Williams is poised to end a three-year run as Formula 1’s worst team in quite emphatic fashion this season – but respectability is not enough.
“We want to be world champion again,” CEO Jost Capito tells The Race. “We are absolutely serious about it.”
No legitimate sporting operation should exist simply to participate. ‘Team wants to be good’ is not a unique declaration, and it’s no surprise a team with Williams’s heritage saying that it has bigger dreams than finishing eighth in the championship.
But context is everything. Williams scored zero points in 2020. It lucked into a solitary point in 2019. It had seven in 2018, when it slumped spectacularly from four consecutive podium-scoring seasons to the back of the grid.
This is a team for which survival was the overwhelming priority. Talk about existing just to participate – Williams was simply trying to exist.
To go from that to declaring an aim of being world champion again, and to do so sincerely rather than just stating a generic ambition, speaks volumes for the Williams transformation. It is still in its early stages, but that’s why Williams’s new ambition comes with some serious long-term thinking.
“We think about the next 10 years,” says Capito. “We are looking how does Formula 1 look like in the 30s? And then based on this, we break this down. What does it mean for the next five years? What does it mean for the next two years? And what does it mean until the end of 21?”
A lot can change in 10 years. In that time there will be new power unit rules and probably new manufacturers.
At some point Williams will have the chance to make the same sort of transformational strategic move it did for 2014, when it sided with Mercedes. Perhaps the next crucial decision in its history will be if – or when – it needs to split from Mercedes.
Capito knows that in the short-term Williams’s limiting factor is not its engine supplier. While it has been toiling at the back, Mercedes’ works team has enjoyed unprecedented success. Williams needs to grow into regular point-scoring contention, then podium-challenging contention, and probably even race-winning contention before it can entertain the idea that simply being a customer isn’t enough.
“It is possible, not impossible” to win a title without being a works team, Capito reckons. But there’s a clear hint that Williams may have at least one eye on future partnerships. It has been tipped to link up with one of the Volkswagen Group brands should they enter F1 in 2026 as part of a Red Bull Powertrains tie-up – and Capito knows that world very well, as he spearheaded VW’s World Rally Championship dominance in the first half of the 2010s.
“There are different ways and you have to see what kind of opportunities come up,” says Capito.
“And then you have to have the flexibility to move in one or the other direction.
“You can only do that if you have a proper plan. If you have a 10-year plan, you can have the flexibility short term, as long as you know where you finally want to end up.
“There are always different ways. And from time to time you have to decide which kind of way you take to achieve the overall goal. There is not one way right and the other is wrong.”
Ensuring it is in such a flexible position is part of why Williams is adamant it must retain its independence. One of the major moves so far in the Dorilton era has been to increase its technical alliance with Mercedes and stop developing its own gearbox.
But this isn’t to make it more dependent on Mercedes long-term, it is to allow Williams to spend its resources on the areas it believes will make a bigger difference.
That kind of partnership could easily transition to, for example, an Audi-badged Red Bull Powertrains supply whereby Red Bull Advanced Technologies supplies the gearbox too.
The underlying priority is that Williams retains its core independence. Otherwise, Capito says, “you would never be able to become world champion”.
“As a B-team, you will never be world champion,” he insists.
“And if you make yourself dependent on any other company or any other team, then you will never win the world championship and you will not be credible within the team with having this message.
“With that you give up on being world champion. You just say you want to be part of the show. And that’s it.”
Williams has already proven it intends to plough its own furrow by rejecting Mercedes’ preferred driver Nyck de Vries so it could sign Red Bull’s reserve Alex Albon to replace George Russell for 2022. Capito is aware that sent a message about Williams’s priorities even though it was only a happy secondary consequence.
The irony for Williams is that the three seasons it had Russell, it had no real use for a driver of the Briton’s calibre. And now it’s getting stronger, it’s losing him. Russell is now Mercedes-bound, getting a chance in 2022 that Williams is probably a few years away from offering anyone.
For where Williams will be next season and in the short-term, Albon is an acceptable option. He is not considered a Russell-level driver but Williams believes he will fit very well with what the team wants to achieve.
That’s a view shared by a few people in the paddock, including Albon’s old Red Bull team-mate Max Verstappen, who reckons a less pressured environment will suit Albon.
“I don’t know how the atmosphere is and how they work at Red Bull or another team, I can only speak for how we work,” says Capito.
“And I believe that when you see our drivers now, they really love being at Williams, and we get the best out of them out of both. This is very much how we work with drivers, how we accept them, how we allow them to make mistakes, and how we integrate them in the team.
“They’re not just drivers showing up at the race and then going home on Sunday. They are on the flights with us with the team, they are with us at the airport, they come to the factory, they use the gym in the factory.
“So they are an integral part of the team. And not just some stars who show up on Thursday and go home on Sunday.
“That is very important, that they are fully integrated in the team. And I’m absolutely convinced Alex will do exactly the same and happy to do that.”
Can Albon really be the medium-term option Williams will need to lead the team if its project proceeds down the right path?
“That was one of the main reasons why we’ve chosen him,” insists Capito.
“We wanted to choose a driver who has Formula 1 experience and is still on the way up. If you want to build a team, you need consistency as well. And we see him as a long-term and multi-year part of the team.
“Of course, you always have to see what happens and how it all develops. But the intention is to have him for a long time.”
Albon will be a living embodiment of Williams’s desire to be its own team and make the choices it believes suit it best, rather than following someone else’s command.
That attitude will allow Williams to shape itself for whatever it needs in other departments too while also being transparent. Williams wants to be authentic.
“It’s not just about being owned by anybody, it’s also that we don’t have any influence from outside,” says Capito.
“That enables us to be much more attractive to partners as well. They get what they see, there is not any hidden agenda or hidden interest behind that.
“There is only the agenda in the team to move up the grid and to become world champion. That’s the only agenda that Williams has.
“If that is the only agenda, everybody who joins wants the same. And we are not a marketing tool for anybody. We are here to win races.”
There has been substance to Williams’s new era from the very beginning. Since being bought by Dorilton Capital (through its subsidiary BCE LLC) Williams has had serious capital investment. It has no external debt and the massive reduction in funding suffered because of the coronavirus pandemic was offset by additional funding from the owner. That’s how the company started 2021 with more than £100m in capital and was able to devote time and money to upgrading key infrastructure at Grove that was not fit for purpose.
This sets Williams up to attack F1’s new 2022 technical rules and the seasons beyond by operating at the cost cap, which this year had a base limit of $145m.
Though there are various exceptions to the cost cap that mean F1’s most well-financed teams will be spending more than the base limit, it is a prerequisite for any team with ambition to at least be at the notional limit.
“If you want to be world champion, you have to be at the cost cap,” Capito says.
“And not just this, you have to be the most efficient at the cost cap. So it’s not just how much money you spend, it’s how efficiently you spend the money. I believe that Formula 1 with the cost cap becomes an efficiency race.
“It’s easier to come from a lower part to get to the cost cap. But on the other hand, the teams who could run at much higher than the cost cap, they had more investments in the past, so they have a better infrastructure that they can use. And now they can benefit from this.
“I don’t think the cost cap immediately balances everybody. If everybody would run at the cost cap, it takes a couple of years to get to a balanced situation within all the teams – if that ever happens.
“It’s all about efficiency. You have to be more efficient in everything you do than your competition.”
Until this season it would have been hard to judge how well-placed Williams is to do that. The general consensus has been that it had a sharp race team and had weaknesses back at base.
That was not necessarily the case though and the apparent divide was something Capito was determined to fix. The reshuffle earlier this season, which included the removal of Simon Roberts as team principal, was understood to be partly driven by a need to unify what Capito calls the “home team” and the “track team”.
Capito wants Williams to identify as one single team. That’s why it made a big fuss about its first points finish of the year in Hungary and Russell’s podium in the controversially ‘completed’ Belgian Grand Prix, with big displays back at the factory – “to say thank you to every single employee who comes in”.
This season a more competitive car, consistently strong qualifying performances, clean execution of races and some excellent results born from opportunism all suggest that Williams has made good strides technically and operationally.
In a year Williams has switched from scoring zero points to scoring 22 points, qualifying on the front row in wet conditions and earning a controversial podium as a result, Capito says the thing he’s most excited about “by far” is the behind-the-scenes progress: “How the team works, how all the communication works, how the cooperation is.”
He adds: “It’s clear for everybody the part they play in getting the points or being successful.
“That is the biggest progress we have made, the cooperation between the team. The home team feels part of the race team and knows what they have to deliver and that they are part of the achievements.”
The upshot is Williams has achieved more in the last few months than Capito “would have ever expected”. But there will need to be an awful lot more achieved in the coming years for Williams to be where Capito wants it to be 10 years down the line.
For that to happen, the entire Williams team will need to buy into the vision. Williams has not had a change of ownership like this before but has had plenty of promises and false dawns in the 21st century.
There’s a story from Mercedes of when Toto Wolff joined the team, gave an address at the factory, and afterwards a shop floor worker said to him: ‘Nice speech, but we’ve heard it all before.’ It has come to represent the tendency of F1 teams to overpromise and underdeliver.
Mercedes delivered, though. Capito thinks Williams can, too. But he also thinks people are right to be sceptical. After all, is any of this enough to signal Williams really is taking the first steps down a long path to winning its first title since 1997?
That is far too early to say. But Capito reckons it is convincing those within the team that Williams is at least walking the walk.
“People are critical,” he says. “They have to be critical because they have heard things like this before again and again.
“You have to prove that with actions. And if you don’t prove that with actions, all the words are irrelevant. Then you lose the team very quickly.
“What’s important is what you communicate has to be done, and everybody has to understand where we’re going and why. If that’s the case, then you can make the improvements.
“It’s very important that you communicate authentically and honestly. And you have the same communication internally as you have externally, otherwise everybody gets confused.
“When you communicate internally, it has to be proven and confirmed to everybody in the team, that this is really what we want to do and what we’re going to do.
“If you could ask every employee, they will tell you exactly the same where we want to go because we are united in this. Everybody sees the progress and the support we get from Dorilton and how they let us work.
“That gives everybody the confirmation of what we want to achieve – that we will stay an independent team, that we want to be world champion again, that we are absolutely serious about it.
“That increases so much the motivation, so everybody steps up. I’m absolutely convinced by that.”