Williams has clearly found itself between a rock and a very hard place when searching for the best possible driver line-up.
For a team with seven drivers’ championships and 114 Grand Prix victories forming the framework for an illustrious history, it must be difficult facing a new season with two young drivers lacking a decent track record. And even worse when the social media undertone suggests the choice of Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin was predicated on substantial backing.
Claire Williams did not mince her words at last week’s launch of FW41. The deputy team principal, while insisting that performance potential came above the financial bottom line, nevertheless did not shy away from drivers with money being part of F1 reality.
When her father regrouped in 1977 after several years on the breadline and sowed the seed of the Williams team we know today, he gave the drive to Patrick Neve, a young Belgian who had reasonable promise but also enough backing from Belle-Vue to have the brewery’s name plastered all over the front of the red and white March.
On the other hand, when Frank and Patrick Head really got going in 1978 with their own car, FW06, Alan Jones was chosen to drive it even through the Aussie had nothing more to his name than a reputation as a hard worker and an opportune win in the wet for Shadow (their only victory, in fact) in the 1977 Austrian Grand Prix.
The difference was that the crafty Williams had pulled a significant move by being the first to bring Middle East money into F1 with backing from Saudia Airlines and a number of sources the Saudi ruling family had leaned on to lend their support. Frank and Patrick were free to continue to choose drivers on merit – Clay Regazzoni, Carlos Reutemann, Keke Rosberg, to name the next three – as Williams worked assiduously to build his company into a self-contained and proudly independent team.
But you could say that, unwittingly, Williams was making a rod for his own back. With a rise in F1 technology way beyond anything Frank and Patrick would have envisaged 40 years ago, Williams now finds itself running a beast that has become hugely expensive to feed; more than, say Force India, with their modest facilities and outsourcing. Even allowing for Williams Advanced Engineering having successfully diversified into defence and healthcare, it was against this background that the F1 team recently found themselves negotiating for drivers at the lower end of the talent market.
Disappointment over finishing a distant fifth in the championship last year must have been matched by discovering that Robert Kubica was not as quick as everyone, including the man himself, had hoped. Had Kubica’s pace and an ability to adapt to the tyres been evident, it would have answered everyone’s dreams: the sporting comeback story of all time for a genuinely good guy joining a team with a strong engine, a revamped technical department and potential to match great affection among F1 followers.
While the performance correlations and comparisons provided unwanted evidence in respect of Kubica, the numbers stacked up strongly enough in Sirotkin’s favour to prompt a decision that, according to Claire Williams, has a substantial figure from the Russian’s backers as useful side benefit rather than the sole arbiter of choice.
The fact that Williams now has two comparative novices is either unfortunate or potentially exciting, depending on how much the team’s uncomfortable situation governs your thoughts.
The absolute reality will come from the green numbers flicking against the names Stroll and Sirotkin on the timing screens. Only then will it be fair to begin passing judgement on a call that, from this distance, could go either way even though the soft option is to predict a difficult 41st year for such a great name.
Credibility is at stake here. And not just that of the drivers.