Struggling team show determination to climb the F1 ladder with a 20-year-old driver who brings no cash but wads of talent
This season is gone for Williams but they can be optimistic, knowing they have publicly committed to hauling themselves back up the F1 ladder. Taking on the 20-year-old British driver was no small matter for the beleaguered team and should be applauded.
Williams are enduring their worst season. They are last in the constructors’ championship and have not won since Pastor Maldonado did so in Spain in 2012. Their title years of the 80s and 90s are long gone but worse still the third place they managed in 2014 and 2015 already feels like an age ago.
Despite being powered by a Mercedes engine this year’s car has woefully underperformed, struggling for aerodynamic performance, balance and stability. Martini’s sponsorship ends this season as will the financial largesse brought in by Lance Stroll when he switches to Force India.
Difficult times indeed but by taking on Russell, who does not bring funding, Williams have made the courageous decision to go with talent over backing. He will be the first British driver to race full time for the team since Jenson Button in 2000.
Russell has been part of the Mercedes junior driver programme since 2014 and is their reserve driver. He leads the F2 championship by 37 points with only 48 on offer at the finale in Abu Dhabi. He won in his rookie year in GP3 but perhaps most importantly showed real determination and ability to learn and improve during two tricky seasons in European F3. He was the youngest winner of the McLaren Autosport BRDC Award in 2014 aged 16.
What Williams will have when he hits the grid in Australia next year is a driver who is quick, intelligent, consistent, adept at pushing a car to its limits and providing accurate feedback for its development. With 2019 almost a year zero for the team this is just what they need.
Russell was proactive in achieving the seat by approaching the Williams chief technical officer, Paddy Lowe, in July. That move paid off and the deputy principal, Claire Williams, has been clear as to why Williams wanted him. “His commitment, passion and dedication is exactly what we need to drive the positive momentum building at Grove as we focus on the future,” she said.
The Williams lineup has not been its best over the past few years and they took much criticism for using two pay drivers in Stroll and the Russian Sergey Sirotkin this season. Williams has been clear the car’s shocking performance has jolted the team into a review of their processes and structure to ensure failings will not be repeated. She believes it has been successful, as does Lowe. “We’re not just going to turn the same handle and say we’ve made a good step forward,” he said. “We’ve got to approach things in a different and better way.”
He is confident they have turned things round. To prove it Williams needed a driver to take to next year’s car solely on merit.
Despite Russell’s connections with Mercedes there is no evidence of any reciprocal engine deal with Williams. It is not in Mercedes’ interests to do so. They do not expect to pay to ensure their junior driver programme functions. Williams will retain their independence and are financially strong enough to do so. A far cry from the expediency that was so criticised at the start of the season.
Russell has won six races and achieved four poles in F2 in a fierce competition with Lando Norris, who has signed for McLaren, and Alexander Albon, who is in the frame for a 2019 seat at Toro Rosso.
Should Russell close out the title he will, as Charles Leclerc did at Sauber, expect to make his mark immediately at Williams, although he knows the task is daunting.
“It’s no secret it’s been a difficult season for Williams but I’m 100% sure there’s a huge amount of talent within this factory,” he said. “There will be a number of changes to try to improve the team and I’m extremely looking forward to being part of that journey.”
Williams are aware of how hard it will be but signing Russell was unquestionably the act of a team who are targeting success not just survival.