Williams have hit a new Lowe

Robert Kubica testing for Williams

It would have been an embarrassing start to the year by anyone’s standards. But for a team like Williams, it has been utterly mortifying. Formerly known as Williams Grand Prix Engineering, this team has always taken a great pride in its engineering excellence. In the past couple of years, that reputation has been shattered.

In the words of de facto team principal Claire Williams, the situation is not just disappointing — it’s embarrassing.

For the first time in their history, Williams missed the start of pre-season testing. And not by a little bit. Their car was delivered five days late, meaning they lost 2½ days of the 8 permitted days of testing, as well as a filming day that could have been used to iron out any installation issues.

This incident is by no means the start of Williams’s decline, which in truth began 15 years ago. But up until now, they have avoided the forensic examination that McLaren have received from the media over the past few years.

This has been put down to the fact that McLaren’s hubris makes their decline a more interesting story. Some journalists clearly feel schadenfreude when writing about McLaren.

But Williams have their own type of hubris. And some chickens are coming home to roost right now.

As a result, there is a lot of chat now about what has been going on behind the scenes at Williams to cause this year’s delays.

Team principal Claire Williams is keeping a stiff upper lip, as well as a tight lid on the speculation. She insists that a thorough inquest needs to be complete, to ensure they know the real cause of their problems.

But outside of official statements, fingers have quickly been pointed at the team’s chief technical officer, Paddy Lowe. According to Oliver Brown in the Telegraph, the team have been “on the verge of mutiny” against him, and his inability to take responsibility for the situation.

At RaceFans, Dieter Rencken has noted that since Paddy Lowe joined Williams, they have slipped from 5th in the constructors’ championship, to last place, to not having a car ready for the start of the season — in the space of under three years. It is also impossible to avoid the fact that Mercedes have not exactly suffered since Paddy Lowe left for Williams.

Dieter Rencken also revealed that internal targets for this year’s car were missed as early as November. Moreover, the delays have affected such a wide variety of parts that “the engineering ‘release’ process — when drawings are released for manufacture” appears to be to blame.

To make matters worse, before the car had even been built, it was suggested that simulator data showed it would be at least two seconds slower than its rivals.

As if this all wasn’t bad enough, Williams also ended up curtailing their running on the eighth and final day of testing. Paddy Lowe explained that this was because the car had become “too tired” — “because a number of critical bodywork parts had reached a stage of degradation that meant that we were no longer learning useful information from the car”.

In other words, Paddy Lowe’s technical team has produced a car that was late, is too slow, and is seemingly unusually fragile.

All of this suggests a serious failure of leadership, or process, or both.

Reading quotes from the team, there’s a real sense that they don’t comprehend the gravity of the situation. In an attempt to talk positively about Robert Kubica’s comments about the car, Paddy Lowe said, “It doesn’t talk about speed but at least it’s a platform.”

It’s not fast, but at least you can control it — this is hardly the right target for a team with the history of Williams.

Even before all this, it was already going to be a difficult year for Williams. They needed to bounce back after a poor 2018 that saw them finish a distant last place in the constructors championship.

Moreover, both of their drivers for 2019 — despite being clearly capable and talented — are facing their own challenges. That’s why my heart sank when I read that George Russell thinks it’s now the drivers’ job to motivate the rest of the Williams team.

George Russell is a Formula 2 champion, and clearly is a good driver with a bright future ahead of him. But he’s still young. He’s still inexperienced. He’s never raced in Formula 1 before. He has a lot to learn. He needs Williams to be supporting him, not the other way around.

As for the other Williams driver, Robert Kubica, he is a mature person who in normal circumstances would be able to absorb some of the stress that this situation must be causing. But these are not normal circumstances. Kubica is returning to F1 racing for the first time since 2010, following the rally accident in which he almost lost his arm — and possibly even his life. With one arm still weakened, his road back to F1 has been long and difficult. Robert Kubica deserves more than this.

While it’s noble of George Russell to offer to motivate the Williams team, the truth of the matter is that Williams have rarely, if ever, valued their drivers. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, slightly mediocre drivers sailed to world championships thanks to the superior car that Williams were able to produce.

This has been the Williams culture from day one. They have always believed that their own superior engineering brought results, to the exclusion of every other factor (including good drivers).

Think back also to their troubled partnership with BMW in the 2000s. Williams had convinced themselves that their championship drought had begun because the BMW engine wasn’t good enough. But that theory was about to be shown up. As the relationship strained, BMW switched their engine supply to Sauber. BMW Sauber became race winners; Williams remained where they were, in the midfield. Williams have never truly been the same since.

But Williams have never learned the lesson. The leadership at Williams still hopes for those simpler days when a figure like Patrick Head could single-handedly dictate the technical direction, with success.

The reality is that F1 is very different to how it was in the 1990s. Designing and building F1 cars is much more complicated. It just isn’t realistic to expect one person to mastermind the entire car.

It is taking Williams a very long time to adapt to this reality. Even this week, Paddy Lowe seemed shell-shocked at the idea that building an F1 car is difficult:

I would say looking at it as a whole in general the thing that caught us out is the sheer quantity and complexity of parts you have to produce to make a Formula 1 car these days.

But this all makes me wonder if Paddy Lowe is in fact a victim of Williams’s culture. His plight reminds me of the fate of Sam Michael.

Publicly, Sam Michael took a lot of the heat for the underperformance of Williams. But some insiders, including their driver Rubens Barrichello, reckoned that Sam Michael was simply overworked.

Could it be that the leadership at Williams expects their technical directors to take on too much of the burden by themselves? Patrick Head in the 1980s could do this. But no-one in 2019 can be expected to take on the complexity of designing and building a modern F1 car alone.

McLaren have at least shown signs that they understand they need to change. Williams are still in a state of denial.

Update: Autosport reports that Paddy Lowe has now taken a leave of absence from Williams.

6 comments

  1. The “related articles” says it all. While I’m sure Williams has grasped that, they have a serious morale issue if half of what you have written is true. They also seem to lack sufficient faith in process, and the checks and balances processes provide. This is the opposite of McLaren – I think they put too much faith in process (notably the matrix management concept), and too little in individual people.

  2. There are so many elements to analyse with Williams, but I think I’d have to agree with you. Firstly, yes, they are an independent team without the financial muscle to compete with the best. Yes, they are perhaps a bit stubborn in not having much manufacturer support like Toro Rosso, Haas etc. But why does their performance yo-yo so much year-to-year?

    Firstly, Paddy Lowe must take some responsibility. This has echoes of the 2013 McLaren (another McWilliams comparison!), which was widely believed to be his legacy, though he escaped scrutiny as he’d gone to Mercedes in the 2012-13 off-season. Clearly, it seems, he works best in a particular working environment.

    However, I think you have struck a nail with working culture being an issue more than simply “Paddy wasn’t a good fit!” (which can happen anywhere between senior manager and employer). Mark Webber is very open about his time there in his book – engineers hunkered down at laptops, people not enjoying their work, him getting read the riot act by Sir Frank and Sir Patrick Head when the car wasn’t great. He mentioned about Sam Michael being overworked too I think. It almost felt like he (Webber) experienced a depression of sorts there.

    During the 2014-15 purple patch, however, one could be forgiven for believing these issues were in the past; Williams were regular podium finishers and were stuffed full of very competent engineers famous for building, or being part of, strong working cultures (Pat Symonds – Crashgate notwithstanding, Rob Smedley, Rod Nelson), under the aegis of personable Claire Williams.

    But now the feeling is that their performance year-to-year is widely correlated with engine performance, and that the car and, arguably, working culture issues have persisted over the period (going back to Webber, Michael and BMW!). Pretty shocking if so!

    The BBC screened the Williams documentary film recently; I thought it was great and I respected the family’s honesty and openness. But it also got me thinking that, the gap to Williams’ last title (21 years) is now longer than the entire period in which they were winning titles (17 years). They are an indelible part of F1’s history, but it’s a reminder of how long everyone’s second favourite team (TM) have spent not winning recently. Of course, they are at a resource disadvantage to the best teams. However, if teams like Tyrrell and Lotus are anything to go by, an underperforming team cannot continue indefinitely. Can it?

    (Sorry for the belated essay but it’s an interesting case!).

  3. Thanks for the extensive comment Rishi! I was also struck by Mark Webber’s comments about Williams in his book.

    On his time at McLaren, I seem to remember they had a practice of alternating between Paddy Lowe and Pat Fry as lead designer from year to year. As I recall, Paddy Lowe took the odd years — and those were the years that McLaren tended to flounder (2009 springs to mind as well as 2013). I may have got that wrong however (a quick Google hasn’t resolved this for me).

  4. Yes good point Duncan. That’s how I remember it too, alternate engineers lead (or at least led) on alternate years (Lowe and Pat Fry, or someone similar) at McLaren. I hadn’t made the link to 2009 but good point. Also 2011, where McLaren had a difficult pre-season but pulled a rabbit out of the hat just in time for Melbourne, and Christian Horner claimed they “copied our car” – or suchlike (likewise, a Google search did not yield anything)? That rings a bell from somewhere. Again, doesn’t mean Lowe is rubbish but maybe he benefits from a bit of guidance or a certain structure around him (bit like how Felipe Massa really benefited from having Rob Smedley).

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