Three former world champions hailed the announcement of the
Williams Renault reunion earlier this week - but can the glory years really
return to this great British team?
This weekend's Grand Prix venue, Silverstone, holds happy
memories for Williams as it is the track where they scored their first victory
in 1979 and was also the venue for their 100th win, when partnered with
Renault, in 1997.
Since Jacques Villeneuve took that victory, however, the
team has won just 13 more races despite a long, promising but ultimately
title-less partnership with BMW, a brief relationship with Toyota and two short
periods with customer engines Mecachrome and Cosworth.
Heading into this weekend's Grand Prix, those more recent
Williams-Renault glory days were recalled as Nigel Mansell (1992 champion),
Damon Hill (1996 champion) and Jacques Villeneuve (1997 champion) all returned
to the Grove headquarters as part of the engine partnership announcement, which
will see Renault and Williams team up again for at least the next two years.
The dream is, of course, to get back to the level of success
the team enjoyed in the first Williams-Renault partnership, which ran between
1989 and 1997 and, once bedded in, led to a total of 63 race wins, four
drivers' championships and five constructors' titles.
But this new partnership will be very different to the last
because there are three things Williams will not have - a priority partnership,
a massive sponsor and Adrian Newey.
In the early days of the original partnership, Williams was
very much the works team and Ligier was the only other team with Renault
engines. This close working relationship helped to build what became a dominant
period in the early 1990s and even though there was a brief blip when Benetton
took the second engine in 1995 and won both titles, Williams' nurtured
relationship saw them win titles again in 1996 and 1997.
It is easy to argue, however, that it was not the engine at
all that produced all the success - it was the presence of Adrian Newey in the
design room, and the existence of one of big budgets thanks to support first
from Camel and then from Rothmans.
This time, Williams will be sharing the Renault engine with
not one but three other teams, and one of them is world champions Red Bull - a
team that will likely win the title again this year barring an incredible
turnaround, and one that is now in proud possession of Adrian Newey.
So while the new Renault deal certainly gives Williams the
potential to get back to the front, there will be a lot of hard work yet before
they get there.
The team stated they are very much looking forward rather
than back, but they will undoubtedly be looking to bring back the buzz of the
old days if at least to energise the design office and to draw back some strong
Renault spoke of other "exciting business and marketing
opportunities" when announcing their deal, and that can only be positive for
Williams from a commercial sense - but it is in the technical department where
success is made.
Since the demise of the BMW partnership, that side of
Williams has struggled and the budgets have reduced with the faltering success.
So perhaps the biggest potential for Williams' hopes of resurgence is not only
the Renault engine deal but also a reshuffling of personnel behind the scenes.
Patrick Head's rumoured retirement at the end of the year
could create more freedom in the technical team while the end of Sam Michael's
reign has cleared the path for a big change, with the arrival of Mike Coughlan,
chief designer at McLaren between 2002 and 2007, as the new leader.
Catching the Newey-led Red Bull looks like an impossible
task right now, but fighting off Lotus Renault (green) and chasing down Lotus
Renault (black) will not be easy either - so while the potential Williams
revival is good news for Formula One, an immediate return to those glory days
is far from guaranteed.
- Jacques Villeneuve
- Adrian Newey