This week I’ll be taking a look at the two teams who have been the two top midfield teams: Force India and Williams. Now, if I’d been writing this after any of the recent seasons before 2016, this would have been ‘Williams and Force India’, but a stunning display from Vijay Mallya’s team in 2016 saw them move up to 4th in the constructors standings. Will they be able to continue their rise of performance, or will holding onto 4th be their main objective for 2017? Do Williams have it in them to reclaim the title of ‘fourth best team’? Let’s take a look.
For a customer team only in their 9th season (though the team can trace its roots back to the early 90’s), 4th place in the constructors championship is a great achievement! Since finishing 10th in their maiden season, the team has seen steady improvement, finishing 9th, 7th, 6th, 7th, 6th, 6th, 5th in the following years, up to their personal best of 4th last year. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a team that has so consistently improved in the modern era of F1. This may have something to do with how economical they are with the money they have. It’s been calculated that for every million dollars the team earned, they won 2.58 points in 2016. For reference ,Mercedes earned 4.47 points at the top of the table, and Manor (RIP) won only 0.2 points. More shockingly perhaps, is that despite having a budget only a third of that Ferrari, Force India won half a point more per $1,000,000 earned.
So what does that mean for their 2017 prospects? Well, I’m sure that holding onto 4th will be more of a priority than breaking into the top three. Beating Williams is one thing, but bringing the fight to Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes is a whole other ball game. I can see a few podiums for them in 2017. A win is not impossible, but unlikely; at least two of the top three would need to suffer the perfect storm of bad weekends for that to be a prospect for them. Though, with the new rules coming by way of new cars and tyres, it’s not impossible to imagine that teams may will have trouble with reliability.
What about the driver line up? Their number one driver is Sergio Perez, who’s proven himself since his disasterous season at McLaren. He is a legitimate talent on the grid now, and must be admired for turning down a seat at Renault. Renault are much more likely to win a championship than Force India over the next 5 years, even if they need a couple of seasons to warm up. Makes sense why Perez’s old team mate Hulkenburg jumped ship to join the French outfit. 2016 was a strong year for Perez, he drove brilliantly to third in Monaco, and scored a further podium in Europe, and came close in Brazil where he finished fourth. Had Verstappen not drove the race of a lifetime in Brazil, that podium surely would have been Perez’s. On average he finished 8th or 9th, and scored points in 16 of the 21 races. Perez’s strength lies in his consistency – something that could help him greatly if he ever finds himself a seat in a race winning car. I’d expect another repeat of his performance this year, maybe a wee bit further down the field to allow for a stronger campaign from Ferrari. No shame in getting beaten by them though!
Estaban Ocon. You won’t have heard much about the French youngster, other than the fact that he replaced Haryanto in the Manor from Belgium onwards. He has two world titles under his belt despite only being 20 – the European Formula 3 Championship from 2014 and then GP3 in 2015. He’ll be hoping to make a good first impression in the higher ranked team. Although he only has 9 F1 races to his name, he obviously impressed someone at Force India enough to be given the seat over Wehrlein (though the stories of Wehrlein’s arrogant attitude in the paddock may have been a factor in teams overlooking him – more on Wehrlein in a later post). If he keeps his head down and pulls consistent results in the midfield, Force India could well be the jumping block he needs to get into a top tier team. With his previous championships, there’s no reason that Ocon shouldn’t be a name we see a lot more of in the coming years.
Unlike Sauber, Williams weren’t forgettable. That said, they weren’t exactly having the time of their lives either. They were… there. Williams is a pedigree name in the world of Formula One, much like Ferrari and McLaren. It seems that part of the price you pay for being in such a group is periods of highs and lows. They can and have won championships, though not since ’97. Their last race win came in 2012 from non-other than King of Crashes, Paster Maldonado! (Saying ‘race winner Paster Maldonado’ fills me with the same kind of shock as ‘President Trump’!). So maybe 2017 will bring better fortune with a fresh driver line up! Except, it won’t. After Rosberg’s shock departure, Massa had to hand back his golden watch and was handed his racing helmet as he was dragged out of retirement. Alongside him, Canadian rookie Lance Stroll, who is for all intents and purposes a pay driver. So in one hand we have the nearly-champion who is certainly past his best, and the young rookie who’s only there because of a cheque. Not exactly the dream team that will win you the championship, let alone races.
Filipe Massa is back after a few months of ‘retirement’. I would be amazed if the Brazillian driver was Williams number one choice – especially when you look at the number of talented guys who aren’t on the grid, Paul Di Resta for one and I’m sure Button could have been persuaded into the seat. I can’t help but feel bad for Massa – losing the 2008 championship by one point, which Hamilton gained on the last corner must cut deep. Tie that in with the fact that that race was his last win makes it a weekend I’m sure he’s keen to forget. I don’t feel that he’s been the same since – aside from his pole position in Austria in 2012, he’s not been driving in a way that convinces me that he’s happy to be in the sport. I think this will be a sad year for Massa – he won’t win any races, he won’t do anything spectacular. He’ll drive, he’ll finish probably 8th-12th in the standings at the end of the year and then probably fade into a couple of seasons of Formula E. Massa can’t out drive the car he’s given unlike Alonso can, for example. He better be praying that the 2017 Williams can help him end his career well- though he shouldn’t expect the amazing, emotion filled farewell he received in Brazil after crashing out of the race on lap 47. After his one year contract is up this year, he should leave for good and be remembered as the almost champion and the perfect number 2 driver.
Who’s Lance Stroll? Lance Stroll is the son of Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll, who made his money through clothing brands Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, among others. Lance is also a cheque made out to Williams for a reported $35 million (may or may not include $20 million for a swanky new simulator at Williams HQ.) So is Stroll just a pay driver with a rich daddy? Not exactly. Stroll has won the championship in every category he’s raced in since 2014 (Italian Formula 4, Toyota Racing Series and Euro F3). With the new FIA super licence criteria, it’s not actually possible for drivers to just buy their way into F1. Yes, there are grumbling a about how maybe his championship wins weren’t as fiercely contested as they should have been with less teams on the grid than usual, but he’s donehis time and has earned his place in F1. Whether he’ll be any good or not is another story, but he has his chance to earn his place in the upcoming generation of drivers that includes Verstappen, Van Doorne and Ocon. Time will tell, and this is his big chance to make a big impression.