When we look back at the 2020 Formula 1 season in years to come, it’s unlikely our prevailing memories will be of anything that happened on-track. This is especially true if you’re a fan of Williams, for whom this year’s season was a momentous one.
The season was due to begin in Australia in March, however, the COVID-19 pandemic was just starting to bite, and what was due to be the F1 season opener was shambolically cancelled at the eleventh hour, with fans waiting outside the gate on the morning of FP1.
We would have to wait to see if Williams’ upturn in form hinted at in pre-season testing was genuine, after a disastrous 2019 spent largely chasing (and largely unsuccessfully) the tail end of the field.
Following the Australian GP debacle, and with no sign of the pandemic abating, our wait for on-track action would be prolonged as first China (the apparent source of the virus), then Vietnam, Bahrain and then all of Europe postponed their Grands Prix in anticipation of lockdown measures being imposed by governments worldwide in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19.
As the weeks and months passed it began to look increasingly unlikely we’d see any racing at all in 2020.
The financial pressure of the mandated inactivity began to take effect.
ROKiT – Williams’ title sponsor for 2020 – and the team parted company, leaving a giant hole in the team’s coffers and a lot of red paint (ROKiT’s brand colour) to cover up, and forcing the team into leveraging its stable of historic racing cars against a $50m loan from Michael Latifi – Williams sponsor and father of driver Nicholas Latifi.
But this was a short-term steadying of the ship, and in May came the bombshell that the team – Williams family owned since its founding in 1977 – was up for sale, partly as a result of the mounting financial pressure as a result of COVID-19 measures, a few seasons of under-performing, and F1’s current regulations favouring big-spending manufacturers.
F1’s ambitious plan to get the show back on the road with rigorous testing, regimental organisation and policing of ‘bubbles’, creative scheduling with a few unfamiliar venues – Imola, Portimao & Nurburgring – but sans fans meant that to everyone’s surprise F1 2020 finally got underway in June with a double-header at the Red Bull Ring in Austria.
Right away, Williams looked – in the hands of George Russell at least – to have bridged the gap between themselves and Haas and Alfa Romeo, perhaps even leapfrogging them on single lap pace.
It was no doubt a step up the grid, but how much of it was down to the Ferrari engine that powered both teams now being short of power as a result of an FIA ruling on its legality, and how much was genuine Williams progress remains unclear.
There, Williams remained for the duration of the season. Mid to high teens, knocking on the door of a point here and there that sadly never materialised, and George a regular fixture in Q2 (something that eluded him in the entirety of 2019).
In August, with a third of the season complete it was announced that the Williams family had indeed sold the team, to US investment firm Dorilton Capital, that Claire Williams would be stepping down from her role as Deputy Team Principal and that both she and Sir Frank would be stepping down from Williams’ board.
As the chequered flag dropped on the Italian Grand Prix on the 6th of September it brought to a close the end of an era. For the first time in over 40 years there was no Williams family involvement in the sport they would, for a decade, dominate.
A new Team Principal: Simon Roberts, new ownership, and a new board seemed not to affect the performance of the car or the team (other than a new boldness of strategy perhaps), and Williams saw out the season bottom of both championships.
As sad as it was to see the Williams family step away from the team it worked so hard to build, none of us want to see the team struggle and right now the sport doesn’t appear to be set up to allow a family owned team to succeed, and as such it had to be sold in order to a. be successful and b. not go bust.
So while it was Williams’ first pointless season in Formula 1, to have survived should be considered a success. Add to that the signs of improvement from 2019 and the boost to the team’s finances (as sad as it was that Claire and Sir Frank had to step aside for this to happen) then not only did Williams stop the slide in 2020, they also set a good course for the future.