When was the last time Williams F1 won a championship? If I said 1997 would you believe me? That would make it sixteen years ago. Who would have ever thought Williams would be unable to repeat what for a time was commonplace—taking possession of one or both of the big silver trophies the FIA hands out at the end of each racing season. Constructor titles: 80, 81, 86, 87, 92, 93, 94, 96, 97. Nine in all. Drivers titles: 80, 82, 87, 92, 93, 96, 97. This total is seven and combined it’s 16.

To illustrate just how far from the top they have fallen let’s look at this simple fact. Last year Williams only managed to score five points. FIVE. This might have been ok with the two previous scoring systems with only the first six finishers collecting points but this is the era of 25 points or less awarded to each of the first 10 finishers. In other words, almost half the grid scores points in the modern era yet out of 19 races and if my addition is correct, 1919 points available, Williams, the third most winning constructor in Formula 1 (Ferrari and McLaren occupy the first two spots), managed to only take five of them!

What could have precipitated this complete decline of one of the greatest racing organizations modern F1 has known? What could be the cause of such a reversal of fortune? In every GP last year NBC Sports’ David Hobbs and Steve Matchett seemed to be genuinely confounded as how Frank Williams and company could lack even the slightest amount of competitiveness and they’re not the only ones wondering.

This is one of the great teams I remember as a young adult when my interest in F1 started in earnest. This was the team that had such dynamic drivers such as Alan Jones, Keke Rosberg, Nigel Mansel, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost and briefly Ayrton Senna. This was the team whose cars were liveried so beautifully.

First with the simple but elegant white and green, then with canary yellow and white with a streak of blue, and when Rothmans joined as the title sponsor the combination of blue, white and gold stripes, just stunning. They’re one of the great teams in the sport so I always want Williams to do well, to reach the podium, to score wins. When they don’t I definitely wonder, “What the hell went wrong?”

I’m pretty sure money has a little to do with it. Budget has a profound effect on what the team can achieve realistically year in and year out. Williams is the only team traded publicly on the stock market, which would indicate to me money was indeed an issue, why else would one sell shares of their company but to raise capital? But with the restrictions that have been brought in to F1 in recent years, I can’t blame it all on this.

Staffing has a large effect on your success as well. Adrian Newey used to work for Frank Williams. There’s certainly only one Adrian Newey, so replacing him obviously hasn’t gone too well. Let’s look at drivers; have they had an Alonso, Hamilton, Vettel or even Raikkonen of late? They have not. I could see this being a significant part of the problem if we were addressing the difference between first and fourth on the racetrack, but Williams’s cars were finishing 14th, 15th and 16th regularly throughout the 2013 season. Does this sound to anybody like the Williams of old? Absolutely not. They’re Williams, they should be able to attract drivers and engineers good enough to play in the top tier. I suspect there is something else at work.

Good News, Bad News

I’ve got good news and bad news for Williams. Your decline was inevitable. It happens in everything, fashion, music, art, politics, real estate. One minute you’re on top, the next you’re near the bottom. Ebb and flow. What goes up must come down. Sports teams are more susceptible than many other things, which is both the joy and the agony of sports fans. We’ve seen this happen to all great sports organizations. Which one was it for you? For my father it was USC college football until Pete Carroll came along. For many basketball fans here in Los Angeles (were I reside) it is the Lakers’ sudden fall from grace. Speaking of Los Angeles, The Dodgers have been through so many ups and downs I can’t even keep track.

So I don’t believe that what has happened to Williams in the past sixteen years was entirely due to money, or departed designers, or lack of driver talent. I don’t believe eliminating any one of these issues or even the aggregate of them all would have made a difference. Williams F1 was following a pattern that can be traced multiple times throughout history and can be applied to almost every successful endeavor.

Now for the good news. All cycles which end must start again and as reported recently by Autosport, Williams F1 has been making what can only be seen as some very aggressive moves this off-season. They’ve just signed Jakob Andreason from Force India, Graig Wilson from Mercedes and Rod Nelson via Lotus. Also reported by Jonathan Noble in the same Autosport article is the soon to be confirmed appointment of Rob Smedley.

This presumably is due to the arrival of Felipe Massa to the team. Could the hiring of Pat Symonds who has World Champion experience, the arrival of Massa who has worked for World Champion Ferrari (and came within half a lap of being World Champion himself) plus the buttressing of the technical side of the operation be the jolt needed to get a new cycle started for Williams and get them moving back up the grid? Timing is everything, they might be just due for some luck.

The change in regulations might also help them, it could be just the type of fresh start needed to create some parity at least in the beginning of the season and allow Williams to find their feet again. We can’t be certain. McLaren, Ferrari, Mercedes, Lotus and of course Red Bull will all have fast cars at Jerez. Can Williams compete with these teams again? The idea they could slip further down the pecking order seems beyond the pale so we can only answer “Yes, please!”

Of one thing I am definitely sure, the folks from Grove have been down and out for way too long. It is time for a change. Time to get back to what Williams knows all too well: how to win. I don’t think they ever forgot, I just think history was not on their side lately. But now it could be a whole different story if history is anything to go by. The tide could be changing and it is history that could be Williams’ ace in the hole.

Okay fans, time for you to weigh in. What team have you followed faithfully that has been on top and then on the bottom again? And do you think Williams can be competitive in the 2014/2015 season?

  • Rapierman

    Given the new regs this season, every midfield team in existence has a halfway decent chance to move up. They’re all scrambling to put together something to challenge the Red Bulls of the world.

    • Hey Rapierman
      I agree. I think this will resemble the first half of 2012 when we had a different winner at each grand prix until the top teams started to understand the Pirelli rubber in a more comprehensive way at which point we started to see repeat winners. I am excited to see all the changes and to see how the teams have responded and which ones have done their homework and which have not. I for one welcome back a little uncertainty in regards to engine reliability (although I think it is being overstated just a bit) even if it means watching the drivers I favor fall victim to an engine expiring now and then.

  • Jack Flash (Aust)

    Nice piece.

    For me ‘my Williams’ was “the REAL Lotus F1 Racing team”. The team lead by the enigmatic and driven man Colin Chapman. From the heady glory years of the sixties and early seventies where they lead the way on modern F1 chassis design of integral engines in the Lotus-49 and stole the march of the F1 WCC for years – including the consummate ace Jim Clarke (plus Jochen RIndt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet, to name but a few of their WDCs…) to a sliding force in the eighties until the last great pairing of JPS and Camel Loti ’87 and ’88 with the brilliance of Ayrton Senna da Silva took their last gasps of former glories in Podiums and Wins – but never either championship title again.

    The last couple of years before Lotus’ demise was very painful to watch for a long time fan who’s enduring memory of his first glimpse of Formula 1 was the classic green and gold Lotus-49 of 1967-68, as a very young child. Followed on its heals by the Gold Leaf red/white/gold livery soon after. The results waned more and more. The sponsors grew less numerous. The drivers roster become shallower each of the Lotus years near the end. Key people left progressively. A vicious cycle of growing failure in capacity, talent and fortunes pulls the team into a spiral downward. Finally with a gasp it is all over. They’re gone…. It was like watching a favourite Uncle, a childhood favourite, convalesce in a Hospice – waiting for God.

    So yeah… I get how Williams fans may feel right now, and I empathise. The good news is that Williams F1 are still around – fighting to renew and rise again. That is something to hold onto. Jack Flash.

    • Jack Flash

      Thank you for the read. It is so true how you describe the convalescing until there is nothing left. I like the way you ended with the good news that Williams is still fighting not refusing to call it quits. I did not touch on this in my piece and I should have however. The fact that Frank’s daughter Claire who now is in charge or at least one of the principal’s can only be a good thing and might be a big reason that Williams is still around. It is safe to say her interest is a little more intense for the obvious reasons. To the best of my knowledge I can think of any family member (son, brother, wife or otherwise) taking over the and continuing the way she has in F1. Remarkably really if you think about it. -jp-

  • MIE

    You can also add Brabham and Tyrrell to that list of championship winning teams that suffered a steady decline in fortune before finally disappearing. I only hope we are not witnessing the start of the process with McLaren.
    The biggest thing in Williams favour is Frank. A man who sold his private jet to fund the teams wind tunnel, I get the impression he will do everything to ensure the team continues racing.

    • MIE

      Nice to hear from you. It has been a while but I read many of your comments in the forum section. Oh how I wish these two teams were still around. No disrespect to Marussia or Virgin or HRT, but among other things Formula 1 is about History. I would have to put the Brabham bt49 (the white and blue livered one with no front wings) and the Lauda Brabham-Alfa in my top 25 best looking F1 cars and who can ever forget any of Ken Tyrell’s creations. With McLaren it just would not seem possible the same fate could occur, but that is probably what everyone said about the two for-mentioned teams. I did not know about his sale of Frank’s jet, actions speak louder that words comes to mind.

  • Gordon

    Sorry if this is off topic, but it mentioned Rob Smedley so it is vaguely related. Can anyone tell me what a race engineer does? Is he/she involved in the car design? strategy? (I know McLarens have the people at Woking making decisions with live data), set-up? This isn’t meant to be sarcastic but I genuinely don’t know what Rob Smedley et al actually do other than motivation. can anyone educate me, please?

    • Rapierman

      “Engineering” involves the designs, the operations and the nuts-and-bolts of the car, from the engine to the wheels to the chassis to the aerodynamics, etc., and how each part of the car affects the car, team and driver as a whole.

      • Gordon

        Sorry, I meant the role of the driver’s race engineer, like Rob Smedley. I’m assuming he’s not been designing the new car as he’s obviously at all the races, he doesn’t do pit work, does he work on set-up? Or is that done by teams of nerds with high-powered computers? I only know them from what we hear over the radio and don’t know what their role is behind the scenes

        • MIE

          The race engineer is the single point of contact between the driver and the team. During practice he will interpret the driver’s description of the car behaviour into set-up changes required on the car. During the race, he will be the one talking to the driver over the radio, giving the information the driver needs when he needs it.

          • Rapierman

            Oh, yeah…..’crew chief” in NASCAR terms. ;-)

          • Tom Firth

            Some teams also have Chief race engineers that oversight both sides of the garage, Williams chief race engineer just left for Toro Rosso and that’s the role that Smedley is expected to take.

  • @_Canuck_

    I think Williams did’nt expand or go big like Mclaren did with the tech center when they were winning everything in the 90’s, they also did’nt pay up for talent like the other teams so people left.
    When BMW pulled the plug it left a big hole and they still hav’nt recovered.
    They need an engine partner to compete.