Will Gray

Gray Matter: Could Williams be a dark horse?

Pastor Maldonado took Williams back onto the top of the podium in Spain two years ago only for it to prove a false dawn – but things could now be aligning to make this a comeback season for the former champions.

It’s not unusual for Williams to look strong in pre-season testing. They have shown good pace in three of the last six season build-ups, and this year is also showing signs of promise, with their fortuitous switch to Mercedes power paying early dividends.

During this early period with the new regulations, mileage has been crucial and Williams has completed 2,523km so far, only 100 or so short of McLaren and Ferrari and 500 off current pacesetters Mercedes.

So the opportunity is there to be grasped – but what does Williams have to do now to succeed where so often they manage to fail?

MARRY WELL WITH MERCEDES

Integrating the new power plants into the new cars has been a trial for many of the teams, whether manufacturers or independents, but by taking a conservative approach Williams seems to have got it right.

Mercedes has clearly come up with the best solution to the new rules and Williams’ cooling efficiency appears to be strong. That area looks like being one of the keys to success this season.

But this is just the start.

From here, it’s all about refining the package to push the car closer to the edge.

Williams can expect no favours from Mercedes – they are, after all, in direct competition – but with McLaren switching to Honda in 2015 the Grove squad is at least likely to get more information than their rivals. The tricky start of the relationship has already been overcome and any further development on integration will play more to internal information than that of their partner.

Key to that will be evolving the packaging of the engine now that they know the baseline performance. They will already be crunching the numbers, and potential developments like a sidepod redesign could offer significant scope to improve aerodynamic performance and pace.

BED IN NEW FACES

There are a lot of new faces at Williams.

In the driving seat, Felipe Massa arrives with immense experience from his Ferrari days while in the engineering department Pat Symonds has been carefully picking his band of merry men.

Rod Nelson, in from Lotus as test and support engineer, is one of Symonds’ long-term colleagues while he brings Richard Lockwood in from his former team Marussia to manage race strategy.

Rob Smedley, meanwhile, follows Massa from Ferrari, stepping up a level to bridge the gap between drivers and the engineering team having built a strong relationship with Massa at the garage level.

In a new era that will put a premium on how well teams think on their feet, the way this new group gels will define the team’s success.

GET THE BEST OF BOTTAS

In Valterri Bottas, Williams has a highly rated driver. He was a secret star of 2013, performing well many times under the radar in an under-performing car as he found his F1 feet.

It took some composure to stay positive in a tough season – something that team-mate Pastor Maldonado failed to do – and he says by the end of it he had measured the balance between confidence and aggression.

This year, he will be buoyed by the chance to compare himself with Massa, but Williams will have to manage the internal battle carefully as Massa also sees this as his season to shine.

Driver management, then, will also be crucial to getting the best out of the promising situation Williams finds itself in.

MILK MARTINI’S MONEY

When Williams arrives in Melbourne, it should be liveried in Martini colours – and that offers a major springboard for the team.

It is believed to have lured the major title sponsor with the promise of full car livery when others could only offer smaller presence, but whatever the finances behind the deal, it is the positive perception it will give to other potential sponsors that may be the biggest prize.

It seems a bit shallow to say a new paint job could be a key to success, but if the Williams looks good, and the marketing team build the right brand image around it, this deal could go on delivering.

Just like the race team, the commercial department has a golden opportunity to make this work – and as Williams is a thoroughbred race team, more money in the coffers means more spent on going faster.

TURN MILEAGE INTO PACE

Williams has had a comfortable pre-season, but if Bahrain is to be believed, the ultimate pace is still a bit off the top spot.

Williams are working through their pre-season programme so well they were able to practice pit stops, use new tester Felipe Nasr and put in a full race simulation in the last test – but they have also shown out on track that the car is not only reliable but also has potential.

It offers positive turn-in, which gives a driver confidence, and that is crucial when bedding into new regulations. The only caution they must have is that this is balanced at the rear and that the significant wheelspin challenge from the new electric power units does not lead to excessive tyre wear.

That is something they now have time to work on, however, as with the final test in Bahrain beginning on Thursday they are already in a position to be refining their car set-up. Others are still just trying to get going.

The interesting rear-end approach, which involves using the diffuser, monkey wing and detailing around the wheels to replace the effect of the banned beam wing and blown diffuser, will need to be optimised, but they now have the time to do that before Melbourne.

That is something that could at least enable them to be at the sharp end at the start. But the rest will need to slot into place if Williams is to finally go on and deliver on early promise...