F1's fastest and slowest: Williams's rollercoaster ride

In its time gracing the Formula 1 grid, Williams has hit the very pinnacle of grand prix racing - and also brought up the rear. As part of tributes being paid to the late Sir Frank Williams, who sadly died on Sunday aged 79, Autosport revisits a piece where we show how its pace measures up from 1978-2020 (first published 31 January 2021)

F1's fastest and slowest: Williams's rollercoaster ride

Williams remains one of the great Formula 1 names and, despite its recent troubles, is still the fourth most successful team in terms of world championship race wins. Only towards the end of 2020 did the Mercedes steamroller surpass Williams's total of 114 victories.

Williams is still third (two ahead of Mercedes) on the pole positions list, while its record of nine constructors' titles (second only to Ferrari) and seven drivers' crowns (fourth) underlines its legendary status.

And yet the Grove-based team has not won a title since 1997 and all but 11 of its 114 wins came in its first two decades. In other words, it has now spent as much of its life not at the sharp end as it has at the front, an unthinkable situation for those who witnessed its periods of domination in the 1980s and 1990s.

Last year we assessed the peaks and troughs of Ferrari's 70 years in F1. Now, as Williams embarks on a new era with fresh investment and the Williams family no longer at the helm, it seems like a good time to do likewise for one of motorsport's most popular outfits.

PLUS: The spectacular peaks and troughs of Ferrari's cyclical history

Once again, we have used supertimes for our analysis. Supertimes are based on the fastest single lap by each car at each race weekend, expressed as a percentage of the fastest single lap overall (100.000%) and averaged over the season.

As we have pointed out before, because they are based on the best lap time of a weekend (which usually means qualifying), supertimes don't give a complete picture of a car's competitiveness, in terms of race pace or reliability. But the approach does give a good indication of how cars stack up against one another season-by-season.

For this piece we have calculated how far off Williams has been from the fastest team in F1 each season or, in years when the team was quickest, how far ahead it was.

Choosing where to start with Williams is a tad tricky. Frank Williams first ran a car in F1 in 1969, and even after the formation of Williams Grand Prix Engineering in 1977 the team ran a customer March chassis in selected races (and was woefully off the pace).

We've decided to start our analysis when Williams and co-founder Patrick Head produced their first car together for 1978. That's when WGPE became a fully blown F1 constructor, albeit as a one-car team.

The FW06 was a neat, sensible, fairly conventional car. In the hands of Alan Jones, the Saudia Airlines-sponsored machine showed flashes of pace and was arguably unfortunate not to win a race, though even Head concedes it was not reliable enough.

PLUS: The best cars never to win a grand prix

Williams has not won a title since 1997 and all but 11 of its 114 wins came in its first two decades. In other words, it has now spent as much of its life not at the sharp end as it has at the front

On average the FW06 was only eighth fastest across the season, 1.9% from ground-effects pioneer Lotus. In 2020 terms that would put it between AlphaTauri and Alfa Romeo, about 0.9% quicker than the FW43 was.

But there would be a big step for 1979. Lotus designer Colin Chapman had showed the way with the 79 but immediately tried to make the next big leap instead of perfecting ground-effect. While Lotus lost its way, Head came up with the FW07, essentially a better (ie stiffer) version.

It wasn't ready for the start of the year and it took a while for the team to unlock the car's potential, so Williams's overall supertime position for the year was third, 0.277% down. But that masks the FW07's real performance. With the FW06's races factored out by removing the first four rounds, Williams jumps to the top of the chart, 0.538% clear of second-placed Ferrari.

Clay Regazzoni famously scored the team's first world championship GP win at Silverstone and Jones added four more victories, but it was not enough to prevent the reliable and consistent Ferrari 312T4 scooping the constructors' title and 1-2 in the drivers' table with Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve.

Ferrari was left all at sea as ground-effects and downforce levels ramped up in 1980, and the top four (in terms of raw pace) of Williams, Ligier, Renault and Brabham were covered by just 0.271%. But it was consistent Williams on top, beating Ligier by 120 points to 66 for its first constructors' laurels, while Jones scored five wins and the drivers' title.

PLUS: The genesis of an F1 great

Jones was arguably even better in 1981 but luck was not with him. Renault was the fastest of all - 0.102% ahead of Williams - but its revolutionary turbocharged machines were still not reliable enough.

That left Brabham, just 0.222% behind Williams, as the main challenger. But whereas Jones and Carlos Reutemann split the Williams points (most controversially at the wet Brazilian GP, when Reutemann ignored team orders to win), Nelson Piquet was the driver at Brabham.

Reutemann's resolve crumbled and fifth in the season finale was enough for Piquet to clinch the drivers' championship, but Williams was still a comfortable champion in the table that mattered to Frank Williams - the constructors'.

The turbo revolution was in full swing by 1982, with Renault, Ferrari and then Brabham running competitive cars. They immediately jumped to the top three on raw speed, with Williams a massive 1.727% behind pacesetter Renault.

That's further away than AlphaTauri was from Mercedes last year, but there are two major caveats. The first is that the turbo era creates some misleading raw pace data - turbo boost could be turned up in qualifying, producing power levels that were not possible in races. The Cosworth DFV-engined runners, which included Williams, were invariably closer in races, helped by being kinder to their tyres.

The second is that Brabham and Renault were still too unreliable. Ferrari was strong enough to win the constructors' contest, but the terrible crashes for Villeneuve and Didier Pironi meant that it had no driver battling for the crown come the end of the season, as new Williams recruit Keke Rosberg came through to become a surprise champion.

Autosport 70: The "cheapest" world champion opens up

Despite the turbo failures in 1982, it was clear that it was the way to go to remain competitive. Flat bottoms arrived for 1983 to curb downforce and turbos set the pace. Williams, still running the DFV, slipped to eighth fastest, 3.374% away from Ferrari, which again took the constructors' championship.

Rosberg put in one of his greatest drives to win the Monaco GP in tricky conditions, but languished in fifth in the points. And Williams was fourth, with half the score of Brabham-BMW in third.

The qualifying prowess of Ayrton Senna and Lotus-Renault kept Williams in second on the supertimes but in reality the Williams-Honda FW11 was the best race car of 1986

Honda power had arrived before the end of the season and the turbocharged FW09 was the Williams weapon of choice for 1984. It was unwieldy and Honda was playing catch-up with the engine (sound familiar?), meaning the final results (eighth for Rosberg, sixth for Williams) were even worse.

But it had moved Williams closer to the pace, 1.655% behind in sixth, and things were going in the right direction. That continued in 1985, the powerful FW10 being second quickest overall (and ahead of title-winning McLaren) and winning the last three GPs.

The qualifying prowess of Ayrton Senna and Lotus-Renault kept Williams in second on the supertimes but in reality the Williams-Honda FW11 was the best race car of 1986. It won nine of the 16 races and Williams won the constructors' championship by miles, but the rivalry between Nigel Mansell and Piquet allowed an inspired Alain Prost to steal the drivers' laurels with McLaren.

It was still a remarkable season given the pre-season road accident that left Frank Williams in a wheelchair, Mansell delivering an emotional victory in the British Grand Prix as the team boss returned to the paddock.

PLUS: How Williams overcame its greatest setback

As the McLaren-TAG (aka McLaren-Porsche) partnership headed towards its conclusion, Senna and Lotus focused on maximising active suspension for races and Ferrari started a recovery, Williams was dominant in 1987.

The FW11B's raw pace advantage was 1.331%, the biggest margin at the front of F1 since the 1950s. Despite Piquet's serious Imola accident compromising his performance, the FW11B still took nine wins from the first 14 races.

Mansell usually led the charge but bad luck, most notably in Monaco and Hungary, and a crash in Japanese GP qualifying handed Piquet the title. In Mansell's absence, Williams was an also-ran in the final two rounds of the year, both won by Gerhard Berger's Ferrari, but of bigger concern was the loss of Honda engines.

Not for the last time, Williams's independent spirit brought some challenges for 1988. Honda wanted to stay with Senna as he moved to McLaren, which meant that Lotus or Williams would have to lose the Japanese firm's engines.

Honda asked Williams to replace Mansell with Satoru Nakajima. Understandably, Williams and Head felt a Piquet-Nakajima line-up would be secondary to Prost-Senna at McLaren, so declined. McLaren went on to dominate 1988 with the iconic MP4/4, while Williams ran normally aspirated Judd V8s for Mansell and Riccardo Patrese - who replaced Lotus-bound Piquet.

Not only was Williams left behind by turbo users McLaren, Ferrari and Lotus, it was also jumped by fellow normally aspirated runner Benetton. The FW12 wasn't a terrible car - Mansell twice qualified second and twice finished there - but reliability was poor and it was really a holding year before Renault V10 engines arrived.

The first year of the partnership reduced the gap to the front from 2.894% (fifth) to 1.771% (third) in 1989, and yielded two wins in rain-blighted races at Montreal and Adelaide for Thierry Boutsen. The deficit was 1.278% the following year, but Williams could not get into the title fight with McLaren and Ferrari, despite claiming its first dry weather wins courtesy of Patrese at Imola and Boutsen in Hungary.

PLUS: How Hungary's tortoise and hare grand prix was won

But 1991 was the start of Williams's strongest period. The FW14 was the first Williams that aero guru Adrian Newey had a hand in, plus Mansell rejoined after two years at Ferrari to partner Patrese.

Across the season Williams was 0.269% behind McLaren, but there were times when it had been ahead. A combination of unreliability, a brilliant campaign from Senna, driver errors and a big push from Honda was enough to deny Williams both titles, but there was no doubt it had momentum.

PLUS: When Williams led F1 to a new technological peak

Williams had long ago invested in new technologies in a bid to end McLaren's reign, most notably active suspension and traction control. Everything came together in 1992 and the FW14B obliterated the opposition, delivering Mansell his only world title. Its 1.492% advantage is the sixth biggest in F1 history, third if you discount the less competitive era of the 1950s.

1991 was the start of Williams's strongest period. The FW14 was the first Williams that aero guru Adrian Newey had a hand in, plus Mansell rejoined after two years at Ferrari

But in fourth place - even further ahead on the supertimes than the MP4/4 and FW14B - was the next Williams, the 1993 FW15C. Its advantage was an enormous 1.706%, a margin that covered the top seven teams in 2020...

A combination of procedural errors (Williams was rarely the best team in the pits in its heyday), more Senna brilliance and bad luck meant the FW15C, like the 14B, lost six of the 16 races. But a second title double was secured, Mansell's replacement Prost bowing out at season's end.

Senna joined for 1994 and the assumption was that the combination of the Brazilian and the era's preeminent team would be unstoppable. But all the gizmos, which Williams had built its designs around to gain its big advantage, were banned.

The FW16 was therefore tricky to drive, Michael Schumacher and Benetton were more competitive than expected, and then Williams lost Senna during the tragic San Marino GP weekend. The team rallied brilliantly, with Damon Hill taking on the role of team leader, and was actually the quickest over the season, by a scant 0.092%.

With the help of David Coulthard and Mansell, Williams retained its constructors' crown but Schumacher, despite only being able to score over 12 of the 16 races, clinched the drivers' title following the controversial clash with Hill at the Adelaide finale.

PLUS: The tragedy at the heart of Williams' 1990s peak

The FW17 had a 0.184% advantage over the field in 1995, but that was not enough to make up for the strategic excellence of Benetton and Schumacher's relentlessness in the races. Williams was repeatedly outmanoeuvred in the pits and errors from Hill and team-mate Coulthard added to the troubled season. Williams won five races to Benetton's 11 and lost out in both points tables.

Schumacher's move to Ferrari as the Italian team rebuilt itself (again) and the under-rated FW18 restored Williams to the front in 1996. A rejuvenated Hill marched to the crown with eight wins, while rookie team-mate Jacques Villeneuve scored four victories as Williams largely made the most of its 0.548% advantage.

Its only defeats were due to three superb Schumacher drives and the chaotic Monaco GP, which Hill would have won by miles had it not been for a rare Renault engine failure. The FW18's strike rate was therefore 75%, the best Williams season, despite the car not having the iconic status of the FW14B and FW15C.

The following season was, in hindsight, a turning point for Williams. The FW19 was the last Williams in which Newey had an influence before he left to join McLaren, frustrated at not having more say in team decisions, including driver selection. It could be argued that since that moment, Williams has not been at the cutting edge of F1 aerodynamic thinking, a key reason for its struggles in the 21st century.

The loss of Newey, Renault withdrawing as a factory engine supplier and new rules changed the competitive picture in 1998. Villeneuve had narrowly beaten Schumacher to the 1997 title, but Ferrari overtook arch-rival Williams in 1998 and McLaren leapfrogged both. Powered by the Mecachrome-badged Renault, the FW20 fell to third fastest, with its 1.364% deficit to McLaren the team's biggest since 1989. Villeneuve and Heinz-Harald Frentzen, a disappointing replacement for Hill, managed just three podiums between them all season.

The following season was even worse - 1.559% behind and fifth fastest, with F1 returnee Alex Zanardi failing to score a point - but the arrival of BMW power sparked a mini revival. Williams improved to 1.097% behind in fourth in 2000, then got back to second in 2001, 0.378% behind Ferrari with four wins scored by Ralf Schumacher and rookie Juan Pablo Montoya.

PLUS: How BMW took Williams to the brink of racing glory and back

Williams remained in the top three for the next three years, but titles remained elusive. That was largely due to the strength of Schumacher and Ferrari. The real deficit to the Italian team was actually bigger than the supertimes suggest.

Ferrari's Bridgestone tyres tended not to be so strong over one lap as the Michelins used by Williams, but were usually brilliant over longer stints. That helps to explain why, for example, Montoya was able to take seven poles for Williams in 2002 and yet the team's only win was Ralf Schumacher's success in Malaysia.

The loss of Newey, Renault withdrawing as a factory engine supplier and new rules changed the competitive picture in 1998

Another key moment came when Williams parted company with BMW after the relationship turned sour. Their final season together in 2005 was also their worst - only sixth fastest and 1.117% off the pace, although Nick Heidfeld took advantage of a light fuel load to take his only pole position at the Nurburgring.

As F1's costs continued to rise, being an independent - a good word to describe Frank and his team - proved more and more challenging, particularly after the 2008 economic crash.

Williams switched to Cosworth power for the first year of the 2.4-litre V8 era and then to Toyota for the second. Either way, the team was only seventh quickest, 1.078% off in 2006, 1.294% in 2007.

PLUS: How the V8 era left F1's greatest independent in flux

As the F1 field closed up, partly thanks to engine freeze regulations, Williams got to within 1.001% of pacesetter Ferrari in 2008 but was still only eighth fastest.

The double diffuser - initially used only by Brawn, Toyota and (now Toyota-powered) Williams - helped the team rise to fourth 0.394% off Red Bull (comfortably the best of the teams to start the season without the controversial interpretation of F1's new aero rules). This was F1's closest season in terms of raw pace from front to back.

Even so, Kazuki Nakajima finished the season point-less, and Nico Rosberg's tally was only sufficient to place seventh in the constructors' contest.

Thereafter Williams fell back once again in terms of pace (though was sixth in the points in 2010), not helped by a lack of engine consistency. In 2010 it changed from Toyota to Cosworth, then to Renault for 2012.

Thanks partly to the fragile Pirellis that for a time had teams struggling to make their cars work consistently, the 2012 FW34 was quite a competitive proposition, 0.74% off the pace in sixth. Many cars had 'their day' during the unpredictable season and the FW34 sensationally won the Spanish GP in the hands of Pastor Maldonado.

Had Williams been able to call on someone as established as Rubens Barrichello, who drove for the team in 2010-11, rather than the enigmatic Maldonado and inexperienced Bruno Senna, it might have finished higher than eighth in the 2012 constructors' table.

That momentum was not maintained in any case, with Williams slipping to ninth fastest (1.895% off the pace) and ninth in the points in 2013, but the turbo-hybrid era proved a lifeline.

As well as Martini sponsorship, Williams secured Mercedes engines. The powerplant was so far ahead of Ferrari and Renault that Williams vaulted to second fastest, though still a significant 0.881% away from Mercedes.

PLUS: How Williams traded podiums for alarming obscurity

The FW36 still did not score highly in the downforce department but, combined with Mercedes power, it was slippery enough to prove a threat at high-speed venues. Felipe Massa took pole at the Austrian GP - the only non-Mercedes pole of the campaign and - had the team been less conservative and more used to running at the front - might have been able to score a victory.

As it was, Red Bull and Daniel Ricciardo picked up the three wins that Mercedes allowed to let slip through its fingers. That helps to explain why the Milton Keynes-based squad was able to take second in the constructors' table, but third was still Williams's best result since 2003.

As other engine manufacturers got their acts together and closed the deficit to Mercedes, so Williams started to slip back to what, in the 21st century, has to be considered its more representative position in the midfield.

Taking on giants such as Mercedes is always going to be tough but, if F1 delivers on its more level playing field promise with the 2022 regulations, then the new Williams era could be one of moving back to the front

It did manage to hold on to third in the championship in 2015, but fell to fourth fastest. Perhaps more worryingly, the gap to Mercedes almost doubled, averaging 1.473%.

PLUS: How the cocktail for F1's superteams became outdated

In 2016, Williams was again fourth fastest (1.698% behind Mercedes) but this time that only converted to fifth in the constructors' table as the savvy Force India team of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg outscored Valtteri Bottas and Massa.

The fall gathered pace with the wider, more aerodynamically aggressive cars that arrived in 2017. Williams fell to seventh, 2.439% off the pace, though it did hold on to fifth in the points table, before sliding to last on the supertimes, 3.488% off Mercedes in 2018.

That was also where Williams finished in the constructors' championship, not helped by having to rely on the inexperienced duo of Lance Stroll - who scored the team's most recent podium at Baku in 2017 - and Sergey Sirotkin. The rapid fall down the table also meant smaller payouts from F1, exacerbating Williams's financial issues, even if both Stroll Sr's and Sirotkin's money had been welcomed support.

The 2019 FW42 was - we all hope - the nadir for Williams. Late to start testing and, once again, lacking in downforce, it was 4.122% off the pace. That's the furthest away a Williams has ever been across a season, with 2018 the second-worst performance. The next slowest was the 1983 campaign, which was skewed by the aforementioned turbo qualifying characteristics - and even the FW08C was able to win a race.

There's no doubt that Frank Williams and Head created one of F1's superteams, but half of Williams's four decades - the recent half - has been spent in the midfield rather than at the front.

If this makes grim reading for Williams fans, there are some reasons to be cheerful.

The FW43 reduced the gap to the front to 2.787%, the team's seventh-best year-on-year improvement in its history and the second best this century. That's even more impressive when you factor in the jump Mercedes made at the front of the field with the W11.

Heading into 2021 Williams still has the services of George Russell, one of F1's brightest rising stars. And the team has worked hard to optimise other areas, such as pitstops. There is also the extra financial stability provided by the Dorilton Capital buyout and new CEO Jost Capito has a good track record.

PLUS: Why a new era for Williams could beckon success

Taking on giants such as Mercedes is always going to be tough but, if F1 delivers on its more level playing field promise with the 2022 regulations, then the new Williams era could be one of moving back to the front. That would be good for F1 - and a fitting tribute to Frank Williams and his family.


Top 10 Williams F1 cars ranked: FW07, FW14B and more
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Top 10 Williams F1 cars ranked: FW07, FW14B and more

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Tributes paid to F1 legend Sir Frank Williams

Tributes paid to F1 legend Sir Frank Williams
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