Are Williams in Danger of Dropping Back into the Formula 1 Midfield?

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistApril 24, 2016

Can Williams still compete with better-funded teams like Red Bull and Ferrari?
Can Williams still compete with better-funded teams like Red Bull and Ferrari?Lars Baron/Getty Images

Claire Williams, deputy team principal of the Williams Formula One team, told the official F1 website in November 2014, "From where we are now, 2015 should almost be a dress rehearsal for a championship challenge in 2016." After three races in 2016, it is safe to say that a title run is not going to happen for Williams this year.

Mercedes (who supply Williams with their engines) remain dominant, while Ferrari and Red Bull—with their massive budgets—are in the best position to challenge the Silver Arrows' hegemony.

Williams, who finished a brilliant third in the constructors' championship in both 2014 and 2015, are sitting fourth, closer to Toro Rosso and newcomers Haas than to Ferrari and Red Bull.

Now, after their major improvements the last two years, are Williams in danger of slipping back into the midfield?

Deputy team principal Claire Williams.
Deputy team principal Claire Williams.Clive Mason/Getty Images

True, Williams started relatively slowly the last two seasons, as well (they didn't score a podium before June in either year), but the trend of their race results is not promising. Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas were closer to the front-runners in the early races of 2014 and 2015 than they have been this season.

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In Australia, Massa finished fifth but was nearly a minute behind race-winner Nico Rosberg, despite a mid-race red flag and restart. Massa and Bottas finished eighth and ninth, respectively, in Bahrain, and both were more than a lap behind Rosberg. And in China, Massa was again the top Williams driver, finishing sixth, but one minute, 15 seconds behind the winning Mercedes.

The following chart compares the top Williams driver to the race-winner at the first three grands prix for each of the last three seasons (the gap from the 2015 Chinese Grand Prix is taken from the lap before Max Verstappen's stranded Toro Rosso brought out the safety car and artificially bunched up the field at the finish):

Gap from Race-Winner to Top Williams Car
201420152016
AustraliaAustraliaAustralia
Bottas+47.639 secMassa+38.196 secMassa+58.979 sec
MalaysiaMalaysiaBahrain
Massa+1 min 25.076 secBottas+1 min 10.409 secMassa+1 Lap
BahrainBahrainChina
Massa+31.265 secMassa+50.368 secMassa+1 min 15.511 sec
FIA.com

With Ferrari and Renault closing the power deficit to the Mercedes engines, Williams are losing one of their big advantages from the last two seasons. Massa said he is hoping Mercedes will have an upgraded engine ready for the Canadian Grand Prix in June, per Crash.net's Ollie Barstow, but will it be enough?

In 2014 and 2015, four of the top six teams in the constructors' championship were Mercedes-powered. So far this year, just two of the top six teams have Merc engines.

The law of diminishing returns means the other engine manufacturers—who started out so far behind when the new hybrid power units were introduced in 2014—will inevitably close in on Mercedes. The Merc factory team, enjoying the inherent advantages of being both a constructor and engine builder (not to mention a huge budget), looks safe at the front for the foreseeable future. Their customer teams, though, are struggling.

Williams technical director Pat Symonds.
Williams technical director Pat Symonds.Mark Thompson/Getty Images

Williams technical director Pat Symonds recently admitted to Autosport's Lawrence Barretto that the team lacks the race-strategy tools enjoyed by some of the bigger outfits.

In China, where Massa was running as high as second place, he complained that, "Definitely we did not do the right strategy compared to the other teams," per Autosport's Barretto.

"We tried a two-stop strategy but the pace was so slow."

Both Massa and Bottas have also had problems with the medium-compound tyres at times in the opening races. Massa had issues in Bahrain, and after the Chinese Grand Prix, Bottas said, "The beginning of the race was looking alright, the pace was pretty good on the soft tyres, but once I went on to the medium tyre the pace was not there and I was struggling with overall grip," according to a team press release.

The next race is in Sochi, Russia, where Bottas finished third in 2014 and Massa was fourth last year. Williams will need a strong result there if they are to keep in touch with Ferrari and Red Bull. Otherwise, they will find themselves in a battle for fourth place with Toro Rosso, Haas and, perhaps, Force India.

Fourth would still be an impressive result for a team Williams' size, but it will not make them happy—particularly if they don't break through to win their first race since Pastor Maldonado's surprise victory at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix.

There have been several close calls, such as the Austrian Grand Prix in 2014 or the British Grand Prix last year, but the drivers have been let down by conservative strategy calls.

After the 2014 season, Claire Williams described how her father, team founder Frank Williams, reacted to their third-place finish, telling Autosport's Jonathan Noble, "Frank is saying, 'why is everyone celebrating P3? We are here to win!'"

At the end of last season, Claire Williams was confident her team could continue to beat better-funded teams on a regular basis, according to BBC Radio pundit James Allen, writing on his personal website

Williams now need to readjust their expectations. The championship is clearly out of reach, and even a race win will require opportunistic and bold strategy, along with a bit of luck. The team's goal should now be to stay ahead of the other midfield teams and challenge those ahead of them on the tracks that suit the FW38, Williams' 2016 car.

It might be the best an independent customer team can hope for in the current world of F1.

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