May 4th (F1plus / Chris Cameron-Dow).- Sir Frank Williams leads a team that is among the most successful in racing history. With nine Constructors' Championships, 113 race wins, 126 pole positions and 130 fastest laps, the Williams F1 Team is an icon of Formula One.
In the early nineties, Williams were almost untouchable. Championships with Mansell in 1992, Prost in 1993, Hill in 1996 and Villeneuve in 1997 established Williams at the top of Formula One. But their success was not to last.
Williams have not won a race since 2004. A handful of podiums and some points have been all that the once-illustrious team could manage in the last seven seasons. The team’s decline reached its lowest point in 2011, when Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado managed only five points between them.
Something had to be done to deal with the poor performance of the team in 2011 and Sir Frank was not hesitant to make sweeping changes. Technical director Sam Michael left Williams during the course of 2011, to be replaced by Mike Coughlan, previously with McLaren. Williams terminated their engine deal with Cosworth in favour of Renault power as used by World Champions Red Bull. Seasoned veteran driver Rubens Barrichello was not retained for 2012, and the team instead secured the services of Bruno Senna, nephew of legend Ayrton Senna.
The 2012 driver line-up was a source of some media criticism for Williams. Maldonado and Senna each bring significant sponsorship to the team, and so are considered “pay drivers”. They are both also relatively inexperienced, which raised questions over their ability to assist in the development of a front-running Formula One car.
Despite the concerns about the driver pairing, the signs so far in 2012 are good. After only four races, Williams have already far exceeded their 2011 performance. 18 points (14 for Senna and 4 for Maldonado) put the team seventh in the Constructors' Championship. And the results could easily have been better. Maldonado crashed out of sixth place on the last lap of the Australian Grand Prix, and retired from the points with two laps to go in Malaysia when the engine in his FW34 failed.
So Williams are moving forward. Whether they can continue to improve remains to be seen. A quick car at the start of the year can be a slow car by the end of the season if the team does not keep pace with the rest of the grid in development terms.
The Spanish Grand Prix on 13 May will show the all-round performance of the FW34. The Barcelona circuit has a bit of everything - a very long straight combined with a variety of slow, medium and high-speed corners - which exposes any weakness a car might have. If Williams are in the points in Spain, it could mark the end of their decline. If not, 2012 might become another year to forget.