Formula 1 Insight

Thoughts on the Bahrain GP - Part Two

For the third year in a row, Williams have produced a car that looks good in pre-season testing, then swiftly loses ground to the competition once the races start. Usually this is blamed on the team having less to spend on development than the rich teams but it does not explain the fact that the Williams disappoints even in the first race.

Kazuki Nakajima
Nakajima pit stop

This year is assuming the same familiar pattern, with the lead driver, Nico Rosberg, often quickest in practice but not so competitive in qualifying and even less so in the race. In Rosberg's best race so far, the Malaysian GP, he managed to get the jump on the faster cars ahead of him at the start and led until his first pit stop. Everything went downhill from there, Button's heavier fuel load allowing him to build a big lead on Nico before he had to come in.

One is forced to the conclusion that the quick laps in practice are achieved on very light fuel loading and that the car is then fuelled too heavily to get to the front in qualifying. This leaves Rosberg several cars down on the grid and without a performance advantage to improve his position. Poor timing of pit stops has also affected Rosberg's races, too often dropping him down into traffic and his lap times suffering accordingly.

The car is good, however, and was probably the third quickest at the beginning of the season. Like the Brawn GP, it has soldiered on through the early races without development but it is still about fourth in the pecking order. The team has been unable to make inspired strategic decisions similar to Ross Brawn's and have been caught and passed by less competitive cars in the race. For instance, it makes no sense that Raikkonen should have finished so far ahead of Rosberg in Bahrain.

It begins to look like the team's inability to make the most of the car is a problem with strategy more than anything else. We also need to take into account Willams' preferred option with the second driver, Kazuki Nakajima, putting him on a heavy fuel load in the hope that a longer first stint will enable him to leapfrog drivers ahead of him. This tends to be BMW's strategy and Nick Heidfeld has often been able to improve his position through late first stops. Nakajima is no Heidfeld, however, and does not have the authority within the team to make decisions on precise timing of stops during the race.

We tend to give the Williams team a great deal of respect, thanks to their history of many championships, and I hesitate to criticize their handling of races. But the fact is that they are underperforming this season and have done so in the last few years too; it is worth making a few tentative suggestions therefore.

Historically, Williams' championships have been won with cars that had a considerable performance advantage over their competition. The one exception, ironically Nico's father's victory in 1982, was achieved through Keke's unrelenting determination and the unreliability of other cars. The cars are so unbreakable these days that it is unlikely that reliability will ever again be such an important factor - just about everyone finishes.

My point is that Williams do not have a history of winning championships with less than the best car. It should be no surprise, therefore, that they are struggling to find a way to win races against equal or slightly quicker opposition. What they need more than anything else is to shake up the strategy and try different solutions from the "one light, one heavy" idea.

For a start, a page out of Alonso's book might help. He is hauling a very uncompetitive Renault up to the sharp end of the grid by running extremely light in qualifying. This allows him to start the race near the front and to hold on to a good position until his first stop; what happens thereafter depends to a great extent on luck but at least he is throwing the dice from a higher placing than Rosberg's.

So one of the Williams cars should be fuelled very light indeed. Rosberg has demonstrated in practice that the car is good enough for pole in such conditions - in fact, there is no reason why he should not be able to pull out a considerable lead in the first stint, assuming that he converts pole into the lead of the race. The greater his lead when he comes in, the better his chances of emerging sufficiently high to regain first place when the rest take their stops.

It is worth trying Nakajima on light tanks too. His reputation has suffered through always starting the race in a heavy car but practice times show that he can be quick when given the same fuel loads as Rosberg. Competition is so fierce at the moment that he does not often make it into Q3 but when he does, it would give him a chance of defending Rosberg's lead if he were fuelled nearly as lightly.

Rosberg grabbed the lead in Malaysia but lost it when he pitted because he was unable to build a gap between himself and the chasing pack. With an even lighter tank, this could well have been possible and an early stop would not have been so damaging to his race overall.

Grid position is so important these days that it has to be worth trying an ultra-light strategy. The present formula does not work for Williams, that is clear, and a strategy shake-up could make all the difference. If nothing else, running both cars light would at least give the team a chance of getting two cars in the points.

Renault has shown that, when you have a car that is less than competitive, extreme strategies can lift it above its true potential. Williams may not have a driver of quite the ability of Alonso (the jury is still out on Rosberg) but they have a better car than the R29. It seems to me that Williams need to break out of their established pattern and consider new strategies, the ultra-light idea being just one that is worth trying.

Having solved all Williams' problems, I must now confess myself a bit baffled by Toro Rosso. While Red Bull are demonstrating that the latest Adrian Newey design is one of the best in the field, STR seem incapable of getting much out of it and generally end up playing amongst the Force Indias (and BMWs in Bahrain). Is this a driver problem or is the team not getting the best from the car?

Buemi has looked pretty handy in the early races but that may be thanks to Bourdais having three bad ones. I cannot believe that Le Seb is that much worse than a rookie with a less-than-stellar record in the lower formulae and Bourdais' race in Bahrain would seem to indicate that I am right. Obviously, Team Seb has a less gifted driver line-up than its sister team but that is not sufficient to explain RBR being one of the leaders while STR languishes near the back.

All sorts of possible answers occur and most of them could have a part to play in STR's poor performance so far. Luck may be an important influence, maybe Vettel has set up skills that RBR now benefit from while STR suffers from their absence, perhaps the improvements to the Renault engine have made it a better power plant than the Ferrari. It is an enigma that will probably only be solved as the season progresses.

Turning to Force India, one has to say that they have definitely arrived. Although they failed to get into Q2, they were on the pace in the Bahrain GP and beat a few other cars. The Mercedes engine has made some difference, no doubt, but the car itself is good enough to take advantage of it. And, when one considers that the entire grid in Bahrain was covered by a second and the difference between fastest race lap and slowest was only two seconds, it is clear that mere hundredths separate the Force India cars from their competitors.

The team has made improvements to the car during the early races and will be introducing more before the Barcelona GP. It may well be that progress is in the right direction and the breakthrough to Q2 will come in Spain. I hope it does, as the team has shown considerable ability in closing the gap to the rest so quickly.

Of course, that will mean that some other drivers may have to take their turns at the bottom of the timing sheets. I do not want to even think about who those might be and ask only that Dr Mario lift the BMWs out of the danger zone immediately!


I'm a Williams fan, and I agree with you about a change of strategy. Nico did well in the first half the Malaysia because he was at the front of the grid and clear of KERS cars. Seeing how easily he was jumped at the start by Ferrari, even though he had a better start was a little disheartening. I think if he starts at the front of the grid with 5 laps less fuel, he'll still alright since the Ferraris and Renaults will be holding the grid up a little.

(Nice blog, by the way)
Date Added: 28/04/2009

Thank you, Chris!

Agreed that the Renaults and Ferraris would assist with holding up the chasing cars of Rosberg were to get to the front on a very light fuel load. Even his first stint consists only of ten laps or so, that should be sufficient to build a reasonable gap in such a light car. And with that gap, his chances of hanging on to the lead once the others have pitted, must be much greater.
Date Added: 28/04/2009

Hello Clive, Nico actually mentioned the fact that they have been setting up the car for qualifying from the beginning of each race weekend.

Also, I do remember having once mentioned here that Williams always set my nerves on fire ever since the Damon Hill era their strategies have been at times abysmal. They somehow never seem to be daring and when they finally do get it right they manage to bungle their pit stops. So strategy does not seem to be in their DNA which would explain your assertion that they so far have only one championships with a challenger that was superior to others.

Strangely it seems like exactly the same problem Toyota will have to overcome without the explicit Williams history.
Date Added: 28/04/2009

Steve Ellis

It seems to me that the fact that Williams never wins unless they have the dominate car is due to their deciscion never to pay for the best driver on the grid. As soon as a driver is becomes well established at the front end, he invariabley ends up in a competitor's car.

Mansell and Piquet are exceptions but look at Montoya, Villenueve, and Hill. Williams like to keep a driver under their thumb and as soon as a driver becomes convinced of his ability, off he goes.
Date Added: 28/04/2009

Michael: Yes, in writing this, I thought of what I have been saying about Toyota's strategy. They have a similar problem but I think Williams need to be even more radical in changing their strategic thinking. There seems no point in sticking to the same old strategy when it clearly isn't working. Toyota makes more obvious mistakes but they are that much easier to fix as a result.
Date Added: 28/04/2009

Steve: I agree that Williams' driver policy can be extremely frustrating. Sir Frank is just wrong when he says that the driver is as disposable as any other part of the car. But I don't suppose I'll change his mind on that and so I look to see if there is anything else that the team could sort out to do better in the races. And strategy is beginning to look like a major problem area, if not so obviously as Toyota's foul ups.

I still think Nico is pretty good and could win races in that car if he were given better strategy. He had better hope that something works anyway; his time at Williams is beginning to make a serious dent in his reputation.
Date Added: 28/04/2009

One should have in mind when it comes to Toro Rosso that despite having the same chassis a lot of the inside of the car is different and they get the chassis very late from Red Bull Design and then need to adapt it. In both 2007 and 2008 they only debut the new car very late (Barcelona in 07, and Monaco last year) this year that was not an option thanks to new aero. Also STR car improved a lot at the second half of both 2007 and 2008 seasons. Given the context it does sound like they need a lot of time to have a handle of their car.

As for their drivers I believe Toro Ro0sso is in the unfortunate position of having one driver that qualifies well and another that races well. Bourdais seems to have a hard time in the current qualifying system, when one look at it he complete missed his final Q1 lap in Australia, did well in Malasya and had one sector half a second off from Buemi at both China and Bahrein which probably mean he did some mistake. While Buemi did a very solid job in qualifying (except from Malasya when he went off track in his hot lap), but when we look at the races:
Buemi starts at #13, classified #7
Bourdais starts #17, classified #8
Buemi start #20, spined when running #17 and was last the whole time
Bourdais start #15, was #10 at the red flag
Buemi started #10 (#8 by the time SC left), finished #8
Bourdais started #16 (#14 at the actual start), finished #11
Buemi started #16, finished #17
Bourdais started #20, finished #13

It might just a be a case of Buemi qualifying ahead of what STR car can do or Bourdais qualifying so behind pace he has no probably to make some progress during races. Still when you look at Bahrain, Bourdais won almost as many positions as Webber, while Buemi failed to benefit from Massa extra pit and was passed by Webber, Bourdais and both Force Indias. If STR manage to help Bourdais to have stronger saturdays they might do better (and Buemi uneven race pace is likely to improve in Europe as he knows those tracks much better).
Date Added: 28/04/2009

Good read :)
Date Added: 28/04/2009

Filipe: Thanks for a very well thought out comment there, Filipe. It is true that STR get their car later than RBR and so have less time to work on it - we should remember that when assessing them. But I think you are getting closer to the core of the problem when you talk of the drivers. It all makes a lot of sense and we must hope especially that Bourdais gets on top of his qualifying difficulties.

You are probably right that the team will improve as the season progresses and we can look forward to their climbing into midfield therefore. I cannot see them getting higher than that, however.
Date Added: 28/04/2009

Rob: Thank you!
Date Added: 28/04/2009


You seem to have missed on every important driver off your list of exceptions for williams.....

Interesting article though. Williams raise my hopes each season with fast pre-season cars only to let me down when they come to race. One day they will get it right again...... one day......
Date Added: 29/04/2009

Williams has never been good at strategy. How many times did Schumi beat Hill by starting with a bit more fuel and putting in the hot laps after Hill pitted. It happened race after race, and I always wondered why they didn't throw in a couple extra gallons and wait Michael out. Frank doesn't care about drivers because he doesn't care about the WDC. All he cares about is the constructors' championship. I have seen him throw away the WDC as long as he won the one he values. :-(
Date Added: 30/04/2009

Lee: Nope, I stand by my statement that Rosberg's championship was the only one Williams won when their car was not the best by a considerable margin. Consider these stats:

1980 FW07 Alan Jones WCC
1981 FW07 WCC
1982 FW08 Keke Rosberg
1986 FW11 (Honda) WCC
1987 FW11 (Honda) Nelson Piquet WCC
1992 FW14 (Renault) Nigel Mansell WCC
1993 FW15 (Renault) Alain Prost WCC
1994 FW16 (Renault) WCC
1996 FW18 (Renault) Damon Hill WCC
1997 FW19 (Renault) Jacques Villeneuve WCC

The FW07 was the class of the field in 1980 and 1981, its closest competition being the Brabham BT49; note that the team managed to throw away the drivers' title in 1981 in spite of winning the WCC. In 1982, however, the F!08 was still using Cosworth power while the turbo cars had established a huge advantage. Rosberg's championship was unexpected and a model of consistency over speed - Williams did not win the WCC.

The Williams Honda was the best car by far in '86 and '87, as evidenced by its two WCCs, and it was only the fight between Mansell and Piquet that allowed Prost to steal the WDC championship at the end of 1986.

From '92 to '97 the Williams Renault was easily the best car, apart from '95 when the combination of Benetton and Schumacher proved stronger.

Note that Williams' WCCs were all won in years when the car was the class of the field but the drivers not necessarily so. Rosberg stands out like a sore thumb as the sole exception to this rule.
Date Added: 30/04/2009

Lonny: Very true - Sir Frank is well known for his preference for the constructors' title. And your point about Benetton/Schumacher fuel strategy stealing wins from Williams is also a good one. It seems that Williams are either going to have to design the best car if they want another championship or change their philosophy/strategy...
Date Added: 30/04/2009

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