Being first out on track at the start of a new Formula 1 season might be worthless in terms of the year ahead, but it has often been a statement of intent. For Williams, it was about burying last year and sowing the seeds for a fresh start.

Williams triggered an impromptu head-to-head against McLaren to be the first team out of the pitlane on the opening day of 2020 pre-season testing as George Russell and Carlos Sainz had a standoff at pit exit before the green light appeared at 9AM.

The McLaren driver relented, opting for a practice start, which allowed Russell to power the Williams FW43 on to an open track at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

There are no points for starting testing first, but as a statement of intent deputy team principal Claire Williams said it showed the team means business.

“It was brilliant to see it go out first this morning, we wanted to make a real point after last year that we are here, and we are ready to go and we just wanted to done. It’s going well so far,” Williams said.

“Coming into the garage last night there was hardly anyone here because the car was ready to go and compared to last year, there were like 20 people in the garage trying to get the car ready and it wasn’t. It’s a whole lot different but the mood is as good as it’s always been at Williams.

“We have a great team of fighters here. Now we’ve learnt our lessons and we’ve done the hard work, not enjoy it because we are not resting on our laurels, but it certainly takes the pressure off these guys off the track.

“For us it’s just about making progress and today, just getting the car here, that’s another brick in the wall for us and we are just going to keep going on this road of positivity and driving forwards.

“Having these six days is so important for us so that we are in the best possible shape for Melbourne and show the world that Williams is here to stay and we are still fighting.”

Rewind the clock 12 months and Williams were already facing a disaster. It missed the first two-and-a-half days of pre-season testing and once it hit the track it was clear its 2019 F1 car was horribly off the pace.

While its poor pace was one problem, its lack of spare parts effectively condemned the Grove-based squad to the back of the grid as it struggled to produce fresh spares for the opening flyaway rounds. Instead of going forward, Williams were often slower last year than its 2018 efforts.

The nightmare start to 2019 triggered an overhaul, with Paddy Lowe quickly leaving as its technical head with legendary chief Sir Patrick Head temporarily stepping in to steady the ship and oversee the transition period.

Williams has hired David Worner from Red Bull as chief designer and Jonathan Carter from Renault as his deputy at the start of this year, with chief engineer Adam Carter leading the charge on its 2020 car.

One swallow doesn’t make a summer but for Williams to chalk up a combined 136 laps (73 by Russell and 63 by rookie Nicholas Latifi) on Day 1 of 2020 it puts the team firmly on the same track as its F1 rivals. It already has more mileage than its total from the 2019 Test 1 on the opening day of 2020 alone plus a car which is almost three seconds faster.

Again, single-lap pace rarely carries much worth at testing but a 1m 18.168s set by Russell puts Williams in the mix with the F1 midfield challengers.

Nobody is expecting miracles, especially not within the Williams fold, but the early signs remain positive.

“The car is much more driveable than it was last year, it gives me much more confidence, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how it feels it matters how fast it is, and we don’t know that yet,” Russell said.

“It’s definitely an improvement versus last year. the feeling is quite okay. 74 laps or something, positive, feeling was good.”

Russell said Williams didn’t make a specific plan to be out on track first but he felt it was an appropriate reward for his team’s efforts over the winter.

“Little discussions, but we had a very intense programme this morning that we really needed to get through and getting on track first means we get back to the pits first and get on with the day,” Russell said.

“Last year was not a good situation for everyone, all the guys who worked day and night to deliver the car, it was a mess, this year it worked well. The guys worked hard, everything was on time, and it was a bit of a reward for them to see the car ready to go at 9AM.”

During Williams’ 2020 launch, the team confirmed its had retained the concept from last year’s car which triggered fears it would fall down the same holes – but those concerns aren’t shared by Russell.

“It gives me more confidence. Last year it was scaring the shit out of me a little bit while I was driving, whereas this year it feels a bit more like a Formula 1 car,” he said. “It’s still not perfect, it needs improvements, but as a base set-up it was decent.

“What’s said in the media is one thing and reality is another thing. I’m very up to date with what’s going on. The fact is there’s no fundamental changes, it is a big evolution of last year, no doubt from the off it’s much improved.

“But if we go two seconds quicker and everyone goes 1.5s quicker we’ll still be in the same boat, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

While the F1 crystal ball remains cloudy for an accurate estimation of each team’s fortunes in 2020, it is certain Williams won’t suffer a repeat of 2019. After that, the only way is up.

 

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