Opinion: Why Williams should choose its battles carefully

Credit: Williams Martini Racing

It’s becoming something of a tradition for Williams Martini Racing. Announce driver line-up. Unveil car. Launch a blistering attack on ‘pay driver’ barbs. Clearly, the Williams press office believes that offence is the best defence. Just as the signing of a billionaire’s son raised eyebrows in 2017, Grove is answering all too familiar questions over its newest recruit.

There was certainly no mistaking the team’s defensive footing in announcing Sergey Sirotkin. Autosport‘s Lawrence Barretto had already performed a great service in softening the blow of Robert Kubica‘s failure to seal a fairytale comeback back in mid-December, but it would be almost another month before Williams would quietly confirm Sirotkin via social media.

But no announcement was ever going to be quiet enough to silence the widespread fan derision that heralded the young Russian’s appointment. That considered, there was a certain nobility in deputy team principal Claire Williams‘ valiant defence of her young drivers during this week’s car launch. Speaking to Autosport, she exclaimed,

“It would be incredibly naive for anyone to make that statement, saying ‘He’s just a pay driver.’ It’s great if a driver has financial interests from partners – it’s great for the team, it’s great for the driver. This is an expensive sport, not just F1 but at grassroots level as well. We’d miss out on so much talent coming into F1 if drivers didn’t have financial backing supporting them through the junior formulae, and bringing them into F1.

“Partners want to partner drivers, because of their nationality or because of their character or gravitas in a certain market. It’s nothing unusual. Fernando Alonso, prime example. Santander followed him around every team that he’s been to. You could suggest that he’s a pay driver – I wouldn’t do such a thing.”

Credit: Williams Martini Racing

But that is precisely the point: nobody would suggest that Fernando Alonso is a pay driver. ‘Pay driver’ is not a label casually awarded to any driver who provides sponsorship. Does Sergio Perez‘s Telmex backing make the impressive Mexican a ‘pay driver’? Does an affiliation with Estrella Galicia qualify the up-and-coming Carlos Sainz Jr for the ‘pay driver’ moniker? No, because the primary imperative underpinning the careers of all of those drivers manifests on-track rather than in their team’s balance sheets. Therein, a pay driver is typically defined as a driver whose career progression has been primarily reliant on financial inducements.

But why has the team felt inclined to become so mired in such an unwieldy, semantic debate? Surely the best rebuff to a journalist who chooses to associate Sirotkin with the pay driver handle would have been to point out the inherent absurdity of labelling a driver who is yet to turn a wheel in anger. Yes, there are very logical grounds for emphasising the Russian’s SMP Racing links; foremost among them is surely the fact that an apparently rigorous decision-making never saw Sirotkin assessed in relation to the highly-credible Mercedes protege facing a potentially terminal career cul-de-sac. There is no disguising the bidding-war that the race for the seat became.

But Williams was never under any obligation to give an intravenous commentary on its driver evaluation process. If the team needed some additional finance from a driver’s sponsorship package, as they evidently have, would any right-minded fan or pundit blame the team for pursuing funds that could put it on a more stable footing? Indeed, the fact that a prestigious team (a prestigious team that is innovatively reinvesting in itself through its applied technologies branch, Williams Advanced Engineering) is having to seek driver funds is much more of a damning reflection of the sport than it is of the team itself.

But just as the team quietly resigned itself to the inevitable headlines when pole-sitting rookie Nico Hulkenberg made way for ‘pay driver in-chief’ Pastor Maldonado in 2011, the team would probably again be best served more a more apolitical approach. The dimly-lit, swanky Shawditch presser may have been a novel approach to introducing its young line-up to the media, but no amount of smart-casual dress was going to stem the tide of uncomfortable questions.

Given the fact that Sirotkin saw off Kubica in a fairly unequivocal manner in the test, Williams probably ought to have enough the confidence in the Russian to limit its response to any media pessimism to “wait and see”. Instead, Claire Williams again finds herself at the helm of a team uncomfortably prone to vociferous spirals of debate.

Credit: Williams Martini Racing

Last year, Claire chose to aggressively confront derision over Stroll’s appointment by stating, “I want to make it clear Williams has been a team that has made a statement of intent we would not allow financial considerations to influence our driver choice.” This is not only plainly untrue (see Hulkenberg>Maldonado), and not only an utterly illogical policy for any team to have but it also set her up to spend the entire season repeating the exact same spiel everytime Stroll suffered a tricky race.

Similarly, Jacques Villeneuve’s absurd suggestion that Stroll was the “worst rookie” in F1 history, having explicitly said pre-season that Lance was deserving of his F1 promotion, ought not to have been worthy of comment from the team. Just as Kubica didn’t dignify Villeneuve’s barrage of snide remarks with a response, Williams also should have allowed the Canadian’s rantings accelerate his slide into irrelevance unaided.

Unfortunately for Claire Williams and her team, F1 is not The West Wing. Team personnel, however eloquent, cannot be expected to unduly influence the perception of their drivers over above their on-track performances. In a sport where fans and journalists primarily form their opinions on the back of the on-track exploits, any brazen attempts at political spin will be quickly called-out. Gung-ho press offices have their place, but they can also routinely mire a team in a distracting war of words.

Whilst Ferrari’s rather silly stonewall media strategy exists on the opposite pole, Williams arguably would be better served in 2018 by worrying more about how its young line-up is performing, and less about how it is being perceived in the media. But if Grove’s press office fancies a soapbox moment in 2018, a good place to start would be the fact that the Scuderia receives a “long-standing team” bonus of $68million; almost the entirety of the similarly prestigious Williams team’s share of the prize funds. If Williams is as short of funds as it appears, they have bigger fish to fry than journalists who dare to invoke the term ‘pay driver’.