâ€™ve got a good reference but weâ€™re definitely not quick enough to go and win Grand Prix, which is what our target is,â€ Michael told Autosport.
â€œBut the carâ€™s a good step on from where it was last year, and we finished the season relatively strongly. If we can keep going in that direction then that is the most important thing,â€ he added.
That there is talk of Williams challenging for race wins in the first place illustrates just much progress the team have made in last season.
Should 2008 indeed be a breakthrough year for Williams, then that can only be a good thing for F1. The sportâ€™s very survival is dependent in my view on the participation of independent constructors like Williams and not, as Max Mosley has reportedly said to Frank Williams, a solely â€œmanufacture and B-teamâ€ environment.
There has been some talk of Williams becoming a Toyota B-Team. A more likely scenario I think is that Toyota, having reviewed their dismal performance as a manufacture, will pull out of Formula One and seriously consider an engine partnership with Williams.
Williams are very much at the mercy of their own performance in 2008 which is why a return to the sharp end of the grid could not be more timely.