Former greats Williams aim to be Formula One’s phoenix from the flames

CNN  — 

It is one of the great names in motorsport.

Since entering Formula One in 1977, Williams has won seven drivers’ championships with legendary drivers like Alain Prost, Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill.

One of the most successful names in the sport’s history, boasting nine constructors’ titles, the eponymous team started by Frank Williams has fallen on fallow times.

The team’s two drivers, Canadian Lance Stroll and Russia’s Sergey Sorotkin, have picked up just seven points from 19 races this season.

It’s been 21 years since Williams was last won a title and Pastor Maldonado’s victory at the 2012 Spanish Grand Prix is its sole triumph in the past 14 seasons.

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But the rebuild has begun. Claire Williams, daughter of Frank, is now deputy team principal while Paddy Lowe, the architect of much of Mercedes’ current success, is chief technical officer.

“The first 20 years of Williams have been a lot better than the second,” Lowe told CNN Sport, well versed in Williams’ glory days having started his F1 journey with the team back in 1987.

His six-year tenure at the British manufacturer included title wins for Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Prost before switching to McLaren, where he enjoyed another period of success followed by his title-winning run at Mercedes.

‘The biggest challenge of my career’

But Lowe has no plans to rest on his laurels as he tries to manufacture a motor racing renaissance.

“That history is not so significant as it’s a long time ago and the sport has changed,” he said. “Of course, I have an emotional attachment to back then as that’s where it really began for me.

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“That’s a double-edged sword in that it can be a burden of preset ideas but we’re more determined than ever before to bring us back to where we want to be.”

Only three times have Williams bagged points this season, thanks to eighth, ninth and 10th-place finishes.

“This is the biggest challenge of my career,” admits Lowe.

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“I’ve been fortunate to work at teams that are competing around the front, the battle to stay there or go from third to first,” he added.

“This is my first experience like that. It takes a different way of thinking, and I knew it would be difficult when I took the role one-and-a-half years ago.

“But even if you’re fighting for eighth, ninth and 10th, it’s still the same hard work, and there’s no lack of complexity in our car compared to the others.”

The rebuild is partly built on loyalty from staff and fans alike, who have stuck with Williams through thick and thin.

Lowe tells the story of a member of staff who left the company earlier this month after 39-and-a-half years, virtually the entirety of the team’s lifespan.

“At McLaren, you’d had out five or 10-year medals for long service,” he said. “At Williams, if you get to 10 years, you’re only just getting started.”

Hitting rock bottom

Lowe aims to harness that loyalty, a loyalty that Williams herself has occasionally feared would be eroded.

Williams has a young son, Nate, but its the plight of her team that is giving her the most sleepless nights.

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“I constantly think about Williams,” she said. “You can never entirely switch that off and, for the first time this year, getting to sleep has been a problem.”

She describes the current situation as “heartbreaking” having initially thought developments over the winter would see Williams once more be battling the frontrunners.

“It’s just soul destroying to see the team fall back as it has,” she said. “But I like a challenge, and we’ve got that. We’ve hit rock bottom but it gives us a chance to repair.”

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Williams makes no secret of the fact she looked on enviously as Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes were once again celebrating on the top step of the podium, dreaming of getting back to that.

“I know it’s a long road to get back to that,” she said, “but if you’re not going out to win races, what’s the point?”

Money is part of the challenge. Williams can’t compete with the budgets available to big manufacturers like Mercedes and Ferrari.

But Williams have famously found ways of competing on a shoestring budget in the past.

“This is not an overnight process but the aim is to move to the front of the grid,” said Lowe. “The good thing is that at the very bottom there’s no argument about the need to change, there’s no complacency.

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“Things are better than a year ago. We’ll get there.”