Coming off the teams worst year in its rich formula one history, Williams still seem like a team drifting uncontrollably into the storm. Sure, there were significant changes within the team with Sam Michael getting the boot, Patrick Head stepping down. Frank Williams voice, just like his legendary team, is also fading away sadly enough. They hired Mike Coughlan to head the technical team for 2012 which seemed more like hiring the best available at the time – when early on in the season it was slim pickings – rather than a long term strategy call. That said, while discredited in the whole spygate affair, Coughlan remains a highly competent man so that may still work out for Williams.
While the car is obviously one major worry for the team, their driver situation is not very rosy either. Barrichello seems to have lost quite a bit of pace judging by his lackluster 2011 performance but at least remains very motivated and even desperate to retain his F1 seat. Maldonado has shown brief flashes of talent with some good quail laps and the race in Monaco, but in general was probably the most underwhelming rookie of 2011 and is really only in a race seat because of PVDSA and the reported 28 million USD they bring to the team. While there are some murmurings in Venezuela about that shady sponsorship deal, and with Chavez’s health seemingly waning Pastor may find himself out of a drive after all, at this point it seems rather unlikely.
Assuming he stays, that starts Williams off with one average driver confirmed for 2011. Now that wouldn’t be so bad if the team had a fast and experienced guy to lead the team and give Maldonado a chance to grow out of the spotlights (if he has any growth left of course, which is doubtful imo), but that is where Barrichello has let them down. Already in 2010, Williams was bullish about its 2011 contender because of the invaluable input Rubens could give with his vast experience, being involved in the car’s development from day 1. As we all know now, the car turned out to be a dog so that’s one strike against Rubens’ usefulness. Now it would be unfair to pin all the development failures on the driver, the tech team already deservedly took the main blame for that, but his experience in car development is one of the main selling points for Rubens.
However, the area where he has no excuses is the driving part, and there as well he has failed to deliver in 2011. The few Q3 appearances for Williams were all for his decidedly average teammate, and while he had the upper hand on race pace, it is inexcusable to be troubled to that degree by Pastor. Even points wise Rubens would have ended up behind Maldonado had it not been for the latter’s tangle with Hamilton in Monaco. Knowing that on merit alone he does not really deserve an F1 seat anymore, Rubens has now gone out with the begging bowl and has reportedly scraped together the not unimpressive sum of 5 million USD in personal sponsorship to bring to the team, which equals the money another prime candidate for the Williams seat brings: Adrian Sutil and his Medion backing. It is a testament to Rubens’ motivation that he didn’t feel too important to refuse to find new sponsors (ahem Hulkenberg), but it is also a bit sad that the loveable veteran had to go there. It may have paid off in the end, as Rubinho has just posted a mysterious tweet about a visit to England and that he’s now awaiting good news from Williams.
For Sutil, the Medion money has been there throughout his career, the backing always insuring him a nice seat at Force India/Spyker and over time he has racked up quite a few years of experience as well. However as reported by paddock insider Joe Saward Sutil is not exactly known for his technical abilities either, and Williams really needs a guy who can drive car development forward. Being quick will simply not be enough to drag Williams out of the swamp. Therefore I think the team really missed out when they failed to conclude negotiations with Raikkonnen who ticks all boxes: speed, skill, technical knowledge, experience and in a way even sponsorship. What the Fin lacks in personal sponsors, he has in bucket loads when it comes to attracting team sponsors: despite being off the grid for two years he is still one of the most popular drivers around with a worldwide fanbase.
Bruno Senna is another driver hovering around the Williams factory as was recently reported, and while I’m a sucker for nostalgia and do like the Brazilian he is just not what the team needs in 2012. To be that man he would have had to replicate his debut performance in Spa quali every time he stepped into that Renault car this year.
With Helmut Marko once again wielding the axe at Toro Rosso, two other hopeful have joined to look into the most coveted seat of the 2 ones that are left – seriously who’d really want to go to HRT ? Of course F1 being F1 there may still be some surprises but those are the only 2 seats officially left open now that STR and Force India have made their choices. It just comes to show how low the team has fallen. While in the past every driver would have given his left nut to drive a Williams (well I would not be surprised if Ayrton actually did offer his left nut to sir Frank in 1992 and 1993), now Williams is reduced to picking out the leftovers. Anyone who lands that F1 seat will surely be relieved, but is also a bit like the fat kid in gym class, always getting picked last because nobody really wants him on their team.
Talking of leftovers, there are still Jerome D’Ambrosio, Tonio Liuzzi, Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov floating about but I doubt these guys have what it takes to convince Williams they are what the team needs. They could also take a punt on a young driver like their very promising reserve driver Bottas. While very impressive at the Abu Dhabi young driver test and driver voted most likely to give me a crisis in the near future – of the good kind – the step from GP3 to F1 would be huge. He would not be the first Fin to make a similar step though as Raikkonene jumped from F3 to F1, so who knows.
All things said and done it looks like Sutil is currently Williams’ best bet, but Rubinho is not ready to give up so soon. Their biggest weakness really is that they are so tied to Maldonado’s money that they can’t really take a punt on somebody else. At least Sutil is a known quantity, and has proven in the second half of this year that he does have some serious skill. The showdown seems to be between Sutil and Barrichello, with Bruno Senna as the outsider. To be perfectly honest, reading those three names hardly strengthens my expectations for Williams do play any role of significance next season, so any Williams fans out there, I fear the new year will not be a very happy one for you, but have my best wishes anyway. I’ll be ‘celebrating ‘ Christmas at work in 30C degree temperatures, and hopefully get back to my podcasting ways soon.
So, who do you think should get the Williams drive, and who do you think will get it? – not necesarrily one and the same person 😉