There are no quick fixes in Formula One, no giant leaps in a sport where fractions can be differentiators. At Williams this harsh reality is well recognised but when they race in Austria this weekend they do so with the added pressure of potentially having to be sold just to stay in F1.
Williams are riding a storm like perhaps no other in their illustrious history. The heritage of Frank Williams’s team is inescapable. They have seven drivers’ titles and this year is the 40th anniversary of Alan Jones clinching their first and with it the first of nine constructors’ championships.
That tally, it should not be forgotten, is second only to Ferrari but the glory days seem far away now. Williams have just endured the worst two seasons in their 42 years in F1, finishing last in the championship in both.
In May, after announcing a loss of £13m in 2019, they announced they were considering putting themselves up for sale, or looking for investment to ensure their survival. That a team so fiercely independent since 1977 could be in such straits rocked the sport.
Claire Williams, the deputy team principal, insists that for Williams to battle on was paramount. “This decision should not be viewed as anything other than positive,” she says. “It is something that will ensure the sustainability of our team and comes at a time where the changing landscape of Formula One provides an exciting and significant opportunity for Williams.
“We put our team first, and we put its success first, and the investment we’re looking for is going to help us achieve that.”
For George Russell, the 22‑year‑old British driver who made his F1 debut for Williams last year, it has been a testing time. He carries it well and believes the team will see out these travails.
“My job is to drive the car as quick as I can and to get the most out of my team around me,” Russell says. “That’s not going to change whatsoever. I trust in Claire and the board that they are doing everything in their power to overcome the challenges.
“The atmosphere has not really changed. The guys are still very motivated and going about their jobs. We have a duty to overcome any challenges and get the maximum performance out of the car.”
Williams has stoically borne the brickbats that accompanied her team’s poor performances, including caustically and rightly denying the accusation that becoming a mother was the reason for the decline.
“Am I not allowed a child because I am a woman running a Formula One team?” she argued. “It is a disgraceful attitude and a very 19th‑century attitude.”
Frank’s daughter is as stubbornly determined as her father. The team underwent significant structural changes during last season’s debacle and what has emerged is positive. The car is a vast improvement but expectations must be managed. The aim is to at least close up on the field, to be competing rather than 1.5 seconds off the next car up the road. The FW43 has more downforce, is quicker and easier to drive but it is an evolution rather than a revolution.
Russell won the online F1 virtual championship during lockdown but knows the serious business is just beginning. Developing the car will be reliant on the driver’s input, a further test for one of the most promising talents in the sport. In his second season he is the de facto leader, with the 25-year-old Canadian rookie Nicholas Latifi his teammate.
Russell acquitted himself well last season and has emerged wise beyond his years. Hard lessons were learned fast, not least his role as part of the collective efforts of 700 people. “It’s about appreciating the effect a driver can have within a team, about morale and how your approach can change their mentality,” he says.
“It taught me that if I give constructive criticism and lead the team in a better direction they will leave the racetrack ready to try to solve these issues. If I say: ‘The car is a piece of shit,’ they will wake up on a Monday wondering why they are doing it and that they can’t be bothered.”
Much as it was born of trying circumstances, the process has been beneficial and Russell has been empowered. “I feel much more confident in my position now. I feel confident I can talk anytime to the top members of staff on anything. I feel confident I can make my point directly and that they trust my feelings, because they have had a year of building a relationship with me and we have mutual respect and trust.”
Still part of the Mercedes driver programme, Russell cites watching Lewis Hamilton’s work with his team as an inspiration in how he has developed. Yet the task he faces is more daunting than that of the world champion at the front of the grid.
Williams’s purpose is to race . Their mighty history demands they need to be in a fight on the track, even if it is not at the sharp end. No miracles are expected but while a difficult financial situation exists the one thing they can control is performance. If they can at least challenge in Austria on Sunday it might be considered the first step on the long road back.