Did Williams simply opt for the biggest pot of gold when finalising its 2018 driver line-up? The truth is rather more complex than that
A very delicate balancing of a uniquely vulnerable team’s books is behind the controversial 2018 driver line-up at Williams.
Predictably, its announcement of Sergey Sirotkin – and not Robert Kubica – as its 2018 race driver alongside Lance Stroll has initiated a lot of vitriol from fans. The gist of the objections? A great sporting comeback has been sacrificed for a pay driver. ‘Williams is no longer a serious race team’ was a typical comment on forums. But that’s to misunderstand the economics of an independent team in the current F1 environment. What makes Williams so vulnerable – and therefore the team pressing hardest in using drivers as an income source – is its size. In many ways it’s structured as if it were still a manufacturer-supported team.
In the era of big car manufacturer money (late ’90s/early 2000s), Williams expanded vastly, just like all the other factory-supported teams. But although it hasn’t been a works team since parting with BMW 13 years ago, it still employs a staff of more than 600, still has a big, expansive engineering core manufacturing a vastly bigger proportion of its own parts than, say, Force India (staffed at about 360). As an independent team with such a scale of facility, staff and costs, Williams is something of an outlier among a grid of either works teams or much smaller independents. McLaren is now as similarly independent as Williams, albeit supported by an increasingly successful automotive group.
A lot of the vitriol around Williams’s driver choice comes from the perception of it still being a top team because of the blockbusting title-winning heritage its name carries. It isn’t, and expecting a team at this level to be able to command the calibre of driver it did back in the days of Mansell/Piquet is just dreaming. The financial realities of its vulnerable position are what has driven a Stroll/Sirotkin line-up, which brings a substantial budget to the team at a combined estimate of about £33 million (37 million euros) for this coming season.
However, targeting income was only part of the equation. On the other side sits performance and the two factors are interlinked; a faster driver is potentially going to boost the team’s position in the income-generating championship for constructors. So, while the faster driver may not bring as much budget directly (or even be a cost), his net worth to the team might be more if he delivers. But it’s a tricky equation to solve. Unlike Stroll, Sirotkin is not a pay driver in the strict sense. He has commercial backers who have chosen him – based on his performances. It isn’t family money. He’s shown himself to be a competitively quick, race-winning GP2 driver and has the sort of intelligence, serious application and deep technical understanding that could yet see him develop into a properly competitive F1 driver. But how sure can Williams be that he will not be losing them points compared to who they could have had?
This was not how Williams initially planned to address the problem. The original plan was to attack it from the performance end. With the rookie Stroll in one seat, Felipe Massa was the designated solid foundation, the points scorer-designate. He was a solid, known quantity but it had been calculated that at about 0.25sec off the ultimate pace, he was responsible for 14 per cent of the team’s total performance shortfall to the front. Could they simultaneously reduce the remaining 86 per cent whilst getting someone quicker? That was the thinking within the team around Monza time, when approaches were being made to Fernando Alonso.
A five-star, guaranteed provider of relentless performance, with the authority implicit in that status, would give Williams a very stark measure of its strengths and weaknesses – without the ambiguity that even a decent performer like Massa brought. That was the attraction for the technical team. The recruitment of such a driver would push the team forward, inject a sense of urgency and remove that ambiguity that can be used by team members to hide under-performance. There’d be nowhere to hide with Alonso in the car. It was surely worth a try – after three desolate seasons at McLaren, he just might have been ready to jump. Except he wasn’t, and duly extended his McLaren contract once Honda’s departure was confirmed.
But that train of thought at Williams led it to wonder if there was another possibility, another way of gaining access to such a driver. Robert Kubica (pictured, top) – a performer of similar level to Alonso back in the day, someone reckoned by Alonso himself as ‘the best of us all’ – was trying for a comeback. If, despite the permanent arm disability from his 2011 rallying accident, and the seven-year absence from F1, he could be like the driver he once was, then Williams might have its man.
So began the long, drawn-out process of finding if this was the Kubica of old. Two tests were inconclusive. At one of them he was slower than the team’s third driver Paul di Resta. He was saying he was unfamiliar with the tyres and needed a while to adapt. But time was moving on. Massa was demanding an answer about whether he was wanted in 2018 before his home race in Brazil ’17. The Strolls had refused to allow their ’14 car to be used at Suzuka for a Kubica test, so delaying things further. With the team unable to give Massa an answer before Brazil, he took matters into his own hands and announced his retirement from F1. But after the test alongside di Resta, the questions about Kubica’s outright speed were still unanswered – and now the back-stop of reliable performance had stepped down. In going for a hoped-for Alonso replica to step up driver performance, Williams was in danger of making a performance downgrade. A lot therefore was hanging on the final test, at Abu Dhabi after the season’s final race, where Massa had been in top form.
Late in the day Sirotkin’s backers, the Russian SMP bank, contacted the team and expressed an interest in placing its man in the race seat, with an initial offer understood to be 15 million euros (£13 million). So Sirotkin was added to the test. The technical side of the team – headed by Paddy Lowe – wanted the fastest candidate. The commercial side – Mike O’Driscoll and Claire Williams – was very aware of the bottom line, given the team’s heavy cost base and its declining performance (and therefore income) over the last couple of seasons. The technical side had the veto. Had Kubica tested faster, they’d have chosen him (and the eight million euros he was said to bring). The team would then have tried to negotiate a similar sum for the role of Friday driver (either from Sirotkin’s backers or those of F2 driver Nicholas Latifi, who has since joined Force India in that role). In this scenario they’d be generating about £14 million in addition to Stroll’s money. But Kubica did not go faster. In fact, he struggled for single-lap pace more than he had at the previous two tests and was about 0.3sec off Sirotkin – who in turn was about 0.3sec off the pace set by Massa in qualifying. That was three tests and three times Kubica had struggled with the tyre traits. On that cost/performance equation, Williams did not feel it could justify the risk. Sirotkin appeared faster – and brought more money.
Ironically, the chase for more driver performance had triggered a sequence of events that had arguably cost it driver performance. But the upside was a boost in income and the realistic possibility that Sirotkin could develop into a properly competitive F1 driver. It is believed that SMP upped its original offer to nearer £18 million to help its man secure the drive. Kubica had to be content with a (paid) third driver role in which he gets what is expected to be eight Friday practice sessions and several tests to see if he can unlock the very special driver he once was. While Williams stands accused of just taking the money, the actual difference in income between a) Kubica in the race seat/pay driver in the reserve role and b) what we have, is about £3.5 million. The prime decider was performance, the money just made it easier. Had Kubica been conclusively faster, they would have taken him, losing only that £3.5 million difference – and with every likelihood of more than making that back from the constructor payments.
To understand how driver performance impacts upon income, we can look at last year’s ‘Column 2’ payments. These are based on finishing positions in the previous year’s championship. Williams’s fifth place in 2016 (with Bottas/Massa) earned it about £24 million. It finished in the same position in 2017 (albeit much further adrift of fourth) and so can expect a similar sum this year. But in terms of lap-time pace, there was very little difference between Force India in fourth place all the way down to Haas in eighth. But the difference between finishing fourth and eighth is about £12 million. It would be very easy, with an uncompetitive driver line-up, to fall down to eighth, as the car pace is so similar in that group. That might make the difference between being in business or bankrupt for a team of Williams’s overheads. However, it is more than covered by Sirotkin’s £18 million, and with the proviso that he – together with any improvement in Williams’s car competitiveness – might be good enough to keep the heavy points rolling in.
It’s a precarious situation in the long term and simply underlines the fact that cost and payments are out of kilter for independent teams. But to say that Williams simply took the money in signing Sirotkin is a vast over-simplification.