EDITORIAL: Williams’ Bad Decision

Photo: Williams F1

By Jadran Mandekic

Recently two former Williams employees came out in interviews and mentioned a mysterious and specific “bad decision” (or a series of decisions) that contributed to the team’s current difficult state.

The employees in question are the team’s former driver Lance Stroll and former Head of Vehicle Performance Rob Smedley. Their statements came as a reaction to the team’s worst start to a season in its history. After 7 races Williams is anchored firmly at the bottom of the championship standings with zero points to its name.

The Interviews

Stroll, who drove for the team in 2017 and 2018, gave an interview to Canadian La Presse newspaper mentioning Williams’ current state.

“It’s difficult for them,” said Stroll.

“I spent two seasons there. F1 is a very difficult environment. All the pieces have to work together for the results to be there and sometimes it only takes one bad decision for everything to fall apart.

“It’s a bit like what happened there, although I can’t really say more.”

Smedley, who joined Williams in 2014 and continued with the team until the end of 2018, when he left citing personal reasons, also gave his opinion on Williams’ situation in an interview with Motorsport Magazine.

“The team clearly needed a lot of work,” said Smedley.

“We instilled lots of new engineering practices, but the next part of the journey was R&D investment and that never happened.

“If you want to be a true constructor, you have to have that level of investment or you’ll be left behind, regardless of how good your people might be.

“I don’t want to talk about particular individuals, but it’s clear some bad decisions have been taken for the team to be in its current position.”

Both mention an exact decision (or a series of decisions) and both don’t want to go into any details on who made them or what they were. Now, one could dismiss these statements as just former employees being bitter about how they were treated by the team, if it wasn’t for Deputy Team Principal Claire Williams mentioning something very similar in her April interview with French magazine Auto Hebdo.

According to Williams, there was a crucial bad decision made while the team was in the middle of their resurgence in 2014 and 2015.

“In order to preserve our results and even make progress, we changed something in the internal structure and it turned out to be a mistake,” said Williams.

“It was my initiative and I admit my guilt.

“Believe me, we are not hiding our heads in the sand. We know where we are and what you need in order to win. But it’s a long process.”

Some have speculated that the problems started when the team’s former Chief Technical Officer Paddy Lowe joined the team in 2017. It was under his technical leadership that the team had some of its worst results in history. The first car designed under his watch, 2018’s FW41, was considered to be fundamentally flawed, which led to the team finishing last in the championship. Problems continued in 2019 when the FW42 arrived late to pre-season testing and turned out to be far off the pace of other teams.

Just ahead of the first race of the season, Williams announced that Lowe would be taking an indefinite “leave of absence”, which is considered to be code for ‘he was sacked’. Auto Hebdo asked Williams to comment on the reasons for Lowe’s departure, but she declined to give any specifics.

“I don’t want to answer that question at the moment,” Williams said.

“It’s very difficult for me to talk about Paddy and his role in this.”

So, it’s obvious that some very specific “bad decisions” have been made and they led to the team’s current state. It’s just as obvious that everyone is hesitant to say exactly what those decisions were. So if most of Williams’ current troubles can be traced back to this one crucial decision or a series of decisions, the obvious questions are ‘what the decision was’ and ‘who made it’?

The decision

From what we know so far, it’s reasonable to assume that the decision was made by Williams herself. Based on her own words we can conclude the decision had to do with the team’s internal structure. While we can’t be sure what it concerned exactly, there are a few options that present themselves.

  1. Paddy Lowe

This one is obvious. When talking about the change she made Claire mentioned how it was “difficult” for her to talk about Paddy Lowe and “his role in this”. She did say that the change was made around 2014, 2015 and Lowe arrived in 2017, but it’s not inconceivable that Williams had discussions with Lowe as early as 2015. Perhaps it was at that point that Williams, on advice from Lowe, decided to make this “change” that depended on Lowe’s future engagement with the team. When Rob Smedley left Williams, there was some speculation that a disagreement with Lowe led to his departure. Although this was never confirmed, it’s possible that Williams had an opportunity to go in a direction suggested by Smedley or the one suggested by Lowe. If this was the case, we know what her choice ultimately was.

  1. The “R&D investment that never happened”

Rob Smedley said that following his arrival the team managed to instill “lots of new engineering practices” and the next step of the team’s development was supposed to include a significant “R&D investment” that Claire Williams ultimately decided not to make. This option is not necessarily separate from the first one, since it could be that Lowe’s development philosophy went in a different direction, one that Williams decided to take and one that ultimately turned out to be the wrong choice. When Smedley joined Williams in 2014 Williams had one of its most successful seasons in years and finished third in the championship. Success continued in 2015, but just a year later the decline started, possibly after an alternative development route was taken.

  1. Something else entirely

It’s possible that Stroll, Smedley and Williams all have a different opinion on what actually went wrong with the team. They could be talking about different things, so it’s possible that it was not just a single decision concerning a single area of the team’s structure that led to its inevitable decline, but a series of interconnected and separate decisions that together disrupted the team’s successful operation. After all such a rapid decline is never due to a single action, but a series of wrong moves that ultimately result in a breakdown of key processes within an organization.

The way out

In the end, is there a way out of this mess? As an outsider I’d be lying if I said I knew where the true problem lies, so it’s impossible to provide an informed answer to this question. However, common sense tells us that if the team managed to pinpoint all of the areas that led to its decline, a slow process toward recovery can begin. And I put emphasis on the word “slow”. It would be a mistake to go for quick fixes, as those usually lead to even more problems down the line. What is needed is a calm, collected and focused effort on building up the team’s structure and then hopefully capitalizing on major regulation changes that are due to arrive in 2021.

I for one would be happy if we see just glimpses of progress each year. I don’t mind waiting a few years if it means the team will be able to embark on a longer period of sustained success. Even finishing last in every race in 2019 is not necessarily a bad thing if in the background the team is building a foundation that will help them find a way out.

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