McLaren, Williams teams spin their wheels in bid for return to glory
If someone were writing a book about two of the most successful Formula One teams of all-time, the title just might be How the Mighty Have Fallen.
With 19 drivers’ titles and 17 constructors’ championships between them, neither McLaren nor Williams looks anywhere close to reliving their Grand Prix glory days. Neither have won a race since 2012, with Pastor Maldonado taking an unlikely victory in the Spanish Grand Prix that year for Williams and Jenson Button scoring his final win with McLaren at the season finale Brazilian Grand Prix.
Once a world-beater, the high-flying McLaren team barely escaped ending the year at the bottom of the constructors points standings twice in the past five seasons after finishing ninth in both 2015 and 2017.
The last time McLaren finished that low in the standings was 1980, a result that saw it merge with Ron Dennis’s Project Four Formula Two team that next season. That move brought six constructors’ and seven drivers’ titles by 1991. In 1988, the McLaren duo of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost completely dominated the sport, winning 15 of 16 races. The same pair accounted for six of the seven F1 titles between 1984 and 1991. The last McLaren driver to win the F1 championship was Lewis Hamilton in 2008.
Things aren’t turning around as quickly this time, but there’s no doubt about the team’s continued progress. Ninth in 2017 became sixth last year and the team was fourth in the standings heading into the Canadian Grand despite its drivers not finishing four times this year.
In the first quarter of the season, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz scored 22 points, more than one-third of the team’s entire haul for 2018. If they can keep that pace, they’ll end the season with almost 100.
“We definitely feel we had a made a step, but it is close in the midfield,” said McLaren chief executive Zak Brown.
“There is just nothing between fourth and ninth. There is still a long way to go, but we are satisfied with the hard work that everyone is doing.”
Unfortunately for Williams, it looks primed for another dismal season to add to its last overall finish in 2018. After failing to get its car ready in time for pre-season testing, it’s no surprise that Williams is already well on its way to repeating that unenviable feat this season.
It’s been a dramatic drop-off for a team that finished third overall among constructors as recently as 2015. Two seasons in a respectable fifth overall in points followed that top-three before Williams nosedived last year. This season, the Williams car is essentially a multimillion-dollar moving chicane, with its drivers lucky to be within four seconds of the pole time in qualifying.
“We haven’t had the best year, clearly everybody has seen that. It started with not getting our chassis to testing, and we’ve had to really play catch up off the back of that,” said deputy team principal Claire Williams.
“We’ve brought a little bit of performance to the car, but we’re still far too far behind the ninth-placed team at the moment.”
It’s a long way from the days when Williams served as the epitome of the little guy finding success among giants. In one of the most compelling stories in racing, team founder Frank Williams turned a mom-and-pop outfit into a perennial world championship threat during the 1980s and 1990s. But the past 20 years haven’t been kind to the team, with the last Williams driver to win a world championship being Canadian Jacques Villeneuve in 1997.
Although the squad has fallen on hard times, the rich team history continues to drive his daughter Claire to turn things around.
“I want to go out and prove that we can do what we are in this sport to do, and that’s to get back on the podium and to win races again,” she said.
“You don’t give up when times get tough — for me, it’s a test of your character that you continue and to prove to everybody that you can do it. That’s certainly the belief everybody has at Williams: That we can do this and we’re not going to just give up because the moments have got a bit hard for us.”
Rumours surfaced in April that Russian chemical industry billionaire Dmitri Mazepin made a bid to buy the team. His son Nikita races in Formula Three.
While Claire Williams dismissed the Mazepin speculation, she recently brought team co-founder Patrick Head back into the fold to help it improve. He played a key role in all of the team’s world championships.
“Patrick coming in, obviously for us, is a great thing,” Williams said.
“He’s acting as a guide for our team of engineers at the moment, just making sure that they’re doing everything that they should be doing.”
McLaren also bolstered its senior ranks, adding a new team principal, Andreas Seidl, formerly the head of Porsche’s Le Mans program, technical director, James Key, and engineering director, Pat Fry.
Fry led the development of the team’s 2019 car, which appears to have made a huge step from a 2018 season that saw a frustrated two-time champion Fernando Alonso leave the outfit for a sabbatical. Ironically, the development work Alonso did last year played a key role in the team’s improved competitiveness this season. There are strong rumours that he might be back with the team next season.
Further down the grid, Williams remains hard at work trying to claw back to respectability.
“If anyone thinks that we’re just hoping for a miracle or that things will just go our way at some point, that’s not the case,” Williams said.
“A lot of work has been going on to make sure that we put ourselves in the right position.”