Thank Frankel it's Friday: Is there any way back for Williams and McLaren?
It seems incredible to me as someone who lived and breathed Formula 1 throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties that Williams and McLaren are no longer at the sharp end of the grid.
In fact and in my mind if no-one else’s, they still are at the forefront of their sport. Something within me is convinced that these remain front-running teams, artificially and temporarily held back by a malevolent but clearly transient force beyond their control. The thought that by any objective measure neither could be considered one of the top teams is entirely anathema to me, and all the more so because it’s so palpably true.
Fact is that what my brain still thinks of as being the Big Three of Formula 1 is no longer: its sole survivor, Ferrari has been joined by the world’s largest premium car manufacturer and an enormous fizzy drink concern. When I consider that it’s been 20 years since McLaren last won the F1 Constructors Trophy (though Lewis Hamilton did win the Driver’s title in a McLaren in 2008) and 21 for Williams, it barely seems possible.
And it saddens me just a little because what McLaren and Williams have in common, and what neither of the teams that replaced them in the Big Three can claim is that, at their very heart, both are racing teams. Yes, McLaren has its increasingly successful road car division (though that should really be considered to be a separate entity), and Williams has diversified into all sorts of interesting engineering avenues (the Jaguar C-X75s driven by the bad guy in the last Bond movie were made mobile by Williams Advanced Engineering), but both were conceived for the love of racing and that alone. They are of what Enzo Ferrari contemptuously referred to as ‘garagista’ stock, a term that came to be worn by the teams at whom it was then aimed (mainly Cooper and Lotus) as something of a badge of honour. And quite right too.
Is there a way back for them? Clearly they believe there is, and that the might of Mercedes-Benz, Red Bull and Ferrari can be challenged once more. And I hope they do, not just because I’d love to see Williams and McLaren slugging it out for top spot once more, but because one of many problems to beset Formula 1 is that if you’re not in the Big Three these days, you have literally no chance of winning a Grand Prix. No chance? Well there will always be a chance because there is always the odd freak result, like at Monaco in 1996 where literally all you had to do to stand on the podium was not crash or break down, which is how Olivier Panis got to win his one and only Grand Prix. But otherwise, no: the last time a car from any team other than those three won a Grand Prix was a Lotus driven by Kimi Raikkonen in Australia at the start of the 2013 season. And that, as I write before this weekend’s British Grand Prix, is 106 races ago. Seems crazy to me.
But if there is a way back, it’s going to be hard, just because when I look at the resources of a Mercedes-Benz or a Red Bull compared to what I imagine even McLaren let alone Williams has at its disposal, I see something I see in all forms of motorsport I follow: long-term, the teams with the most money win. And when you think about it, it would be very peculiar were it any other way.
That said Formula 1 is trying to reduce costs for all teams in order to even up the field, though perhaps unsurprisingly those with most to spend (and therefore most to lose) are less than keen. Mercedes-Benz and Red Bull have voiced reasonable concerns and Ferrari has threatened to pull out of F1 after 2020 when proposed rules imposing a $150 million cost cap per team would be imposed. It should perhaps be mentioned that Ferrari has some previous when it comes to threatening to pull out of F1 yet remains to date the only team to have been on the grid throughout its 68 year history.
For me though the cap can’t come too soon. If the cap helps the likes of Williams and McLaren back to the front, or even some distance in that direction, I think few would say having five teams duking it out every other weekend was not better for the sport than the current three. And what’s better for the sport must, in the long term, be better for those involved in the sport, even Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.
In the meantime I’ll tune in on Sunday and hope against hope that a Williams or (perhaps more likely) a McLaren has found an unexpected turn of additional speed in the seven days since the last race. Unlikely? Of course. Implausible? Very probably. Impossible? Absolutely not, and there’s a trophy on the mantelpiece of one O Panis Esq to prove it.