12 March 2019
Thoughts on arrival in Melbourne
So, the winter is done and the 100 Fascinating Facts are finished. There wasn't much time off and so I guess I must try harder this year to get some done during the season, in order to earn myself some time off next winter. Not sure when Volume 3 will be published (maybe around the British GP), but I will probably bundle it with the other two and might even sell some autographed copies as this seems to be something some people want.
Anyway, here I am in Melbourne, I arrived at 06.00am and now sitting around in the Business Centre where I stay, waiting for a room to be ready and then I may take a little turn around downtown, because it is such a great city. Then it will be time to pick up the pass and have a bit of a gossip if anyone is about. This evening there is the F1 launch event for the fans in Federation Square and then a McLaren BBQ, so it will keep me busy until I keel over tonight.
Still, it's back to normal blogging now and while there have been a few interesting stories over the winter, the only one I feel I perhaps should have written more about was the state of Williams, but when that was all happening I was up to my neck in other work and wasn't able to invest the time.
I am a dyed-in-the-wool Williams fan and I hate seeing what is happening to the team today. It actually pains me. My first Grand Prix as a spectator was the team's first victory back in 1979 and I gradually got to know everyone involved from the mid-Eighties onwards. I was very close to FW, one of the most inspiring people in F1, and Sir Patrick is a wonderful voice of reality, although a little more muted these days. I was also a huge fan of Ginny, Lady Williams, who wrote the best book I ever read about F1 (A Different Kind of Life) and who was so important in the way the team developed. I'm very glad that her role has been highlighted by the recent documentary about the team. What has happened in recent years is incredibly sad. Frank had at least three succession plans that all went wrong, the first as long ago as 2005 when Chris Chapple was appointed CEO. In 2006 Adam Parr arrived, a very clever man, but he made important enemies early on (read Bernie Ecclestone) and in 2012 he was thrown out with FW getting nudged to make the move (so they say) by Mr E, when there were discussions about Williams getting an annual historic payment. And then, of course, there was Toto Wolff, who arrived as a shareholder and ran the team for a bit before being lured away (how could he refuse such a deal?) by Mercedes.
Paddy Lowe, the chief technical officer, is a very clever engineer but being a clever engineer does not necessarily mean you are a great leader. It is something we have seen over and over in F1 history. Leadership is about more than brain power. In any case he is now on "a leave of absence” from the team “for personal reasons”, which is an explanation which simply draws more attention to the situation because it is so clearly corporate gobbledygook. It has been known for some time that Lowe's complicated deal with the team, including share options and (so they say) massive compensation if he was to depart, was getting in the way. Some say that Williams could not afford to part ways with him, which would explain the leave of absence, which means that he has not actually left the team, but is no longer actually involved, which in turn means that the parties can now negotiate/take legal action, without it impacting on the day-to-day life of the team. In any case, no-one in F1 is expecting Lowe to return from his leave of absence. One can, of course, blame him for failing to produce a good enough car for two consecutive seasons, with different design teams.
The 2019 car, if nothing else, does not seem to have any fundamental flaws, apart from the fact that it was late arriving and so is far behind its rivals in terms of development. There is talk of insufficient money but when you do the numbers, while Williams has lost a lot of revenues of late, because of the poor results, it still seems to have had a bigger budget than direct rival Force India/Racing Point, which has produced much better results, despite going through a period of administration and having facilities that are far less impressive than those at Grove. If money is short at Williams, then there will likely be a big crisis this year. I hope not.
There are some who argue that if a team has two consecutive bad cars, then the management must be questioned because the fault lies in the choice of technical director, as well as with the technical director himself. I would phrase it slightly differently: I would replace the word "management", with the word "leadership". They are not the same thing at all. If one looks at Sauber, one can say that Fred Vasseur did a terrific job to revive the Swiss team. I don't disagree with that in some respects, but I think that the thing that got the team's staff willing to go the extra mile was having Charles Leclerc driving. He was an engine for progress (not the only one, but an important one nonetheless). This year they have a bigger budget and have hired some good people and we will see if the progress is sustained. It will be interesting. Racing teams succeed through good leadership, even if they have small budgets. That is the key. Leadership usually begins with the shareholders but can be provided by the management, the leading engineer or even a driver, but it has to be something that allows people to do their jobs and inspires them at the same time. If the ownership will not let its managers operate then the team will fail. It's to do with respect more than anything. If one sees what Gunther and Otmar do with the teams they manage, you see how it works, on small budgets.
The thing that slightly alarms me is that there will come a point at which Mercedes will need to decide whether to continue with Williams and might conclude that it could be a better idea to go with McLaren... I understand that Williams does not wish to become a satellite team of a big manufacturer, but if you cannot hack it with the big boys, this is the best strategic choice. That might be difficult for Team Willy to accept, given its history, but it might also be the best path to survive. All the customer teams have the dream of one day picking up a manufacturer of their own, but this is hard to do. I believe that if F1 cuts its costs and stays with the same brilliant engines (and does more to promote the astonishing achievements of recent years), the groundwork will be laid for more manufacturers to get involved. As the engines develop, the law of diminishing returns kicks in, which means that newcomers can catch up more easily... Changes to the engine rules simply spreads the field out and pushes up the budgets...