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Why Williams F1 team is racing to repair Albon’s crashed car for Suzuka

The Williams Formula 1 team is now in a race to get Alex Albon’s crashed chassis back to the UK and repaired in time for the next race in Japan.

Alex Albon, Williams FW46

Photo by: Sam Bagnall / Motorsport Images

The team does not currently have a spare chassis, so following the Thai driver’s huge crash in FP1 in Australia on Friday the decision was taken to switch him to Logan Sargeant’s car, leaving the American on the sidelines.

Team principal James Vowles has confirmed that the third chassis is still so far behind schedule that rather than fast track its completion the team will instead repair the crashed tub.

It is being flown back to UK and is due to arrive at the Grove factory in the early hours of Monday morning.

The fact that the team is in such a difficult situation is a reflection of the outdated processes that Vowles and his chief technical officer Pat Fry observed when they saw the FW46 come together at the last minute. 

Against a background of ongoing efforts to change and update processes, making two complete race cars and spares, plus the upgrades planned over the first three races, soaked up all available resources. The third chassis slipped far behind schedule.

To his credit Vowles has been completely open about what has transpired in Melbourne, both in terms of the difficult decision to bench Sargeant and the bigger picture of the weaknesses that have left the team in such a precarious situation.

"When I started in February last year, the plan was to have three chassis at round one,” he explains.

“As we went through large changes in organisation, having performance and technology changes in the back end and process, we started to push out fundamentally certain elements of things.

“There's a finite amount of resources. And as we were going through an inefficient structure, and making transformation at the same time, we started to cause problems.

“And those problems before could have translated to adding metal [rather than carbon] components, or last year's rear wings. In this particular case, the third chassis started to get delayed and delayed and delayed.

“And I think one of the things that we've been transparent about is we were very late with these cars - very, very late. We pushed everything to the absolute limit. And the fallout of that is we didn't have a spare chassis.

“Even then it was intended to be coming here, at round three. But it got delayed and delayed again.”

Alex Albon, Williams Racing FW46

Alex Albon, Williams Racing FW46

Photo by: Williams

In essence, the team made its life difficult over the winter by trying to improve its ways of working and making a better car.

“If you go back to root cause it's the fact that we've added significant processes, we've completely changed how we make a chassis,” says Vowles.

“There's almost 10 times the amount of parts in a chassis compared to last year. That's a level of complexity that takes an organisation to a new level.”

Vowles admits that having no spare chassis and no safety net is not a situation that the team should have put itself in.

“No team plans to not have a third chassis, not in modern day F1,” he says. “The last time I had that was in 2009 [with Brawn GP]. That's the last time I didn't have three cars. And we got lucky that year, we could easily have lost the championship as a result of losing a car.

“You don't plan to do that. It's simply unacceptable to not have to have two of your cars out on track next to each other fighting.

“In the case of what we are doing at the moment the reason why it's come about is because we are on the back foot with everything. As we try and move through processing systems and transformation, something's being pushed out the back. And in this case, it's the third chassis.

“We have updates planned and other items planned. But I'm having to divert the entire workforce on to getting this chassis in a good state, without losing the momentum we have on the third chassis and on updates. Something will give, there's no doubt about it."

For Vowles and his engineers the first three race weekends have been like Russian roulette, with everyone aware that a major crash could trigger the nightmare scenario that has unfolded.

Vowles knew as soon as the saw the scale of Albon’s accident on TV replays that there could be a problem, and his fears were realised when the wreck was returned to the paddock.

"Yesterday the gearbox was cracked in two, the engine mounts were completely bent and the engine's done, fundamentally,” he explains.

“And the chassis on the front right corner where the suspension goes in is torn apart, that’s the best way to say it. I can put my finger into the chassis, which you shouldn't be able to do, just for clarity!”

Logan Sargeant, Williams Racing, signs autographs for fans

Logan Sargeant, Williams Racing, signs autographs for fans

Photo by: Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

From the start the focus has been on repairing the crashed car rather than rushing to complete a new tub.

“Overnight the team has been brilliant at working with the structures and stress department and the design office in order to decide how we are going to fix this in a short period of time,” says Vowles.

"Definitely we will have two chassis in Japan, but I don't think the third chassis, because the workload that we now have on as the result of this change will push it back.

“There's a finite amount of resources. And you can either put it into making sure we have two cars built up and the correct amount of spares in Japan, or the additional chassis."

The first priority was to get the damaged tub back to Grove as quickly as possible, having already given the factory as much information on what the repair job will entail, and what new parts will be required.

“The team here have managed to get the car back for roundabout Monday 2am,” Vowles notes. “So we'll have teams already working on it from Monday onwards in order to get it repaired.

“Until they see it in person it'll be very difficult. We're doing things by photo and NDT [non-destructive testing] that we've done here. But there's about four or five mitigation plans in place for it.”

So is he 100 per cent confident that it will be ready for Suzuka?

"Until the chassis is back in the UK, and they've properly inspected from not just photos that we have and NDT that we have here, and properly get into it, no one can give you 100% certitude,” he says.

“What I can tell you is based on the evidence that we have so far and the work that's completed overnight, everything looks completely feasible.

“I've seen chassis in worst states come back from this. 100 per cent is a difficult number to give you, and as a statistics man, I wouldn't say 100 per cent. But I would say there's a very high probability it will all be fine."

James Vowles, Team Principal, Williams Racing

James Vowles, Team Principal, Williams Racing

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Vowles is a glass half full kind of guy, and he’s tried to see the positives and use the challenging Melbourne weekend as a motivational tool.

He also cites it as clear evidence for why processes need to change back at the factory.

“One of the things I did yesterday was to bring the team together and explain why I made the decision I have [about Sargeant], and why we have to pull together as a team not pull apart as a team,” he says.

“And why we have to use this as a catalyst for change. So this is all frustrating, we should never be in a situation in the top tier of motorsports where we're not able to produce two cars to go to the grid.

“But I've said all the way along that this catalyst of change that we need to do, the change that we're doing within Williams at the moment, is not one that will take place over one month or one year, but many years, to start resolving all these issues.

“You're seeing an output of it, which is the third chassis is not ready. This is more what I'm trying to use as a strength within the organisation of this is why we are changing, this is why I'm confident this will work as a result.

“And please use what's happened today not as a frustration, but as a catalyst for why we need to do this and very quickly together.”

As part of the process the entire race team is now focussed on Albon’s weekend – there is no them and us across the garages.

Meanwhile, the team is still playing Russian roulette. Albon can’t afford to have a second big accident this weekend, and it will be the same in Suzuka, where there will be no spare should either driver have a major off. Vowles insists that he doesn’t need to tell them to be careful.

"I'm pretty sure after yesterday they fully understand that there are no risks that we can be taking at this stage,” he insists.

“It's an interesting psychological trick. I talk to a driver and say don't take any risks, they're racing drivers, that's what I pay them to do, I pay them to be pushing to the absolute limits of where they can be within reason.

“And I'm asking them to do something that's entirely natural to them, and in certain aspects, probably worse. So in response to that, it's not how I operate with the drivers.

“But I think they have enough awareness now of what's happened over the last 24 hours what situation we're in."

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