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The Fall of Williams: From Height To Ruins

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic that caused the cancellation and postponement of many races of 2020 season, two announcements alarmed the sports media. One of them was the dismissal of Sebastian Vettel from Ferrari. The other is related to the severe financial crisis that affects Williams. Champion in the past, the British team led by Claire Williams underwent many bad management periods that culminated in a potential bankruptcy. Amid so much speculation, we will unravel the reasons that brought Williams to the current situation.

 

1- Origins: from Lady Virginia’s love to the first crisis

 

Williams’s origins come from two loves: the one of Virginia Berry for Frank Williams and his for cars. Came from a humble family, Frank joined a group of wealthy friends who loved races. To earn some money, he worked buying and selling car parts. With this, he founded Frank Williams Racing Cars in 1966 and entered the automobile market, selling cars to drivers from diverse countries, manly Italians. In the following year, he met Virginia, a wealthy but married woman. Both started a relationship and she got divorced from her husband to be with Frank. After participating in some Formula Three rounds, being known by his dangerous and risky way of drive, Frank turned Frank Williams Racing Cars in a Formula One team, having Piers Courage as the main driver.

 

Piers Courage, Frank Williams’ trusted driver. (Photo: nobresdogrid.com.br) [1]

 

However, in 1970, Courage died in a tragic accident at the Dutch Grand Prix. His death got Frank Williams very sad. In the following years, being renamed as Williams FW by 1973, the team’s performance fell drastically, being criticized by the press. Its cars were made with second-hand materials due to the team’s low budget. Virginia, with whom Frank officially married in 1974, made a lot of sacrifices to keep the team, including selling her apartment. However, as Williams family as the team experienced misery days. With poor structure, the cars did not reach good results, then Formula One paid a low amount of money to the team. Consequently, there were not many resources to invest in cars’ improvement. Deep in debt, Frank had no choices unless to accept the offer of oil magnate Walter Wolf and sell 60% of the team in 1976. At the end of that year, Wolf removed Frank from administration and bought his part, renaming the team as Walter Wolf Racing.

 

Walter Wolf: the first investor to resolve a Williams’ crisis. (Photo: reporter.si) [2]

 

2- Restart: Patrick Head and the new Williams

 

In 1977, Frank Williams signed with Belgian brewery Belle Vue, sponsor of driver Patrick Nève, and founded with Patrick Head the Williams Grand Prix Engineering Limited. Engineer, Head was one of the responsible for the technological advance that allowed Williams’ rebirth. The teams’ first year was not very encouraging, ending the season without points. However, better times were coming.

In the following year, Alan Jones got Williams’ first podium, with a third-place at United States Grand Prix. Five round later, at Great Britain, his teammate Clay Regazzoni guaranteed the first victory of the team’s history. Jones was victorious in Germany, Austria, Netherlands, and Canada and Regazzoni got podiums in Italy and Canada, ending both races in third place. Scoring 75 points, Williams became runner-up in the constructors’ championship, staying 38 behind first-place Ferrari.

 

Alan Jones: Williams’ first champion. (Photo: Motorsport) [3]

 

The ’80s marked Williams’ domain in Formula One. Having Alan Jones and Carlos Reutemann in 1980, the team won for the first time as the drivers’ championship ad the constructors one. Jones was champion and Reutemann was third-place. In the following year, the team was again constructors champion, with its drivers scoring together 95 points (49 from Reutemann, runner-up, and 46 from Jones, third-place). In 1982, Keke Rosberg replaced Jones e became champion with 44 points. Getting six podiums, Rosberg was known as “one-victory champion”, as the only race he won that year was the Swiss Grand Prix, but his constancy in scoring guaranteed the title. Williams was fourth place in constructors’ championship, repeating the placement the following year when Jacques Laffite replaced Reutemann.

Ending sixth in 1984 and third 1985, Williams returned to win constructors championship in 1986, having Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet (two-time champion with Brabham in 1981 and 1983) as its drivers. Mansell ended the season as runner-up and Piquet was third-place. The following year, the Brazilian was champion and British was the runner-up. Williams conquered its fourth constructors’ championship. The team ended the decade with a seventh-place in 1988 and a second-place in 1989.

 

Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet: highlights in Williams’ golden age. (Photo: Esportes em Ação) [4]

 

3- Frank’s accident and the rise of Claire

 

On March 8th, 1986, Frank Williams suffered a severe car accident in France, becoming a quadriplegic. However, he kept active as the team’s director. The team repeated success in the ’90s, winning constructors championship in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1996, and 1997, and drivers championship in 1992 (with Nigel Mansell), 1993 (with Alain Prost), 1996 (with Damon Hill), and 1997 (with Jacques Villeneuve). In 1994, the team suffered a big loss: Ayrton Senna died in an accident at San Marino Grand Prix.

Father of Jonathan, Claire, and Jaime, Frank did not trust his children to rule the team, but his daughter always had an interest in the family business. Joining the communication department in 2002, Claire took the sector’s highest post eight years later. In 2012, Frank abdicated the function of team principal and Claire took office the following year, remaining until nowadays. She is also responsible for departments of marketing, communication, and the commercial business of Williams. Her brother Jonathan also works in the team. Ele played management roles until the rise of Claire.

 

Claire Williams: funders’ daughter and current team’s CEO. (Photo: Pinterest) [5]

 

4- The second crisis: Toto Wolff saves the team

 

At the beginning of the 2000s, Williams kept itself in a good position among the constructors, ending third-place in 2000 and 2001, and second-place in 2002 and 2003. After 2004, the team’s performance was going down, varying between fourth and eight-place until 2009. During this period, at least one driver left Williams by year. Among better-known names of the team in that decade stand out Juan Pablo Montoya, Mark Webber, and Nico Rosberg.

It was clear there was something wrong with the team. The agreements with engine suppliers Cosworth (2006) and Toyota (2007-2009) had not to yield good results. Earning less than in glory times, Williams had not enough resources to good upgrades in carr. However, in 2009, entrepreneur Toto Wolff bought some of the team’s shares and started to integrate its board of directors. It was the perfect opportunity to get out of the crisis.

 

Toto Wolff: Williams’ second savior. (Photo: EsporteNET) [6]

 

In 2010, deluded Toyota, Williams returned to use Cosworth engines, signing a long-term agreement. However, without good results, the  partnership ended the following year. In 2012, the team started to use Renault engines, but performance kept well below the expected. In that same year, Pastor Maldonado guaranteed the last Williams’ victory until nowadays, at Spanish Grand Prix. Toto Wolff was named executive director, and his wife Susie was hired as a test driver. Williams had the opportunity of having officially the first woman in Formula One since Desiré Wilson, who drove in 1980. However, internal barriers impeded the realization of this fact, as well as necessary changes in the engineering department. With this, Williams varied between sixth and ninth-place among the constructors between 2010 and 2013.

 

Pastor Maldonado’s win at 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, the last of Williams. (Photo: CarsNB.com) [7]

 

5- Wolff’s exit and third crisis: Lawrence Stroll saves the team

 

In 2013, seeing himself with tied hands, Toto Wolff sold his shares in Williams and joined Mercedes, buying 30% of the team’s shares. Claire Williams took office as team principal and management positions. In the following year began the German team’s domain in Formula One that remains until nowadays. In 2014 and 2015, counting with Mercedes engines, Williams got back to the constructors’ podium, ending third-place. However, the team’s financial administration still had problems. Risking to close after the 2016 season, which ended fifth-place, the team needed more investments. Among its drivers, Felipe Massa announced his retirement at the end of that year, Valtteri Bottas remained in the team.

Still, in 2016, garment entrepreneur Lawrence Stroll, father of that year European Formula Three champion Lance Stroll, announced he would invest in Williams. Lance replaced Massa. However, with Nico Rosberg’s retirement, Wolff called Bottas, his patronized, to replace him at Mercedes. To complete the transference, Frank Williams’ daughter required Paddy Lowe back to the team, and he took the engineering department. According to Massa’s reports, Claire phoned him at Christman to go back to the team to replace the Finnish driver.

 

Lance Stroll and his father Lawrence, Williams’s third savior. (Photo: F1Sport.it) [8]

 

In 2017, Williams had a medium start. Massa got reasonable scores and Stroll faced difficulties, with mechanical failures in the first race and accidents caused respectively by Sergio Pérez and Carlos Sainz Jr in the following ones. The media started to attack the Canadian driver, blaming him for the team’s problems. Even before the season starts, during tests in Barcelona, Claire dared to blame Stroll’s crashes for the cancelation of one of the teams’ tests, which incited furious supporters to attack the young driver at social networks in a coward, unfair way. Lowe always criticized him in the press. At the same time, the same media that was delighted with a woman as a team principal did not have the same reaction with the debut of an Amerindian driver at the category. However, at Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Stroll had the only podium of the team and Williams’ last until nowadays, with a third-place. With this result, the team jumped to the fifth-place of the championship, earning a better bonus than the previous year.

 

Lance Stroll’s podium at the 2017 Azerbaijan Grand Prix: Williams’s last one. (Photo: Formula 1) [9]

 

Unfortunately, Stroll’s contribution to the team was not properly recognized. In 2018, after Massa’s definitive retirement, Williams hired Sergey Sirotkin to replace him. Even with the entry of one more sponsor, Russian bank SMP, the engineering department did not know how to convert the investment in upgrades in the car. Consequently, both drivers had much difficulty in scoring. Exonerating the engineers of any guilt for the bad performance of the cars, media returned to attack Stroll. Some journalists ignored journalistic ethics (taught at college) and dared to use liable-to-prosecute-terms as “questionable talent drivers”, ignoring Stroll’s achievements in the previous year and championships precedent to his debut in Formula One, and disregarding Sirotkin’s lack of experience. Media simply “forgot” that who makes the cars are the engineers, not the drivers, the team’s budget comes from sponsors (so investors are always welcome), and journalists used the argumentum ad hominem fallacy to attack the drivers and acquit Claire Williams and Paddy Lowe (see 11th item of bibliography).

 

Paddy Lowe, Williams’ technical director from 2017 to 2019. (Photo: Jornal Cruzeiro do Sul) [10]

 

6- Stroll’s exit and fourth crisis: masks start to fall

 

In mid-2018, Lawrence Stroll set up a consortium of investors and bought Force India team, whose owner Vijay Mallya was wanted by Indian authorities for alleged corruption. Even aware of the difficulties faced by his son with a nothing competitive car and of his crucifixion by media, Lawrence kept Lance in Williams until the end of the year. The Canadian driver moved to the new team, renamed Racing Point, the following year (see Understand the Esteban Ocon case).

With Stroll out of the team, Williams lost its biggest scapegoat. The critics, believing the Canadian entrepreneur and his son were to blame for the team’s crisis, trusted that the new hirings would bring the team back to its golden age. However, with Stroll’s exit, Williams had the worst performance ever. Robert Kubica was the only one to score, making one point at German Grand Prix. George Russell, Toto Wolff’s sponsored, finished season without points. However, no media organ called him “pay driver”, even came from a wealthy family and not having chances to justify investment in his work, generating suspects of racism by media (see The Lance Stroll Case: An Amerindian in Formula One).

 

George Russell: European White, he is not criticized by media even being unable to score. (Photo: AutoSport) [11]

 

Enduring in the last position of the championship with the lower bonus of its history, Williams found itself back in a severe crisis. Shortly at the beginning of 2019, seeing media now could not blame Stroll anymore and that Russell and Kubica could not get out of the last places, Lowe asked to exit from his functions claiming personal reasons. The engineering department kept failing at its job, being the most notable case the delay in months of Kubica’s adapted steering wheel. Finally, the pressure fell into Claire. Kubica was fired at the end of the year and Nicholas Latifi, Canadian driver of Iranian descent, was chosen as his substitute. Latifi had not even debut and some fans accused him of being a pay driver and made xenophobic offenses against Canada. There was even no statement of Williams about this.

 

Nicholas Latifi: had not debuted yet and furious fans already blamed him for Williams’ fourth crisis. (Photo: tomadadetempo.com) [12]

 

In 2020, amid the paralyzation of the teams’ activities due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Claire admitted that possibility of the total sale of Williams. Toto Wolff acquired 5% of the team’s shares in June.

 

7- After all, who is to blame?

 

Differently of what some journalists tried to instill at fans’ heads, Williams’ crisis’ fault is NOT Lawrence Stroll’s, even less Lance Stroll’s, and nor of any other investor or driver to whom the media dishonestly name as “pay driver”. No one is to blame except Claire Williams herself. For being the daughter of the team’s founder and its gestor, Claire should manage the financial part better to ensure control in her hands. However, excessive spending that was not converted into results on track let the team depend on extern investments. Now, if William’s problem was money, how can it be possible to blame who put money on its cash? Toto Wolff and Lawrence Stroll did nothing but to HELP the British team at the moment it most needed support. Drivers and investors do not make cars, engineers do, and engineering department led by Paddy Lowe had money enough to develop a good project, but failed considerably.

The fact of Lance being the son of Lawrence means absolutely nothing at the subject of Williams’ financial crisis. The Amerindian driver’s participation guaranteed to the team the fifth-place at the constructors’ championship in 2017 due to his third-place at Azerbaijan Grand Prix, justifying his father’s investment on the team. It is obvious that the car’s performance is the engineer’s responsibility and financial control if for the team owners, but many people do not see it and, by ignorance of lack of character, blame Stroll. The media’s insistence in blaming him by all the problems that happen in current Formula One, since internal issues of the teams until the ones of the category as a whole, reflects two phenomena that follow the history of mankind and were responsible for the biggest tragedies.

 

 

This Einstein quote says a lot about the way the media treats Lance Stroll. (Photo: GoodReads) [13]

 

One of them is antisemitism, as powerful groups always tried to blame Jews for the world’s misfortunes and do until now. As current society is more conscious of the problem of discrimination, media just accuses Stroll and omits his ethnic origins (the reason for the persecution) to not taking risk of being retaliated by public opinion. Some fans accept the speech because they go along with these ideas, others are easily fooled, reflecting what was previewed by Theodor Adorno in the 20th century: some people accept passively everything the media says, without questioning anything. In the 21st century, Ben Shapiro proved the existence of this face of media, noting that it ignores the facts and shows the narrative as it wished to fulfill its agenda.

The other phenomenon is structural racism. Even with good financial conditions, Lance Stroll still belongs to minority groups (as he is Jewish and Amerindian), and media will tend to favor historically privileged groups (Europeans and Whites). With this, proving Shapiro’s analysis, it ignores Claire William’s management incompetence to blame Stroll, even without arguments and proofs. Its speech ends prevailing because many fans do not want to think, as it is more comfortable to accept what is said without checking the facts. For some people, it can seem absurd that racial questions are made in Formula One’s context, mainly in the case of a team’s bankruptcy. However, it is humanly impossible to ignore the unhealthy, unfair persecution the media and some fans do with Lance Stroll e the reasons must indeed be unmasked.

 

8- Conclusion

 

Williams’ bad financial management put the team in four crises throughout its history. Even with good investments and sponsorship, the engineering department failed successively to upgrade the car for the drivers could fight for good positions and put the team back to the top of the championship. The media preferred to blame who was helping instead of the responsible ones for the car’s inefficiency. The hostile internal atmosphere keeps the team from potential investors, under the fear of facing barriers on decisions (and if they belong to an ethnic minority, they take the risk of being crucified by the press and fans and blamed by issues out of their responsibility). Then, for Williams, there is just the sale of the team or learn with its pasts and make a radical change in its attitude.

 

Williams’ problem: always bites the hand that feeds it. [14]

 

Update: On March 21th, 2020, it was announced that Williams was sold to the American company Dorilton Capital.

 

9- Bibliography

 

 

10- Photos

Note: None of the photos used in this article, except the montage, belongs to me. This site has informative intentions, not commercial. The links where I took the photos are indicated below. All copyrights reserved.