The eye of the storm

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Last year’s win in Spain brought hope, but times have since been hard for her family’s team. That’s the reality facing Claire Williams as she embraces a key new role
writer Ed Foster

Claire Williams’ interest is piqued by our reference to Ayrton Senna’s first taste of Formula 1, as featured in May’s Motor Sport. That was 30 years ago, in a Williams FW08C, and the young Brazilian immediately impressed her father Frank.

Claire knows all the details and that’s no great surprise. She’s been surrounded by F1 since birth and is well versed in Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s history.

After studying politics (ever useful in F1) at Newcastle University, she worked as a press officer at Silverstone before returning home to become communications officer at her father’s team. She worked her way up through the commercial ranks and was appointed deputy team principal at the start of this year — a role that thrust her into F1’s spotlight.

“I’ve been blindsided by the interest,” she says. “I thought there might be a story or two, but I’ve been staggered. It’s quite difficult to prepare for it, but you can’t complain, can you? It’s great for the team and I’m really flattered.”

Her new role incorporates the responsibilities of the top job at any other team — her father remains boss on paper — and will encompass “commercial, technical and governance issues”, but she won’t be interfering from the pitwall. “It’s not my skill set,” she says. “We have much cleverer people than me on the technical front.

“My role has always been on the commercial side; that’s where my perceived strengths lie and that’s how it will remain. Where I can I’ll support the technical team with people or resources, working with our technical director Mike [Coughlan].”

*

The past 12 months have been difficult for the Grove-based team. Since Pastor Maldonado’s victory in the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix, points have been scarce and the team scored only 33 in the following 19 races — short of expectations at the end of a victory drought stretching back to Brazil 2004.

Things perhaps started to unravel before last year’s Spanish GP, though. After switching from technical director to engineering director in 2004, Patrick Head finally moved away from the F1 team at the end of 2011. Three months later Frank Williams announced that he was stepping down from the board, although he would still remain as team principal. This left chairman Adam Parr and executive director Toto Wolff as favourites to step into the lead role, but Parr had left by March and this January Wolff moved to Mercedes. Parr has since been named chief executive of a company tasked with ‘securing the legacy’ of the London Olympics and has written a graphic novel about his time in the sport.

In the wake of such upheaval and a dip in form, Williams has her work cut out. “The fact that they haven’t picked up any points [at the time of writing, five races in] is a major issue,” says three-time world champion and ex-team boss Jackie Stewart when we solicit his view on the team’s situation. “The championship is hugely important for team economics.”

Every position counts and brings with it increased prize money. Then there’s the team’s main sponsor, Venezuelan state-owned oil and gas company PDVSA, a deal that was rubberstamped by the country’s late president Hugo Chavez. In the wake of Chavez’s death in March, speculation has been rife on how long that support will continue. Performance and sponsorship revenue will dictate what happens next for Claire and her team, but writing off this year to focus on 2014 is not an option.

“At the moment the focus has to be on getting the FW35 to where it needs to be,” she says. “In our position you can’t stop development and let this year’s championship go. It’s just not possible as an independent team. We rely on sponsorship money, but also on the FOM [Formula One Management] prize fund. There is a lot of disparity between positions, which is great, but it means you can’t say that we’re satisfied with coming eighth and that it doesn’t matter. It matters to us.”

Claire’s history on the commercial side is useful given the increased cost of next year’s technical regulations. However, the question remains whether or not such a team will be able to fight against the economic might of the manufacturers come 2014. Williams has just released its 2012 financial results and, despite posting a £5m loss before tax, this figure doesn’t include the £9.4m paid for finishing eighth in the 2012 championship. Overall it is good news: the Group’s turnover has increased by 22 per cent to £127m. But is this enough to race with the likes of Ferrari, Mercedes and fellow independent Red Bull?

“I don’t see why we can’t,” Williams says without hesitation. “It’s just down to our commercial team to be cleverer than others and get more money. That’s my job. I don’t see it as a case of independent teams versus everyone else — we’re all going to have a hard time getting money to cover the escalated engine costs. We’ll just have to work harder and be smarter than other teams to make sure that we get any dollars that are on the table.

“You have to make sure that you are streamlined in what you do. We’ve always you competed with the heavy-hitters in F1. We’ve won before and we know how to do that. We’ve also got great resources because we’ve always put profit back into the team to ensure that’s the case. We actually have the same number of staff as most of the big teams up and down the paddock, so there’s no reason why we can’t compete.”

Williams GP Engineering has been champion constructor on nine occasions since its first season in 1977, but its last truly competitive season was arguably 2003. It’s tougher now than it has ever been and, as Stewart points out, “Being the main person in the house is tough.”

Frank Williams has filled that role admirably for more than 30 years… and Claire will need all his trademark tenacity to steer their team through the storm.