Sir Frank Williams said this year he plans to retire only when the family-run racing marque he founded in 1977 is once more “a world-class team and not a load of junk surrounded by out-of-date antiquated people”.
Such has been the team’s resurrection this season, the venerated team owner with the cheeky glint in his eye might have to say goodbye to the Formula One paddock sooner than he expected.
Williams are the second-most-successful team in F1 history, behind Ferrari, but for much of the past decade they have struggled and are without a world championship since 1997.
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A surprise victory at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix – the team’s first race win since 2004 – proved a false dawn. Last year, they endured their worst start in more than 30 years, failing to score a point in any of the first nine races.
At the start of this year, with the seasoned Pat Symonds having joined as chief technical officer, the British racing marque adapted to new regulations quicker than most.
Williams claimed points at every race between the opener in Australia and last week in Brazil, while drivers Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa took five podiums in six races during the summer.
In Austria, in June, the team claimed their first front-row lockout in qualifying since France 2003 as Massa took pole from Bottas, the only time all season anyone other than a Mercedes-GP car has topped the times in a qualifying session.
Massa, the veteran Brazilian who was forced to play second fiddle for so long at Ferrari, moved to Williams in the off-season, yet it is Bottas, 25, who has performed like the established, experienced pro. The quiet Finn, reassuringly unremarkable off-track, has been at the forefront of the long-awaited Williams resurgence.
His purple patch came after scoring his first podium in Austria with third place. In the following four races, he finished second in Britain and Germany, eighth in Hungary and third in Belgium.
The strong run of results put Bottas as high as fourth in the drivers’ championship and Williams in contention for third in the constructors’ competition, a gigantic step forward from last season’s ninth place finish, with only five points to their credit.
Finally, after a rookie season to forget, the young Finn, who had arrived at the team amid great expectations, was living up to his reputation.
“For sure, 2013 was a tough year, but I think I learnt a lot,” Bottas said. “Obviously, you would prefer to be fighting at the front, but normally from the bad races you learn more because you need to analyse what went wrong so you don’t repeat it. There were a lot of bad races last year, so in that sense I learnt a lot of good stuff.”
Even before the lessons of last year were taken on board, people had spoken highly of Bottas, the 2011 GP3 champion. Williams, in awarding him a race seat in late 2012, had to let go of Bruno Senna and the £10 million (Dh58.7m) in sponsorship money the Brazilian brought with him.
For Bottas, it was a show of faith, but he struggled in an underperforming car and whispered doubts crept into the paddock.
“When you are fighting for podiums it is much more enjoyable,” Bottas said. “Last year, you might feel like you had a really good race and got everything you could possibly get out of the car and yet you would finish 15th and nobody would see what you are doing.
“This season has allowed me to prove – not only to myself, but also to many others – what I can do.”
Some of the credit for the turnaround has been directed towards Symonds.
During a career that spans nearly 30 years, the English engineer has worked with Ayrton Senna, helped guide Michael Schumacher to two championships and worked with Fernando Alonso when the Spaniard won the world title twice with Renault.
He knows a talent when he sees one and has clearly been impressed by Bottas.
“I’m never quite sure before a guy gets into Formula One how good he’s going to be,” Symonds told The Economic Times this year.
“But when he’s in F1 and you see him work, you get an idea of their speed and their ability to cope with things when it’s difficult. I will be very, very surprised if [Bottas] doesn’t become a world champion and my ambition is to make him a world champion at Williams.”
Massa, who was teammates with both Schumacher and Alonso during his eight years at Ferrari, also holds his new teammate in high regard.
“He’s shown since the beginning of the season that he’s quick, that he’s competitive, that he’s intelligent and working very hard,” Massa said of Bottas. “It’s clear he’s doing everything correct. People need to see him as a great driver.”
For Bottas and Williams, though, this season marks only the start. If they can build on the progress of this year, then 2015 could be very special – and Sir Frank Williams might finally feel ready to say goodbye to the paddock.
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