When Williams won in Spain last season it was their first victory in 131 races and, more importantly, it was seen as justification of a major technical restructure the team undertook in 2011. But instead of opening the gates to more success it turned out to be one of few points-scoring highlights in a season of underachievement.
The FW34 certainly had the pace to perform and race at the front – but through various reasons it just didn’t collect the points to show it.
Lead driver Pastor Maldonado started more than half of last year’s races in the top 10 but through a combination of driver errors, reliability issues and team mistakes he only finished five in the points. His team-mate Bruno Senna, meanwhile, failed to do any better.
Looking at pace alone, not just in part of the season but across the entire year, it would not have been inconceivable for the FW34 to have been good enough to fight for fifth in the championship or at the very least to lead the midfield pack.
Given that 2011 was their worst ever year, that would have been an astonishing comeback. But it was entirely possible.
If they are to aim that high again this year, there are two key people who need to unlock Williams’ potential.
The first is Mike Coughlan.
This is the first Williams machine fully developed by the experienced designer, who was schooled by the legendary John Barnard and worked for Benetton, Ferrari and Arrows before six successful years at McLaren.
Williams signed Coughlan to bring him back to F1 after the ‘spygate’ scandal saw him booted out in 2007 – and his arrival in June 2011 ended the seven-year reign of Australian technical director Sam Michael.
When he joined, he clearly stated that his job was to “look at the way we work” and improve it, rather than focus on a quick-hire solution.
During this process, the team has bled some key engineering talent – including the departure of chief operations engineer Mark Gillian at the end of last year - but Coughlan now feels he has the team in place to move forward.
He was able to influence many elements of last year’s car, but he was not there in time to take control of the early conceptual development. This year he has been, so the new machine will be the first to benefit ground-up from his meticulous attention to detail and clear focus on logical development.
Last year’s progress with the coanda exhausts is a good case in point. Williams never introduced them into a race because Coughlan had to be sure they were a forward step and, more importantly, that they knew what step to take next to improve them further.
In a season of stable rules, Williams will benefit significantly from this approach – and the new FW35 clearly has had a much greater eye on the detail elements than in seasons gone by.
The other key man is Pastor Maldonado.
The Venezuelan arrived in F1 with the tag of a pay driver – despite winning the GP2 title – but he has since shown he has the talent, if not yet the temperament, to be as good as many of the top drivers.
He delivered some good performances in year one alongside experienced Brazilian Rubens Barrichello but was then thrust into the position of team leader when the team was forced to drop the former Ferrari man for rookie Bruno Senna.
With the competitive FW34, Maldonado showed he could qualify and race at the front but on too many occasions he also showed that he could just as easily throw great opportunities away in the heat of battle.
By the end of last season he actually strung together two consecutive point finishes - in Abu Dhabi and the USA – and he will need to do far more of that this year to deliver on his promise.
His new team-mate Valtteri Bottas is highly rated, but Maldonado should be the one with the race-ready head to earn and retain the team’s number one status. And then he has to lead.
He spent the off-season back home with friends “relaxing his mind” so he can focus more when the season starts – but Williams would be well advised to keep a mind coach on retainer just in case.
The Renault engine is fast and reliable and the team has expertise in KERS technology, with its own developed unit giving them a potential advantage over other Renault-running rivals.
The new car looks well developed with both drivers proclaiming it a significant step forward at its first test - and although they have abandoned their new exhaust treatment over legality concerns, that change is not expected to hurt them too much.
The target again this year is fifth – and again that is a big ask considering last year’s fifth place team, Mercedes, finished on double the amount of points Williams achieved.
But if Coughlan’s new machine IS a step forward and responds well to development and if Maldonado CAN become focused as well as fast then perhaps it is not so crazy to think Williams could rise again.
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