Team boss Jost Capito believes Williams’s recent progress now makes it an attractive destination for Formula 1 drivers should it need to find a replacement for George Russell next season.
Russell’s current contract with Williams expires at the end of this year and he is a strong contender for a Mercedes seat, with both Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton not yet confirmed for 2022.
If Russell does not get the call, Capito is confident he will stay on, although there is every chance the team will need to find a successor as part of what could be an all-new line-up next year.
“George’s three-year contract ends at the end of the year, so he’s free at the end of the year,” said Capito.
“At the moment, he likes being with Williams, he likes working with us, he sees where the team is going, he sees the changes we are making, the approach we are taking and he is very supportive and positive.
“Of course, if he would get the chance to get in the Mercedes, he would be stupid not to do it but if he doesn’t get the chance, I think he would be quite happy to stay at Williams.”
Capito insists Williams is not in a rush to sign up drivers for next season, especially given Russell’s future is still unconfirmed.
But with Williams showing improved form this year, with Russell running eighth on merit in the Styrian Grand Prix before a loss of air in the pneumatic system led to an early pitstop and then retirement, Capito is confident it will be able to find a suitable replacement if Russell does move on.
“It gets more and more obvious, the changes we have done and the support we get from the owners,” said Capito.
“The more that comes through and the more that people see it, we are becoming a better and better option for drivers.
“I can imagine everyone from the good drivers who is free at the end of the year will contact us and would like to be part of the recovery of Williams. The longer it takes [to decide on Russell] the better it is for us.”
So what would the driver options be for a possible post-Russell Williams line-up from 2022 onwards?
If Russell isn’t at Williams, it’s likely because he’s taken Bottas’s place at Mercedes. If that’s the case, bringing back a driver who raced for the team from 2013-2016 would be both logical and hugely beneficial.
Not only is Bottas a very good grand prix driver, albeit one who has suffered the misfortune of being compared directly to an all-time great for the past four-and-a-half seasons, but he would also bring vast experience of how F1’s pre-eminent team of recent years operates. This would make him the ideal focal point for Williams long-term, and his arrival would be a real statement of intent.
Provided, of course, a driver who will still only be 32 at the start of next season has the desire to race on in F1.
It’s difficult to see Gasly entertaining the idea of turning his back on Red Bull and an AlphaTauri team that’s performing well to take on the challenge at Williams. But given his history with Red Bull’s main team, it would make sense for Williams at least to ask the question.
Gasly is a proven performer – and race winner – in F1’s midfield who has evolved as a driver since his Red Bull a-team struggles and is rightly confident in his own ability.
His experience with Red Bull and AlphaTauri would also be of use to Williams, which could also depend on his capacity to perform consistently well provided the machinery is up to it.
Gasly recently said his future is in Red Bull’s hands, but things are still up in the air for next year.
It’s almost impossible to see Williams being able to sell him on the project, let alone Red Bull letting him go, but it’s worth an approach just in case.
The ex-Red Bull driver has plenty of experience and remains in the F1 fold with Alpine and, on his day, is capable of producing some strong performances.
The trouble is, those days haven’t come often enough throughout his F1 career.
For a team like Williams, a driver with over 100 starts and three podium finishes on his CV is appealing if it can’t land one of the top options mentioned above. Kvyat also brings plenty of knowledge from the Red Bull teams and Alpine, as well as a genuine determination to reignite his F1 career.
It’s often taken as a given Latifi will stay on at Williams given the huge amount of cash he brings to the team, which is reckoned to work out at around £20million. But his F1 future is up in the air.
While he’s proved capable enough during his season-and-a-half in F1, he’s not able to deliver at Russell’s level and if Williams is serious about its ambitions then Latifi going into 2022 as its effective leader is not an option.
And on the same basis, whether he would be the right choice for the second seat even with significant backing – should it be forthcoming – is also debatable. If the priority is performance, there are better options out there.
But Latifi is a well-liked character with a professional approach who knows the team well and still has time to take another step this year – particularly when it comes to qualifying. And he has shown genuine flashes of promise over the past 18 months. So he remains an option.
Williams will need an experienced lead driver next year if Russell isn’t around and if it can’t land one of the bigger names already mentioned, Nico Hulkenberg is the leading contender among the experienced hands on the F1 sidelines.
He’ll be 34 next season, so combines plenty of F1 experience with the potential for a good medium-term future as Williams looks for a team to build around. He also played a key part at Enstone as it built up under Renault, during which time he also produced some strong performances on track.
Hulkenberg has always been a very fast driver, but perhaps one not ideally suited to the direction F1 has taken over the past decade. But if next year’s tyres allow drivers to push more thanks to being less temperature sensitive, that could suit his skillset very well.
There are other options with experience knocking around. Ex-Haas drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen have plenty of experience, but would take some persuading to turn their backs on their new careers given both have made excellent starts. There are also options like Alex Albon, currently on the bench for Red Bull, but he would be a risky recruit despite his experience.
GUAN YU ZHOU
The Formula 2 points leader could well end the season as champion and has the added appeal of potentially opening the door to the lucrative Chinese market that F1 has eyed covetously but with only mixed success in recent times.
As a rookie, he’s not an option as team leader but could be a very appealing alternative to Latifi as a second driver with a potential financial upside. And while Zhou hasn’t established himself in the potential megastar bracket, he is clear a driver with genuine ability who will deserve a crack at grand prix racing should he prevail in F2.
But he is Alpine aligned and despite rumours of a Williams tie-up with Renault, it has a long-term deal with Mercedes that it is unlikely to turn its back on. But that doesn’t mean that some kind of deal can be struck, especially with Alpine needing to find a way to get a successful junior on the grid if its academy scheme is going to have purpose.
Fellow Alpine junior Oscar Piastri, currently second in F2, is an option for a similar reason and, in his first F2 season, is arguably a driver with a bigger upside than Zhou and therefore also worth considering.
The former Red Bull driver’s reputation inescapably precedes him but he is also a driver who has serious pace – and the advantage of being a Williams development driver. He would be a gamble, but one that could pay off. After all, you don’t win the Macau Grand Prix twice without being a seriously quick driver.
He’s another whose lack of F1 experience means he’s only an option as a team-mate to an experienced and proven team leader, but Williams will know plenty about him from his simulator work so he will have had ample opportunity to state his case.
A rank outsider, but being on Williams’s books means he’s got his foot in the door. He needs to deliver consistently in F2 this season, though.
Jack Aitken, who is a Williams test driver and did a good job as a fill-in for Russell at last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix, would also be in the mix – although also as a second driver rather than an experienced leader.