Williams head to Australia on a wave of positivity. They’ve had a decent winter on the commercial side, coupled with much improved pre-season testing form compared to the previous year. Though testing times are always a bit suspect, the race pace and qualifying simulations often seemed as fast as the leading teams. This would seem to be the season that Williams return to the front, at least for Melbourne. However, this isn’t 2014 – it’s 2009.
Looking closely at recent history, Williams always seem to cope well when the regulations call for a drastic re-think compared to the previous season. 2009 was such an example, with the largest technical shake up in Formula 1 since the 1998 season. With a requirement for simpler aerodynamics and smaller rear diffusers, born were F1 cars that looked very different to their 2008 bodywork-sprouting predecessors.
Heading into the Melbourne weekend Brawn, Williams and Toyota made the most of interpreting the vastly different technical limitations from the FIA (much to the other teams’ chagrin) and Nico Rosberg duly delivered for Williams, scoring a clean sweep of all three practice sessions. In the end, a rather satisfactory 5th place in qualifying was the net result – Nakajima in the other Williams disappointed slightly in 13th.
Despite the Brawn cars looking superior, it seemed Williams would go far better in the race than their qualifying positions suggested. However, they would walk away with only 6th place for Rosberg and a DNF for Nakajima – a rather deflating result considering how well the weekend had started. Rosberg struggled towards the end of the grand prix with tyre wear after pitting too early for super-softs; Nakajima spun off on the exit of turn 4 and into the wall after only 18 laps.
After all that hype, the 3 points to the team’s name was far less than what was probably expected by Frank and his crew.
And yet, in a cruel act of deja-vu, the cycle repeated itself in 2012.
After a poor 2011 – the worst season in their history – the team had a far better winter testing programme in ’12. They had decent pace on paper, far fewer breakdowns, and a major change in the regulations to stop the high-downforce-producing blown-diffuser effect went in Williams’ favour; the team had struggled with the concept compared to their rivals.
Everything was looking up heading to Australia. Pastor Maldonado qualified a respectable 8th, but Bruno Senna was back in 14th. During the race the Williams’ much improved pace was demonstrated in the hands of Maldonado. After barging past Romain Grosjean, the Williams was more than a match for the Ferrari of Alonso; the two locked together for much of the race.
With 1 lap to go, Williams were on for a 6th place that would give them more points than all of 2011. But Maldonado wasn’t settling for that – he was as close to Alonso as he had ever been, and wanted to go one better. He closed on the Ferrari on the entry to turn 6, applied too much throttle too soon and the Williams was sent hurtling into the wall. Senna had also retired earlier after battling down the field with Massa’s Ferrari; the two collided and Senna retired with 6 laps to go.
After the improved performance from everyone in the team, Williams yet again left Australia in disappointment, this time with no points for their efforts.
Heading into 2014, it’s important that Williams learn from these past mistakes. Renewed belief and a strong team performance from pre-season testing following major regulation changes does not automatically translate into a result in Australia, no matter how deserving they may be.
Can they can break the cycle and start the new season by shaking off the past and stirring up the established running order? We don’t have long to wait to find out.