Going into the winter on the back of Felipe Massa’s retirement, the Williams team would have been perfectly happy with driver line-up they had prepared for the 2017 season, with a now experienced Valtteri Bottas leading the team and at just 18, an exciting young talent in Lance Stroll to fill the number 2 spot. However, with Nico Rosberg’s shock retirement at the end of 2016, Bottas found himself in the vacant Mercedes seat, and Williams found themselves part of the last minute driver reshuffle that must have been an unwelcome disruption to the team’s close season plans.
To lose a driver of Massa’s experience and knowledge was going to have an impact when it finally happened, despite his apparent decline in recent years, to lose both Massa and Bottas in the same winter was disastrous for the Oxfordshire based outfit. The signing of Stroll as an exciting raw talent is a fine, his record in Formula 3 (14 wins in 30 races) implies he’s a great prospect, but it comes with an element of risk, one that probably requires a steady head alongside to ensure some consistency.
Yes Williams had options as to Bottas’ replacement with Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein, two quick and exciting Mercedes development drivers mooted, but to go from two drivers with 18 seasons combined experience between them after 2016 to two drivers with either one or half a season combined race experience, would have been a huge issue for a team with ambitions such as Williams. As a result, Felipe Massa has been convinced to come out of retirement and been drafted back in, presumably to act partly as a mentor for Stroll and to use his experience to provide vital feedback for development that the team badly need.
Williams recent decline has been apparent, from a 3rd place finish in 2014 with 320 points, followed by a less convincing 3rd in 2015 with 257, to a 5th place in 2016 with 138, they are a team going backwards. Their original advantage that came with using the Mercedes engine appears to have been negated somewhat, and have gone from regularly fighting for podiums to fighting to stay in the top 10, those behind the scenes and sponsors won’t be pleased with such regression. The rot must be stopped to ensure we don’t again see the Williams of 2013, who finished 9th in the championship with a paltry 5 points.
So what can they realistically achieve? Frankly, it’s hard to see them getting back to fighting for podiums on a regular basis anytime soon, the top three teams appear too strong, but fourth place and toppling Force India surely has to be the aim. The worry for Williams won’t necessarily be whether they can catch Force India though, as they’ll also be looking over their shoulder. You have to assume that McLaren will improve again, and with Renault’s move to a works team, they both have the potential to make huge strides forward. Williams could be looking at anywhere between 4th and 7th, and that’s if Toro Rosso haven’t also improved, success or failure balances on fine margins in the midfield.
Back to the driver pairing and it appears to be set up perfectly for Stroll, who has everything to gain and little to lose at such a young age. Yes he’s up against an experienced campaigner, a man who in 2008 was just 2 points away from being world champion, but who in all honesty clearly isn’t the driver he once was.
Therefore a positive result against such a high profile driver will work wonders for his reputation. Add to this the fact Massa has already had his swansong once, leading onlookers to wonder if the motivation is still there, not least if it’s clear the car hasn’t improved from last year. Beating a man of Massa’s standing would go a long way to silencing those accusing Stroll of buying his way into the sport, and on paper, it’s entirely possible.