F1’s newest ‘big team in crisis’ facing a ‘big, big challenge’ to return

Thomas Maher
Lando Norris, McLaren, winning the 2024 Miami Grand Prix.

McLaren have climbed the mountain to win again in F1, but can Williams follow suit?

Williams is facing a “big, big challenge” to achieve what McLaren has done and climb back to the front of F1 where the Grove-based squad once dominated.

Throughout the 1990s, Williams was the eminent force in F1 as the Adrian Newey and Patrick Head-penned FW cars won numerous titles until their run came to an end after 1997. Aside from a few more winning years with BMW power in the early 2000s, the last two decades have been tough for Williams, but the building blocks for a resurgence are now in place.

Thierry Boutsen: Major teams have crises, and it requires change

Three-time F1 Grand Prix winner, Thierry Boutsen, drove for Frank Williams’ eponymous team in 1989 and ’90, winning all of his races during that time.

Coming just before the arrival of Newey and the team’s surge forward to dominate in 1992, Boutsen believes the pieces are now being put in place by Williams’ team boss James Vowles to build for a brighter future.

Since the Williams team last won a race, courtesy of Pastor Maldonado in 2012, the once-dominant outfit slumped to become the slowest team on the grid – not helped by ailing infrastructure and finances.

It led to the Williams family selling their beloved team to US investment company Dorilton Capital in 2020, with several steps made in the years since to start the rebuilding process.

After the sudden departure of former team boss Jost Capito and technical director F.X. Demaison after 2022, Williams appointed former Mercedes’ chief strategist James Vowles.

Thrust into his first team boss role, Vowles has begun the process of identifying the team’s weaknesses in personnel and infrastructure and has set about improving them. Helping him has been a successful lobby – with Vowles as the loudest voice – to allow the lowest-placed teams in the championship to invest more on capital expenditure to improve their facilities, without it coming out of the operational budget cap.

It’s not that long ago since both behemoth British teams – Williams and McLaren – had strikingly similar fortunes, having slumped to the lower midfield. McLaren, through the mid-2010s, had haemorrhaged sponsors and money and became a laughing stock due to their ill-fated partnership with Honda.

Both McLaren and Williams were in danger of becoming obsolete, ageing dinosaurs that once conquered the world but had been usurped by younger and fresher outfits like Mercedes and Red Bull.

But an intense rebuilding process overseen by CEO Zak Brown, which included the efforts of former team boss Andreas Seidl and current team boss Andrea Stella, finally culminated in a McLaren win last weekend in Miami – this one, ‘on merit’ as their main rivals hadn’t retired, unlike what had happened at Monza in 2021.

With McLaren now in rude health, financially as well as sponsorship and performance-wise, and having managed to reach the peak of F1 once again, Boutsen believes Williams faces a long trek to achieve the same.

“It’s very difficult, in a way that it will take time,” he told PlanetF1.com in an exclusive interview.

“In Formula 1, you don’t learn it in a fortnight. You need a lot of time, a lot of years to understand F1 and be able to be strong.

“Major teams have had their crisis, look at McLaren. How many years they were fighting at the back with [Fernando] Alonso and [Stoffel] Vandoorne, these were very difficult years and it went on and on and on. It was very sad for them because they did not deserve to be in that position.

“Now they’re in a better position, but it required a lot of changes inside the team – a lot of investment, capital investment, and development.

“You need the whole team with 1000 people to make it work and these 1000 people need to give 100 percent of themselves and be capable of making the team move forward.

“It’s a big, big, big challenge. If you don’t have this from the 1000 people, if you don’t have everybody giving the best of themselves, it’s even more difficult.

“[Vowles] has got a very, very difficult task in front of him and I wish him all the best to succeed.”

Asked for his thoughts on how he watches his former team’s struggles, particularly in light of their calamitous start to 2024 with several crashes stretching their spare parts stockpile and their manufacturing process to its limits, Boutsen said he finds it disheartening to view.

“It’s very sad,” he said.

“I won races with Williams, and I see how they’re struggling, at the moment, for quite a few years now.

“Williams been there for so many years now, like McLaren, and the engineering side of it is probably not as competitive as it should be, what it was in the past.

“When I see the Williams car, when I see the camera from the cockpit, I say ‘Oh, my God, guys, it’s not nice’.”

More on the latest Williams F1 news

👉 Williams urged to ‘find a solution’ to Logan Sargeant problem with two candidates in the running

👉 ‘Dream team’ F1 ending for Adrian Newey as Williams enter the conversation

Williams sign Pat Fry as chief technical officer

Before his first year at Williams had come to an end, Vowles had landed a major coup as he snaffled Pat Fry away from Alpine to join Grove as chief technical officer.

Fry has only been in his role for six months, and his contributions are now starting to filter through to the car, but it’s in 2025 where the British engineer’s presence will be felt most.

Vowles is full of praise for what Fry is bringing to Williams in these early stages.

“It’s been fantastic having Pat on board,” he said.

“It allows us to really have more than one person having eyes on what issues we have today and where we want to be in one year, three years, and five years from now because that’s the time period required. That’s the plan we set out from the beginning, this isn’t going to be fixed overnight.

“It will be a long journey, and this is what it looks like.

“What Pat is very good at is looking at the long-term future of where we need to get to and then the milestones that we have to hit on the way there. He knows what excellence looks like. He was a part of a number of teams that have clawed themselves back up into a successful position and he knows how to effectively create the foundations to get there.”

McLaren was one of the teams that Fry worked with during their rebuilding process, joining Woking for 2018/19 on a contract basis ahead of the arrival of the now-departed James Key.

Fry then swapped to Renault/Alpine, helping them climb up to fourth in the championship by the end of 2022. As both Vowles and Fry have knowledge of what a leading team needs in order to succeed, Vowles shared what Fry has uncovered.

“We have a lot to do. Day to day, what Pat is looking at is what are we doing in order to make sure that we work from just one car programme to three car programmes?” he said.

“How do we structure ourselves within the design office and also how do we work with operations in order to get the time it takes from an idea to the track reduced significantly?

“What facilities do we need? How do we bring everyone together? What ideas are being captured but not being worked in the right way? How should aero work together with the design office?

“All of these are sort of global questions, long-term and midterm questions that we’re dealing with. His input is invaluable and it’s not what we do necessarily short term – how we bring performance to Imola, for example, but more around how we create structures, processes, and systems that allow us to get more and more performance for every hour that we’re working and that, in turn, have big impacts on what we do with the FW47, 48, and beyond.”

Williams’ 2024 championship has not got off to a good start, and rumours abound that Logan Sargeant could be facing the chopping block if the FIA grants Mercedes junior Kimi Antonelli a super licence dispensation before August.

But, while Williams is one of two teams yet to score a point in the championship, Vowles is adamant that this year’s car is a significant improvement on last year’s FW45 – a car that secured them P7 in the Constructors’ Championship.

“Last year’s car had a very significant front locking problem which, if you hit the brakes just a little bit too hard, you would front lock and miss the apex by a long way,” Vowles explained.

“That doesn’t appear anymore, that’s gone. The track-specificity of the car last year was high, in other words, there were tracks where it performed well and others where it was very poor. This year’s car is actually a lot more balanced across all tracks, but we’re not quick enough.

“In part, that’s a development race that we’ve fallen behind on and we’ll catch that back up over the next few races.

“But also it’s another characteristic of the car that we’re working on. I hope across Imola, Monaco, and Canada, we should be addressing that.

“The other attribute of the car is that we’re struggling a little bit to get a balance between all of the high-speed and low-speed corners as well. So a number of items that we’re working on in the background, but the actual package itself has quite good performance.”

Having secured several new prominent sponsors over the winter, the Vowles-led resurgence of 2023 may have hit a stumbling block over the first six races of 2024 – epitomised by their lack of spare chassis that spoiled their Australian GP weekend – but, when presented with Vowles’ cool logic and unwavering confidence, there’s plenty of hope that Williams can, soon, imitate McLaren’s bounceback and compete near the front once again.

Read Next: Red Bull domination over? Ferrari tease new F1 reality with ‘no more comfort zone’