Former Williams deputy team principal Claire Williams has defended her eight years in charge of the team, which was sold by the family last year as it finished last in the championship again.
However Williams says the team was already making progress 12 months ago when it was hit by two unexpected developments which forced the family to sell.
Speaking in an interview for The Spectator, Williams described how the team increasingly struggled through years of being out-spent by larger rivals, and due to the emergence of new teams which were able to compete most cost-effectively.
“The top end of the grid [was] spending half a billion versus our budget of 120 [million],” she said. “And that’s just not a level playing field from the outset and therefore it’s very difficult to try and compete. When you’re in that situation it’s difficult to claw your way back.”
The team fell to last place in the constructors championship in 2018. The situation worsened the following year when its new car wasn’t ready in time for the start of testing and chief technical officer Paddy Lowe was shown the door.
“We also had some other difficulties internally with personnel,” said Williams. “We were all fighting these very technical, very complex technical regulations that just kept becoming ever more complex season upon season that we were wrestling with and not getting to grips with at Williams.”
New rivals such as Haas, who took advantage of rules allowing ‘non-listed parts’ to be sourced relatively cheaply from other teams, overtook Williams in the championship.
“The list of listed parts, which are the parts you have to make yourself, which are what define you as an independent team, had become much more diluted,” Williams explained. “So other teams that had only been in the sport a shorter time than us, that didn’t have the resource, was able to buy those parts from a team much higher up the grid, thereby making them a whole lot more successful a whole lot more quickly and almost shortcutting the process.
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“All this kind of stuff just conspired to send Williams down to the back end of the grid. And once you’re there, you’re obviously receiving less prize money, you have less interest from sponsors, and so you get an even [more] reduced budget and then you can’t spend your way out of it. And in Formula 1, if you’re in trouble, you’ve got to be able to spend your way out of it. And then 2020 happened.”
While the outbreak of Covid-19 at the beginning of last year had massive ramifications for the entire sport, Williams had another dilemma to contend with. Title sponsor Rokit, which joined the team at the beginning of its dire 2019 campaign, withdrew its support.
“At the start of last year, we thought we’d kind of turned a corner,” said Williams. “Then we had the issues that we had with our title sponsorship, which stripped a load of money out of our budget. And then the pandemic hit.
“It was just like, oh my God, seriously, we’ve just got through these two very difficult years, we think we’ve turned a corner, we’ve got the team back where we want it to be, we feel like we’re making progress – and we were, we were a second, one and a half seconds quicker at a load of circuits [in 2020] off the back of a huge amount of hard work and that shows that we were taking steps forward – but then those two last kind of nails in the coffin really just killed us.”
The setbacks forced the family to accept it would have to sell its team, said Williams.
“We ran out of road basically at the end of 2020 as a family. And it was like, we’ve got to let this go now and hand it over to people that are able to invest in it because they’ve already got the money and they don’t have to go out and seek sponsorship for it or whatever and they can buy some time to plough their way up the ladder in Formula 1.”
The sale of the team was confirmed in August last year. Williams stood down immediately and was replaced by Simon Roberts. She admitted people “associate me with some of the worst years of Williams’s time in Formula 1” as a result.
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“The last three years of my tenure were incredibly difficult,” she said. “But there were some very extenuating circumstances around why we ended up in that place when I took it on.
“Actually they forget that when I took it on, I inherited a team that for the past three consecutive seasons had finished ninth, eighth and ninth. I had the team for nine months and I managed to take it within less than a year to third place in the championship, two years in a row. And then we had two [fifths].
“That’s not bad for a team that invariably was always the underdog, that had much fewer people, much fewer resources and a whole lot less money than the teams that we were competing against.”
While the team continued to be well-liked within the paddock, Williams said she received a lot of personal criticism over the course of its eight-year decline.
“We got a lot of support and we retained that support through the early years of our demise. But then I think people started to turn a little bit and particularly, I think, against me. Quite rightly so: I was the leader, I was the boss and the buck stops with me.
“[But] you make decisions at the time because you think that they’re the right decisions and sometimes those decisions don’t go your way and that’s what happened in my case. But of course, I got a lot of a lot of flak for it. I got a lot of scrutiny for it. I’ve got a whole load of abuse, apparently, on social media. But, for me, I couldn’t listen to that noise. That for me would have taken up a huge amount of negative energy and I needed to focus my attention on the team and to prove everybody that I could do it.
“I think I could have done it if I’d have been given some more time and I had the money. But we didn’t have the luxury of a huge title sponsor or a car manufacturer plugging 100 million into the team year on year.”
As the daughter of team founder Sir Frank Williams, she faced accusations of nepotism after taking charge of the team, as well as sexist attacks on her suitability for her role.
“That came up repeatedly: ‘Oh, it’s because she’s a woman’ and I also got ‘she’s only in the job anyway because she’s Frank’s daughter, get her out’. I know that I got that a lot.
“I don’t care what people think or write about stuff like that when they’ve never walked a day in my shoes and they don’t know the truth. You can sling as much mud as you like, but it doesn’t stick on me. If that’s what you want to accuse me of, then that’s fine.
“I was my dad’s daughter and that was one of the reasons why I was in the job, for goodness’ sake, because we’re a family team and people at Williams wanted the next generation of Williamses to come in and run the team and for the family to still be involved. That was the whole point. So anyone that criticises the fact that I took over from my dad just misses the point completely about the importance of family and next generations.”
Despite this, her father opposed her working for his team when she originally joined them in a communications role, she said.
“Dad was pretty clear: He was not into nepotism, did not want his children working at Williams. My older brother already had a job there and he wasn’t that keen on his daughter also working there.
“But fortunately, after about three months of lobbying by the then-head of marketing, dad reluctantly agreed to give me a trial. And then obviously the rest is history. I was there for another 20 years or so.
“I always just did what I was asked to do and I would have been happy working for 20 years as a press officer at Williams. It was such a great place to work. It was such a privilege. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
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