When George Russell took his Williams FW43 down the Circuit de Catalunya pitlane ahead of the green light showing for the start of the first official F1 pre-season test, he did more than just gain track position over his rivals.
Twelve months ago, Williams Racing began a disastrous 2019 campaign by cancelling a planned shakedown of their new car before missing two days of the 8-day pre-season test with issues that have never fully been explained.
Williams would never recover from this stuttering start, as the season lurched from one mishap to the next, making the once-great Formula 1 team the butt of many a mocking internet meme, as the wheels looked to have well and truly come off a sporting institution.
The F1 establishment expressed concern that the Grove team might be doomed, and that recovery might not be possible, as supporters of other teams professed a yearning for Williams to do well, which demonstrated both how much good feeling still exists towards one of F1’s truly great teams, but also how little threat Williams had become.
Publicly, Williams made noises about changes made behind the scenes in an effort to steady the ship, setting the team on a new course that should ensure recovery. But with that came the sobering suggestion that 2019 and 2020 are being treated as two parts of the same season, with real progress likely in 2021 at the earliest.
Everyone wondered if they had indeed been able to rid themselves of the issues that had plagued them for two straight years, or whether terminal decline had set in.
So when Williams released Russell from his garage at 8.59 this morning – a minute before the start of the session, and ahead of everyone else – Williams were sending a statement to the watching world.
We’re Williams and we are fighting.
What about Williams’ test pace?
One objective had been met, but now for the real test of progress – how would the FW43 fare on track. Could Williams really have evolved a lacklustre FW42 into something its two drivers, Russell and new-boy Latifi, could use to fight for points.
Testing at this stage of the F1 season isn’t about putting in quick laps, but it was important for Williams to demonstrate (perhaps to themselves too) that progress had indeed been made and that they were at the very least in the same race as the cars around them – something that eluded them for the majority of 2019.
Russell, clearly more at home with the FW43 than its predecessor, put in a sequence of competitive laps, but he was fitted with the red marked Pirelli C4s, where those around him were fitted with the harder tyre.
However his strong pace remained when he switched to the yellow C3 tyres, and he ended the morning a fantastic sixth place (I have to keep reminding myself that laptimes in testing are largely meaningless)
It’s difficult to gauge relative pace over the course of a full F1 test, and so to even attempt to work out a pecking order after one day is daft, however, by just about everything measurable Williams are streets ahead of where they were last year.
Come the afternoon, Nicholas Latifi got his first taste of the FW43, adding 63 laps to Russell’s morning tally of 74, closing the day 12th quickest, three places behind team-mate Russell. (laptimes/testing/meaningless)
Both Williams drivers finished ahead of the outgoing Robert Kubica who jumped ship to Alfa Romeo at the end of last year with a flurry of criticism for his former team in the hope that a reserve-driver role would lead to something better in 2021. (laptimes/testing/meanin… Nah, I’m having this one!!)
Kubica, completely unable to acknowledge that his form could have been part of the reason he struggled last year might have to have a little rethink based on today’s evidence.
Claire Williams, Williams Deputy Team Principal, who has taken so much flak in the past 24 months ended the day wearing a broad smile. Long may that continue.