Sidepodcast // All for F1 and F1 for all

Midfield Monitor
Christine

Christine became an avid follower of Formula One after getting a taste of the action way back in 2003. Today, you'll find Christine putting her experience to good use as writer and producer of the news show F1Minute, and editor of community F1 site Sidepodcast.

Magic eight haul // Williams enter the 2012 midfield despite two difficult early races

Published

Williams finished the 2011 season just inches away from being one of the backmarker teams. Arguably the worst season they had endured in their long history within Formula One, the team found themselves with an impossible car. Rubens Barrichello's many years in the sport couldn't improve it, and Pastor Maldonado's inexperience was highlighted by the poor performance of the machinery beneath him. Just five points were scored during the entire season, and there were very few highlights from a difficult year.

Backs to the wall
Credit: Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

Change was sorely needed, and change is exactly what the team got. Sam Michael was ousted in a technical turnaround which brought in the controversial Mike Coughlan in a leading role. Long-time partner Patrick Head moved his attention away from racing towards the hybrid technology business, hoping to allow the design team to flourish without him.

Even Barrichello, everyone's favourite F1 senior, was left without a seat when the team shook up their driver lineup. Gone was the experience, and in was the cash - with Maldonado gaining a second year behind the Williams wheel, and Bruno Senna bringing his heritage and sponsorship from a reserve role at Renault.

2012 was set to be a defining year for the team. Everyone was, and is, keen to see whether they could pull themselves out of the abyss and back into the midst of a highly competitive field, or if they would spend another season losing momentum at the back of the grid. Two races in, and we're starting to discover the answer.

Maldonado’s Melbourne mishap

It didn’t have to be a points haul, although that would certainly have helped

The team needed to see some progress in the first race, the Australian Grand Prix, or risk losing any of the motivation that has kept them going throughout the off-season. It didn’t have to be a points haul, although that would certainly have helped. A simple indication that the many decisions made over the winter had made a difference.

Qualifying was a moderate start. Bruno Senna secured 14th on the grid, in his debut for the team. Pastor Maldonado got through to the top ten, doing enough for eighth place. Already, there were the beginnings of a light at the end of the 2011-shaped tunnel.

Unfortunately, the race was not quite such a positive affair. Senna found himself getting tangled up with other cars both at the start and the end of the race, causing extra pit stops and plenty of costly damage. He finished the weekend last, six laps down, with four pit stops under his belt. Maldonado, however, found the qualifying pace remained with him, although he, too, collided with another driver as he made his way around Albert Park. However, he kept the car pointing in the right direction and moved up to sixth place.

A tough start for Pastor
A tough start for PastorCredit: Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic

This would have been an incredible points haul for Williams in their first race back after a disastrous season. Eight points on the board from just one driver, with clear potential for more. It would also have quietened many of those, including me, who have been skeptical about Maldonado’s performance, and have questioned the team’s decision to keep him on board.

It could have been the start of one of those F1 fairy stories, but it was not to be. On the final lap, Maldonado ran only marginally wide, but bounced over the kerb. That sent him into a spin and he smashed into the barrier, ruining his chances of a points finish. Thankfully, after what was a hard hit against the wall, Maldonado was out of the car immediately, and fully fit.

The team said they took heart from the improved pace that was visible for all to see, but even so, this must have been a disappointment to them. One race down and zero points on the board. An all too familiar story.

Senna’s Sepang surprise

The Malaysian Grand Prix was hampered by rain, with a red flag brought out after only eight laps. Before the flag dropped, Williams had dramas of their own to deal with, as their drivers committed the cardinal sin of crashing into each other. Poor visibility can be blamed, no doubt, but Senna clipped the back of Maldonado’s car and tipped himself into a spin. He was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop for a new front wing which put him way down the order, and out of sequence with everyone else.

The red flag period made very little difference to either driver’s race and both were glad when the action began again. Maldonado lost positions himself when he came in for a stop but ran straight past his garage and back out onto the track again. He had to do one more entire lap before diving back into the pit lane where the mechanics were eagerly waiting to do their business. For Pastor, it was a matter of making it as far up the order as he could but ultimately it was all for nothing.

His engine gave up towards the end of the race, issuing blue smoke out the back of the car. He had done enough to be classified, but not enough to pick up any points for the team. For the second race in a row, Maldonado lost points on the last lap of the race. This time it was not his fault, and engine supplier Renault have said they are still looking into what caused the failure.

Rainy days and Mondays
Credit: Lorenzo Bellanca/LAT Photographic

All hope rested on Senna’s shoulders, and finally, something seemed to be going right. The Brazilian made it up to 14th by lap 17, and from there, it was a slow progression towards the top ten, and some much needed points.

He was helped at the last minute by Sebastian Vettel’s HRT tangle and subsequent puncture, but Senna didn’t need any more assistance than that to secure sixth place. An impressive feat from the back of the grid, albeit helped by the inclement conditions and a mixture of strategy calls from those around him.

No matter how it was achieved, the long-lost sixth place from Australia was finally in Williams’ hands. Eight much-needed points, from a single driver, that provided a boost to everyone’s confidence.

Except, perhaps, Maldonado's.

A fortnight on, a Chairman gone

Despite some mixed results in the two completed races, the future is already looking brighter for the Grove-based team. The signs are that they have a car with more pace than its predecessor, and they are now firmly in the midfield, with plenty more racing still to come.

The only blot on the landscape came this very morning, with the shock announcement that Chairman Adam Parr would be leaving the team. Parr has played a significant role in guiding the team through their rocky patch, helping to find new funding models and putting them in good stead for recovery. Previous statements from Frank Williams have indicated that Parr would be his preferred successor, and that all the work they were doing internally was to help make the transition easier when it finally had to happen.

Formula One can suck up more time than it's possible to imagine, and getting the work/life balance right is almost impossible

Parr's resignation comes without many details, but appears to be more of a personal decision than as the result of any major issue with the team. There's no suggestion he will be moving to another outfit, but that he will be spending more time at home with his family. It's a perfectly reasonable decision for someone to make - Formula One can suck up more time than it's possible to imagine, and getting the work/life balance right is almost impossible. However, the surprise comes from it being contrary to everything we had previously heard. There was no indication he was unhappy, and the possibility of taking on the Williams team after the eponymous owner must be the honour of a lifetime. Two races in, a team finally on the up, the future looking brighter, it’s an odd time for the announcement to be made.

If they are personal reasons, then they are none of our business, and all that is left to speculate upon is whether the departure will rock the good ship Williams when it was looking to be on course to better things. The design team and the drivers remain unchanged, and it's perfectly conceivable that things will continue under new management with no major issues. It's just worth keeping a wary eye on Williams as the season progresses, because it would take less than a Chairman change to knock a team from the relative highs of the midfield, straight back to the difficult lows at the back of the grid. I have faith they can keep on pulling in better results than 2011, but the true test will be if they have that same faith in themselves.