Will Gray

Gray Matter: Is Symonds Williams’ saviour?

Will Gray

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It’s been another season of disappointment at Williams but could the arrival of Pat Symonds as technical chief be the penultimate piece of the retirement jigsaw for Sir Frank?

Williams is a team founded on the two vital pillars of F1 – a strong team manager (Sir Frank) and a technically excellent lead engineer (Patrick Head).

Succession planning has been in process for some time, with Williams and Head both trying since the mid 2000s to nurture new blood to take on their mantle and deliver a stable future for the team.

On the technical side, Head chose young engineer Sam Michael in 2001 after he impressed at Jordan in the race engineering department.

Three years as Senior Operations Engineer in Williams’ successful BMW era suggested Michael was ready so Head sidestepped into R&D, giving the Australian space to lead the team on his own but staying close enough to administer control if things slipped out of line.

While Michael was trying to manage the technical side during the fall-out from BMW’s departure, Williams was trying to find his equivalent successor for the business side and chose former investment banker turned lawyer turned mining chairman Adam Parr.

The pair met in 2000 but it was not until late 2006 that Parr joined as CEO. Again, after a three-year ‘apprenticeship’ he was handed significant control as chairman, responsible for the day-to-day running of the team.

The two men seemed ideal. Michael, born in 1971, and Parr, born in 1965, were young compared to their predecessors but had now been well schooled and had plenty of experience. And for now they still had the support of the original team leaders behind them.

But as results started to dry up, that succession plan fell apart.

Michael resigned mid-season in 2011 after poor results and Parr slid out of F1 completely in March 2012, leaving a graphic novel on F1 management called ‘The Art of War...’ as a rather odd legacy.

Williams has since handed his daughter, Claire, the day-to-day reigns on the management side, but the technical role is still to fill.

Right now, though, Williams is not a team that a young up-and-coming engineer wants to hang his future on, so the signing of Symonds could be a masterstroke - despite him admitting not long ago that he was seeking semi-retirement.

Symonds is right out of the Head mould: passionate even more about engineering than about Formula One itself, but deep down an out-and-out racer.

The former Benetton and Renault technical chief spent many successful years working with Ross Brawn but was banned from F1 when he and team boss Flavio Briatore were found guilty of race fixing in 2009.

That was a big blot on his copybook, but somehow his record of success shone above it and he has since made a triumphant return to F1 with Virgin / Marussia.

At Renault, Symonds’ role was to keep a good operation running smoothly but at Marussia he had to use that understanding of top-level technical management to take something that wasn’t working, strip out the problems and structure it so it started to move forward.

That has helped Marussia close in on rivals Caterham despite having less resources - and vitally, Symonds says, it has led to some of the more highly rated engineers starting to choose to join the team.

If there’s anyone that can drive Williams back to the front, surely it’s Symonds - and if he can make it a place that attracts people again, then maybe HE can find Head’s real long-term technical successor...

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