Formula 1 fans may not be as partisan as in other sports, with less allegiance to a specific team, but some F1 teams command loyalty and respect for their successes and time spent in F1.
Williams are one of those teams, or Williams Grand Prix Engineering as its more formally known.
Through their years in the sport they were initially back markers before moving on to utterly dominate seasons. In terms of races, wins and championship statistics, they are only beaten by Ferrari and Mercedes.
However, recently they’ve been slipping down the order, with their last win being very much a one off back in 2012.
At an edgy launch event in London’s Shoreditch, the plight of Williams was put into focus and also gave the team a chance to highlight what they’ve done about it, by showcasing their personnel and the new F1 car for 2018: the FW41.
This new racer gives clues that Williams are perhaps on their way back up.
Grand Prix Engineering
The new car shows a revitalised thinking in the design department, with aspects of older Williams plus last year’s Ferrari and Mercedes.
While a bit of plagiarism isn’t a new or a bad thing in F1, this gives us clues to what’s making the changes at Williams this year.
A bit of history: Williams F1 started out in the 1970s as the eponymous team of Frank Williams, who was joined by engineer Patrick Head. Throughout the team’s history this pairing worked the commercial and technical sides of the team to great success.
Now some fifty years on the pair have stepped back and new people have been running the team, on the engineering side the team have not been so strong, as the company's title would have suggested.
After a period of success in 2014 when the rules changed for engine and aero, Williams came near to winning races and it appeared the team had found a secret to performance under the new rules, but subsequently the team have slipped back in the championship each year.
To stem this decline, Williams were able to make the bold move to sign Paddy Lowe as Technical Director last year.
Lowe started out at Williams and was responsible for their active suspension back in the nineties. He went on to McLaren where he rose to technical director level and then spearheaded Mercedes rise to dominance post 2014.
Now Lowe is back at Williams and reshaping the engineering departments that have not been producing the competitive car that the team needs.
This re-engineering of the team is what brings us to the FW41 - but Lowe hasn’t achieved this alone. Another key person is Dirk De Beers, a long-standing head of the aero department at Renault (nee Lotus), who moved to Ferrari with James Alison in the wake of Ferrari’s awful 2014 season, but equally fell foul of Maranello’s cull of staff under CEO Sergio Marchionne.
Now Williams have experience and skill from the top two teams in the sport, and more importantly these aren’t prima donnas, they’re staff with experience both at the top and in midfield teams. They are joined in a technical triumvirate by Ed Wood, Williams own incumbent designer.
Knowing this engineering background, the design of the new Williams starts to make some sense.
Rather than evolve the FW40 from 2017, the car takes solid ideas from Ferrari and Mercedes, with unsurprisingly the lion’s share of bodywork inspired by Maranello.
Although the nose follows Williams post 2015 wide thumb-tip shape, underneath there is a curved vane as raced by Mercedes in 2017, known as the ‘cape’.
This is a different take on the front turning vanes as raced by all other teams, it's functionally very similar, it merely strikes up powerful spiraling airflows behind it to make the bargeboards work better at keeping the front tyres turbulence away from the car.
Moving on, the car’s mid-section is perhaps the most interesting, in a similar way to Ferrari last year, the sidepods are reworked and shortened.
This pushes the inlet up high and creates a much deeper undercut in the flanks of the bodywork. It’s this undercut, not the inlet itself that is helping the aero here, as air grabbed by the undercut gets directed towards the diffuser to create more downforce.
Getting this high inlet/undercut to work is helped by the bargeboards, these are very large and complex and a trailing ‘boomerang’ wing sitting above them, helps to push the airflow rising up off the front wing downwards towards the undercut.
Not only is the reshaped sidepod good for aero, it’s good for a low centre of gravity too. To free up space for the high inlet, the side crash structure usually mounted to the cockpit side within the top of the sidepod, has been moved downwards.
While the crash structures are not heavy components, the additional high up weight of the Halo on top of the cockpit, can at least be partially offset with this set up.
As per 2018's regulations the Williams wears a Halo, wrapped in a simple fairing and painted white. We can expect some cleverer shaping and aerofoils to be added once the real car appears, to offset the disturbance the Halo creates for the roll hoop inlet and rear wing.
Likewise, the shark fin is cut to the maximum allowed for this year, Williams choosing to keep the “T-bar” top edge to the fin, this helping to make the fin work to direct airflow to the rear wing when the car is sliding.
Underneath the skin Williams continue to use the class leading Mercedes AMG power unit, this means the car should enjoy nearly a 1000hp, but also great reliability.
This latter point will be critical in the championship this year, with just three engines, turbos and MGU-Hs to last each driver the full season.
Not confirmed at the launch, but Williams are expected to run a new gearbox this year, most likely a carbon fibre outer casing and a small titanium cartridge inside to hold the gears and differential.
This format is common across nearly every team, but Williams have been the sole team running a cast aluminium gearbox case and is judged by competitors to be an inferior solution from a weight and stiffness point of view.
At the rear, the aero switches back to some of Williams own unique designs from recent years. At the tail of the shark fin there is a winglet, dubbed the ‘gearbox winglet’ by Williams, but most people called this a T-wing last year.
Although the coat hanger shaped T-wings mounted higher up last year are banned, the loop hole allowing this lower wing remains and most teams will exploit this to help the rear wing work better. This being especially useful with the reduced sized monkey seats, that have been regulated this year.
Williams have come up with a very different car to its forebears, but also one that bears similar steps to the Haas (the only other car revealed so far).
It’s too early to say if this enough to bring them greater success this year, but does show the fight is back in the team.