Last Sunday in Abu Dhabi, the Williams Formula One team capped their best season in more than a decade with their first double-podium finish since 2005.
With Felipe Massa hunting down Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton in the final laps, it looked like Williams might even have enough pace for their first victory since early in 2012, but, in the end, Massa and his teammate Valtteri Bottas settled for second and third.
The result clinched third place in the constructors' championship for the Grove-based team—their best result since 2003, when, using BMW engines, they nearly snatched the constructors' title from Ferrari.
The big questions now are: Can Williams repeat—or even improve—in 2015? In other words, was 2014 an anomaly, or a sign of things to come?
To illustrate what a huge jump in performance Williams made in 2014, consider this: Massa and Bottas combined for nine podium finishes this year. In the previous nine seasons, the team had a total of just eight.
Looking ahead, Williams retain many of the advantages that sparked its 2014 renaissance but continued success is not a foregone conclusion.
"It’s a long-term project," said head of vehicle performance Rob Smedley—who moved from Ferrari to Williams with Massa for 2014—at a press conference in Brazil earlier in November. "You have to change cultures and methodology within the team and, like I’ve always said since I arrived at Williams, it’s very easy to change process, you can change process in a week—but it’s much more difficult to change culture."
He went on to reference Red Bull, who spent years in the wilderness of the midfield, first as Stewart Grand Prix, then as Jaguar and finally for four years as Red Bull before their breakthrough 2009 campaign. "They operate very well," Smedley said, "but it’s because the same core group was there for a long time. And that’s what we have to do at Williams."
That stability starts with the drivers. Bottas, who will be entering his third season as a Williams race driver (before that he spent three years testing for the team), is a superstar-in-the-making. After a solid, if unspectacular, start to the season, he closed with six podiums in the final 12 races to finish fourth in the drivers' championship—ahead of former world champions Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen.
Meanwhile, at the end of 2013, Massa seemed to be limping to the end of his career. He was pushed aside at Ferrari to make way for Raikkonen's return and the Brazilian was winless since 2008, before he suffered a serious head injury at the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.
The beginning of 2014 was more of the same for Massa, but a pole position in Austria—the only one this year not taken by a Mercedes driver—proved to be the turning point. Massa scored three podium finishes in the last seven races, matching his total from the last three seasons at Ferrari. He never left, but this season still felt like a return for Massa, capped by the near-victory in Abu Dhabi.
The team confirmed in early September that both drivers would return for 2015.
The biggest factor in Williams' turnaround, though, has been their switch from Renault to Mercedes engines—a change that came at the perfect time, with Mercedes developing the dominant power unit under the new regulations for 2014.
"We did do a lot of due diligence around that, it wasn’t just a finger in the air and hope for the best," said deputy team principal Claire Williams, per Autoweek's Adam Cooper. "No one really knew where the engines would come out this year, so I suppose there was a bit of luck in that."
Lucky or not, the performance advantage of the Mercedes power unit should continue into 2015, keeping Williams squarely in the fight with Red Bull and Ferrari.
At the same time, Williams should be able to close the gap to Mercedes. The advantage the new constructors' champions enjoyed for 2014 in developing their chassis and engine side-by-side before delivering the power units to their customers will be somewhat diminished next year. The customer teams, including Williams, now have a full season of experience with the new engines to inform the development of their 2015 cars.
And Williams' 2014 car was already one of the best from an aerodynamic perspective. They regularly clocked the fastest speeds throughout the season, with Smedley explaining at the Friday press conference in Belgium:
We’ve looked at correlation between wind tunnel and track, how we improve the accuracy of the measurements that we take here at the track and the process of that whole thing. I think that being able to have accurate feedback from the start of the year from the track back to the tunnel, not only as to what the parts are doing in terms of correlation but also in terms of what we want from a car—not only from total downforce but from car characteristics as well, in high, medium and low speed—has ultimately paid dividends.
With no major changes to the aero regulations for 2015, Williams should be able to retain their edge in this area, as well.
So, Williams have the drivers, the engine and the chassis to continue their successful run in 2015. However, there is an additional consideration: money.
Seeing the opportunity for a strong finish in the championship this year, Williams invested heavily in the ongoing development of their 2014 car. BBC pundit James Allen reported on his website that the team lost £17 million in the first half of 2014, but that difference could largely be made up by the prize money the team will collect for finishing third compared to, say, sixth or seventh.
Williams' title sponsorship from Martini will also help, but Claire Williams told Crash.net's Chris Medland, "I hope we bring in a whole raft of new sponsors for 2015. That's obviously the plan and we have to do it, we're an independent team and costs are as they are in Formula One at the moment."
The other top-five teams in the 2014 standings—Mercedes, Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren—all have larger budgets than Williams. And while spending certainly does have a correlation with success in F1, a big budget does not guarantee big results...just ask Ferrari and McLaren.
Over a longer term, though, the teams with the most money do win more often. To ensure that 2014 is not just a flash in the pan, Williams will have to parlay their strong results into more sponsorship dollars to keep up in the development race.
If they can do that, 2014 can certainly mark the beginning of a new, upward trend for the team. It may not be a return to the glory years of the 1980s and '90s but even regular race wins, or being in the championship conversation, will be a welcome reprieve from a decade in the F1 wilderness.
Follow me on Twitter for updates when I publish a new article and for other (mostly) F1-related news and banter: