"Wow, I’ve never felt so popular in my life!”

The irony in Claire Williams’ voice was clear as she came to greet the assembled media for her scheduled press briefing on Wednesday afternoon.

COTA #1 - Together At Last

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Journalists stood a number of rows deep to hear from the deputy team principal of the beleaguered Williams outfit that, at long last, had got its 2019 car out on-track for the first time around half an hour earlier.

Numerous delays led to the team missing the first two-and-a-half days of pre-season testing in Barcelona, with the FW42 car only arriving at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya at 4am on Wednesday morning. The team worked tirelessly to get everything in place for the car to hit the track just before 2:30pm, with George Russell completing a single installation lap.

“It would be an underestimation to say that this has been difficult for everybody,” said Williams. “It wasn’t done intentionally, nobody wanted to do this, and I cannot express how hard it has been for everybody in the team. So just to see that car make its way out of the garage, there was a palpable sense of relief.

“But we’ve still got lots of work to do. We’ve got to get it back out today, and we’ve got to complete the next five days of running in Barcelona to be ready for Melbourne.”

Williams said it only became clear “quite late on” the team would not be ready to test on day one in Barcelona, having overestimated when parts would be ready and come through. The pressure of having a shorter winter break – the season starts one week earlier than usual in 2019 – and a shift in aerodynamic regulations was something all teams had to deal with. Renault feared it may have had to cancel its filming day due to the tight margins involved, only to hit the track for the first time as planned last Saturday.

The need to be aggressive and ambitious with its car design and build is arguably bigger for a team like Williams, seeking a step in performance after a torrid campaign languishing down the order. So were the delays down to an all or nothing gamble that had backfired?

We wouldn’t find out directly from Williams herself, who stuck to her usual stance of valuing privacy and keeping internal affairs exactly that: internal.

“I am not going to go into any detail as to why [the delay] happened. I don’t think that it’s appropriate to discuss the ins and outs of what went wrong,” she said.

“Completing that inquest anyway has not happened at Grove yet. We’re clearly aware of some of the issues, but it’s too early in the day to start discussing them in any detail and probably something that we wouldn’t do anyway.

“We need to analyse what went wrong, and then to resolve it so that this doesn’t happen again at Williams.”

Williams would not say if the delays were down to the team itself or an issue with a supplier – although the latter would have been easily explainable, one would have thought – and would not detail the changes in process for this year that may have contributed to the issues.

To the team’s fans, Williams was apologetic, calling the situation “embarrassing”. She was also quick to apologise to the team’s drivers, George Russell and Robert Kubica, who she said had been “very understanding and very supportive” regarding the situation. More parts were due to arrive at the track overnight, allowing for more of the team’s programme to be completed tomorrow.

The setbacks to start the year will have dimmed some of the optimism Williams had coming into the new season. Claire Williams was confident of a “next-gen” team in 2019 – but already, things have taken a massive hit. Rumours of low morale amid long working hours are doing the rounds in the paddock, and given the delays, the hopes of improving on last year’s difficulties, particularly against the stronger midfield, seem slim.

Williams has put a focus on changing company culture, citing it as a major issue in the past. The matter was discussed again today in light of the most recent bout of problems.

“We have talked a lot about the culture at Williams. We are lucky we have a great team who have a great spirit,” Williams said. 

“We lost one person from our race team last year in a year [Rob Smedley as Head of Vehicle Performance]. When you are doing badly, to only lose one person says a lot about the spirit we have within Williams.

“We do need to prove to the workforce that we know things aren’t right. We talk to them about that. We spend a lot of time talking to our team so they know what we are doing and what changes we are making.

“They have bought into that journey and they are on the journey.”

Technical chief and team shareholder Paddy Lowe’s position has come under scrutiny from many in the F1 paddock in recent days – word Williams was aware of.

“I've read a lot of speculation about his position,” said Williams.

“Right now, all I am focused on and the team should be focused on is making sure the car is in the right place.”

Lowe’s planned press briefing for Wednesday was cancelled as he was “focusing his energies on making sure car is in the best possible shape,” according to Williams, with his appearance being rescheduled for next week.

But the need to shift this culture at the team is not new. Speaking last year at a management event jointly held between F1 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rob Smedley – who has since left Williams and joined F1 as an expert technical consultant – said he found a lack of communication to be one of the greatest gripes upon joining from Ferrari.

“When I first joined Williams, there were lots of technical silos. Essentially, everybody is sat in their technical silo, and everybody was happy not to really interact with people outside of those silos,” said Smedley.

“What my job was to do, and the other senior technical managers was to understand this and to try and bring people together.

“What you’ve got to do is have that conflict. Without that conflict, they’re not talking. We’re not innovating to the nth degree, which is what Formula 1 is all about. It was really, really interesting to see that evolve.

“You bring in all of those ideas, all that diversity, it adds the inefficiency, but what you end up with is a much more defined and perfected product. If we want to go into diversity in Formula 1, on the practical side of it, that’s it.”

Smedley may have pushed for changes, but the structure appears to still require work given the recent spate of issues. 

Williams may be literally back on track in Barcelona, but the team needs to continue its push for change. These setbacks will be the latest wake-up call for those at the top of the team.

 

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