Williams aims to be a driving force as F1 seeks a new, winning formula

'The drive is there to try and do something to help bring people back to their TVs to watch F1'

This year’s Formula One season got off to a flying start on Sunday with an incident-packed race in Australia which saw a close fight between Ferrari and reigning champion Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes team, as well as a huge crash from which McLaren driver Fernando Alonso casually walked away. F1 seemed to be in rude health – but just 24 hours earlier it was a totally different story.

A new elimination-style qualifying format was introduced in a bid to spice up the show and dent Mercedes’ chances of walking away with another title. The slowest drivers were due to be knocked out until the fastest two remained in a shoot-out. Instead, once they had done their fastest laps, many drivers sat out the remainder of the session in the pits and there was no action at all on track for the last three minutes. Fans, naturally, responded angrily.

The new system will be scrapped from next week’s Bahrain Grand Prix, even though it only got the green light two weeks before the first race. It may seem haphazard, but there was method behind the madness.

“There’s nothing wrong in trying something new,” says Claire Williams, deputy team principal of the team her father, Sir Frank, set up in 1977, when we meet at Williams’ campus in Oxfordshire, a site so sprawling that it resembles a small business park. “It’s like anything in life, you can always make something better. You can’t be complacent.”

Williams is the equivalent of racing royalty in F1. With nine championships under its belt, the British outfit is the second-most successful team in the sport. Some of F1’s most famous names, including Damon Hill and Nigel Mansell, have steered the team to success and built it up into one of F1’s powerhouses. The team is still controlled by her father, but over the past 14 years Claire has risen from being its communications officer to sitting one step below the top spot. This heritage and experience gives Claire Williams a unique perspective.

“I think one of the issues the sport has at the moment is trying to engage this younger audience, which is not something that is an issue only for Formula One,” she says. “Every element of entertainment is trying to work out how to engage this younger audience because generation X and Y are consuming entertainment in a very different way than our generation did, so it’s a question of how do we capture those people. We are aware of it and we’re trying to do something in order to engage.”

As one of only a handful of women with senior roles in F1, the 39-year-old makes a refreshing change in a sport renowned for being run by grey-haired men. “I think one of the really important messages about Formula One is that it’s a level playing field for girls and boys,” she says. “Not many sports can claim to allow, and I hate that word, women to compete against men. Football doesn’t, rugby doesn’t, yet Formula One is the sport that has the male-dominated criticism levelled at it. And this is why it’s so important not to create a championship for women that is run on a Saturday morning.”

A woman hasn’t competed in an F1 race since Lella Lombardi in 1976 and in recent years the brightest hope came from Williams’ former test driver Susie Wolff, wife of Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff. She left Williams last year to set up Dare To Be Different, an organisation which aims to boost the number of women in motorsport. “Susie did a fantastic job in inspiring young girls to take up karting and I think within the next generation we will probably see a whole lot more coming up,” Williams says.

In the meantime, the Williams drivers, Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, finished fifth and eighth respectively on Sunday, but Williams says that the real hurdles are yet to come. “The biggest challenge is trying to find performance when we’re at slower tracks like Monaco,” she says.

Another unknown is Azerbaijan which joins the F1 calendar for the first time this year and Williams says this expansion mustn’t come at the cost of F1’s classic races.

“One of the reasons I love Formula One is that it’s leading the way and going to new markets but it has a heartland in Europe and I think what’s really important is that we respect our history, so the likes of Silverstone and Monza and Monaco, they need to remain,” says Williams. “I think they’re hugely important to Formula One and our fans.”

Yet more changes will be introduced next season to improve the F1 spectacle, with wider tyres and bigger wings aiming to cut lap times by four to five seconds. “It will be a challenge because we’ll be designing those race cars alongside this year’s,” says Williams. “But that’s a good thing and I think it demonstrates that the drive is there to try and do something to help drive people back to their TV sets to watch the sport.”

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