22 November 2017

Ruminations on Williams


Joe Saward is a motorsport journalist, primarily covering Formula 1, and has done since 1988. Joe has attended over 500 races and is therefore considered one of a very small group of opinion formers at the very centre of this multi-billion dollar global business.

The Williams team has announced that it wll be running Sergey Sirotkin alongside Robert Kubica in the post-Abu Dhabi testing.

This throws a curve-ball into the theories that Kubica has already signed a deal with the team for 2018. There is no question that the team is interested in the Polish driver, particularly as he seems to have found some financial support from Polish companies, but if Sirotkin is being tried out it suggests that the Russian either has more money than Kubica, or that he is offering a chunk of money for the test, in the hope that it will turn the heads of the Williams management.

On balance, the first explanation seems to make more sense. Sirotkin is currently Third and Reserve Driver with Renault F1, having moved up from the role of Test Driver in 2016, after a strong year in GP2, finishing third behind Prema Racing drivers Pierre Gasly and Antonio Giovinazzi. His position at Renault is obviously eased by funding from SMP Racing, which can be seen on the R.S.17. He has long been funded by SMP, a Russian financial institution owned by Boris and Arkady Rotenberg, a pair of oligarchs who are active in the world of construction, oil industry infrastructure and finance. The two brothers enjoy a large number of government contracts and are close to President Vladimir Putin, which has resulted in Boris being on the list of individuals sanctioned by the US and the EU, following the Ukraine Crisis in 2014. Boris Rotenberg has invested a great deal of money to develop motor racing in Russia, supporting Sirotkin, Mikhail Aleshin and others, while also being active in GT racing. Next year SMP will be running a team of Dallara prototypes in the LMP1 class of the World Endurance Championship. The fact that Sirotkin has been allowed to test for Williams suggests that his time at Enstone is probably coming to a close. The team seems to be looking to Anglo-Korean racer Jack Aitken in the future. He is a member of the Renault Academy and is expected to move into Formula 2 next year. He recently tested a Renault F1-run 2012-spec Lotus E20 at Jerez. Sirotkin has not raced since 2016 and so really needs to get back into a car in 2018 if he is to continue with his ambitions to be a Formula 1 driver.

This would seem to suggest that the choice of the Williams driver for next year is going to be influenced by money. The team gets around $80 million in prize money, with a rumoured $20 million from Martini. There is also a significant sponsorship from Unilever, to promote its Sure and Rexona deodorants and there is no doubt that the Stroll family is also buying space on the car, in order to sell it to fund Lance Stroll’s drive.

Williams has been taking drivers with funding behind them for some time, notably with Pastor Maldonado, hoping to keep up with the bigger teams and waiting in the hope that a manufacturer will come along and partner the team. This could happen when the new engine rules and financial structures are introduced in 2021 and so getting to that point is the key for the team.

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