Williams received a lot of hype during winter testing for the 2014 Formula One season—and not all of it was due to the return of the Martini livery.
With the best power unit in the field, an exciting driver pairing and new technical director Pat Symonds getting his first full season at the helm, the team looked poised for a renaissance (although I still picked them as my surprise flop in our season preview).
Contrary to my prediction, though, Williams have gotten stronger as the season has progressed, culminating in three straight podium finishes for their young star, Valtteri Bottas. It is the team's most concentrated period of success since Mark Webber and Nick Heidfeld scored three podiums at the 2005 Monaco and European Grands Prix.
Williams are now third in the Constructors' Championship, 67 points behind Red Bull. They could be much closer (or even ahead of the Bulls) if not for Felipe Massa's newly discovered knack for getting driven into—by Sergio Perez at Montreal, Kimi Raikkonen at Silverstone and Kevin Magnussen at Hockenheim.
But Williams do not belong in this upper echelon anymore, do they? An independent team, not backed by a big car (or energy drink) company, beating the mighty Ferrari and challenging free-spending Mercedes and Red Bull on a (relatively) shoestring budget.
Is Williams' recent success really a product of their own development work, or have those results been enhanced by qualifying gaffes and unreliability at Mercedes? Did Bottas "beat a Mercedes fair and square" at the German Grand Prix, as he was told on the team radio after finishing second, ahead of Lewis Hamilton?
The qualifying gaps between the top Mercedes car and the best Red Bull and Williams cars demonstrate that, aside from a rain-affected British Grand Prix, Williams really are improving their pace relative to Mercedes, while Red Bull are not.
The narrowing gap in qualifying performance suggests that Williams' improved race results are no fluke. And that makes sense.
Mercedes had more time to integrate their chassis and power unit before the season and came much closer to maximising their potential than Williams, waiting for their delivery of Merc engines. Now, no matter how large Mercedes' budget is, there is not as much room for them to improve.
Williams, meanwhile, did not meet their lofty preseason expectations early in the year. But they have taken advantage of their extra space to improve and are slowly closing in on Mercedes.
They still won't catch the Silver Arrows—at least not this year—but Williams can continue to close the gap. Do not be surprised to see Bottas or Massa on the top step of the podium at some point this year.
Nor should we be surprised by Red Bull's inability to haul in Mercedes. As usual, Adrian Newey created a fantastic chassis for the Milton Keynes-based team, but his masterful design also left less room for improvement compared to Williams. The car was already close to perfect.
The engine, however, was not. And that is the reason Red Bull cannot challenge the Mercs: They are stuck with an underpowered and unreliable Renault power unit.
Looking ahead, grid penalties for exceeding the limits of the various power unit components will come into play. For Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel is nearing the limits on five of the six components, which could allow Williams to claw back some of the points they have lost through Massa's many misadventures.
Deputy team principal Claire Williams agrees, recently telling the official F1 site, "There is no reason why we can’t be fighting for P2 this year!"
No one will catch Mercedes for the Constructors' Championship, but there could be a dogfight for second and third. Only 92 points separate Red Bull in second and McLaren in sixth, with nine races remaining. And remember, the final grand prix features double points. A one-two finish in Abu Dhabi would be worth 86 points.
Williams have not finished in the top three of the Constructors' standings since 2003, when they were only 14 points behind Ferrari for the title. There will not be a title this year, either, but a top-three finish would bring a lot of prestige—and more than a bit of cash—back to Grove.
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