Is this the year Williams break free from the back of the grid? | 2023 F1 team preview


What kind of a Formula 1 team is Williams Racing?

For the last two-and-a-half years, Williams Grand Prix Engineering, formerly owned by its founder family, has been in a state of transition. Its new owners, American investment firm Dorilton, have invested considerable time, effort and funds to rebuild neo-Williams in their own image.

Through swanky promotional films with Hollywood actors or hosting public exhibitions during grand prix weekends to bring the team to the fans, Williams has sought to write a new narrative for itself while still proudly embracing its illustrious heritage.

But while the team appears to have clarity over how it wishes to present itself, it has struggled to find its footing on the race track in that same time.

Rooted to the rear of the grid, sucked into the black hole that tends to hold down any team that falls to the back of the field, Williams would have been disappointed with their 2022 season. With major rules changes offering lower teams their best opportunity to leap up the order, Williams found themselves at the bottom for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Although, in truth, the result was more reflective of the level of competition near the rear of the field than it was of Williams’ own competence as a team.

Williams have been stuck at the back in recent years

So to help turn around the team’s fortunes, who better to try and emulate than the team who has been most dominant over the last decade: Mercedes.

After just two seasons, team principal Jost Capito has been relieved of his position, alongside the team’s technical director Francois Xavier-Demaison. Taking Capito’s place in leading Williams is James Vowles, a key figure of Mercedes’ strategy team whose history at the Brackley factory dates back long before the German manufacturer first claimed it as their home.

Vowles may not have held such a senior role in Formula 1 before, but he has the ringing endorsement of his former team principal Toto Wolff, who could not have been more glowing in his assessment of Vowles’ potential to bring a culture of success back to Williams again.

“James has been around for a long time, he’s seen it all – the intelligent things and the less intelligent things,” Wolff said when Vowles’ move was first announced. “I have no doubt that Williams choosing James is a fantastic move for them.”

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Mercedes may have tasted success far more than Williams or, indeed, any of the other nine teams have in the V6 turbo era, but Vowles says it’s his experience of fighting for little reward in Formula 1 that makes him the right man to transform Williams over the coming years.

Former Mercedes strategist Vowles is now leading the team

“What I’m doing different is I’m fortunate enough to have known failure on levels that many of you unfortunately have publicly seen,” Vowles told the media. “Even prior to Mercedes, there were times where we were languishing in a very poor position – we didn’t score a point for 12 races.

“The real gain that you get out of this is that you have to instil a culture into this that allows everyone to realise that you have to be empowered, you have to grow, you have to move forward as units together and it has to be one collaborative motion. And I strongly suspect that we’re just in the situation where that collaboration isn’t quite the level it could be or should be, just simply because it’s been a few years of pain that has cemented it.”

Fortunately for Vowles, Williams is not a team caught in a death spiral where he must desperately grasp the controls in a bid to right the ship. Instead, Williams’ foundations remain solid, from Dorilton’s investment in their Grove factory’s facilities, a solid relationship with power unit suppliers Mercedes, a major new sponsor expected to be announced alongside the launch of the FW45 tomorrow and a young, exciting line up of drivers to put in their new car.

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After the departure of George Russell left a large hole to fill, the team quickly found themselves a new leader in the form of Alexander Albon. Fresh from a year out of racing in Formula 1, Albon acclimated quickly to life at the back of the grid, producing some of the most outstanding drives of the season to snipe unexpected points whenever they were in his grasp. While Albon was guilty of some messy afternoons in 2022, Williams’ status as the slowest team on the grid meant his errors were far less costly for the team than they would have been elsewhere. He’s proven how good he can be, now Albon’s mission for year two is simply to be more consistent in how he delivers on track.

American rookie Sargeant will attract plenty of attention

He will also take on an important new role for 2023, namely in mentoring his brand-new rookie team mate. Promoted from an impressive first year in Formula 2, Logan Sargeant joins the grid as an intriguing prospect.

A graduate of Williams’ own junior driver programme which has grown significantly since the team’s change of ownership, Sargeant arrives into Formula 1 far from the finished article but having shown enough potential for Williams to deem him worthy of their second seat. That Sargeant hails from the United States at a time when North American interest in the sport is at an all-time high is also no small boost for Williams’ marketing efforts.

Having benefited from more Friday practice runs than any other rookie driver in 2022, Sargeant has a solid base on which to head into his first pre-season test in Formula 1. While he admits he knows he will have to quickly adapt to racing in F1, he is confident that he has more than enough speed to prove he belongs in the sport.

“I’m very confident and comfortable with my one-lap pace,” Sargeant said. “I think that’s been probably my strongest hand since I was young.

“I think what I’ll need to improve on is just, one, getting physically up to standard to go through a whole race run with without having any issues and just work on a race pace and management. I think that’s going to be the biggest thing.”

With three US races on the calendar for the first time in over 30 years, Williams will naturally draw far more attention this season than it has in years. But Williams know it has every reason to back itself heading into 2023. While far from the finished article, Williams finally seems to have the pieces in place to go on the attack after years of just trying to do what they can with what they’ve got.

All they need to do is produce a car to allow them to make the most of the potential they have.

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