Pat Symonds is no stranger to making a little go a long way.
Back at cash-strapped Benetton in the mid-90s he was Michael Schumacher’s race engineer when the German won his first two world titles and the team a constructor’s championship. But task he faced when he joined Williams in July of 2013 was daunting even by his standards, yet the turnaround has been extraordinary and despite having lost some pace to Ferrari at the start of this season, he is rightly proud of himself and the team he has brought so far, so fast.
Williams had not had won a title since 1997 and had only two grands prix wins between 2004 and 2013, the latter a nadir for the team when they scored only five points and finished ninth in the constructors’ championship, ahead of only Marussia and Caterham. Symonds, with a lot to do as chief technical officer, went to work immediately and a rejuvenated squad took third in the constructors’ last year, ahead of Ferrari.
“When I joined the team I found a group of very talented people but who had lost their self-esteem,” he said before qualifying in Bahrain. “They had forgotten how to win. Even through last year it took a while for them to get that back.”
It is a process that is, of course, incomplete but Symonds pursues it relentlessly, an area where he can directly influence performance. “At our first winter test in Jerez this year, I arrived and found that the trucks were at the bottom end of the pit and I went mad,” he said. “Because that showed a lack of a winning mentality. They positioned the trucks at the bottom of the pit lane, but we are not at the bottom, we are third in the pit lane and we should be proud of it. It may seem trivial but it’s all part of the mindset you need for winning. I continually try to build that winning mentality, it’s as important a part of what I do as the engineering integrity that I hope I add to the team. And it shows that after 10 years of decline it’s not something you can turn round in a few months – you have to work on these things. It also explains why it’s so damn important that we consolidate where we are, that we have that strength of character to then move on.”
That requires careful strategies, however, and here there has also been some refreshingly simple thinking. “In 2014 I gave the guys a couple of objectives,” he said. “The first was to put the best possible car that we could on the grid in Melbourne. The second was that I wanted to ensure that every part we put on the car made it go faster. That may sound obvious but it doesn’t always happen and certainly in the history of Williams it absolutely hasn’t happened.”
Simple but focused and eight podium finishes for drivers Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa followed, including a third and fourth at the season finale in Abu Dhabi. “One of the things I am very proud of as a team is that we really did out-develop the other guys and I certainly hope we can apply that again this year. We are being very pragmatic in our approach to development but we are bringing bits to the car all the time to improve performance.”
The target now is Ferrari and pleasing as it is to see Williams battling with the big boys again this is no level playing field.
Their budget, Symonds believes, is two and half times what Williams have to play with and that requires what he calls smart thinking, an approach not dissimilar to the idea that everything on the car must make it go faster.
“Other teams don’t need to look for rich returns, they can scatter-gun [research] and say: ‘OK, well that one worked and we are not bothered about the fact that the other five didn’t.’ We can’t afford to do that.
“A large part of my job is to try and ensure that where we put our resources where we get the greatest returns. In my career at Benetton we were certainly beating the big boys with minute budgets. That’s smart thinking – ensuring that when you spend you get bang for the buck.”
Symonds positively revels in the hard trading still to come. “It can be done,” he concluded. “It does make life a bit more difficult, it makes it more challenging, which I like, and it makes it a hell of a lot mores satisfying when you do it.”
So soon after China, there has not been time to make the step up for Bahrain, however, and here it is Ferrari who will be the main threat to Mercedes. The track here is one of the most abrasive on the calendar and combined with the sand that blows across the circuit this will suit the Scuderia’s cars which, as they proved in Malaysia, can work the rears better than Mercedes.
They also have ominous pace, even if racing at night means the track temperature does not reach the heights of Malaysia. Mercedes have the edge over a single lap but Sebastian Vettel’s longer runs in practice were quicker than Nico Rosberg’s on the soft tyres. These are two seconds a lap quicker than the medium option and if Ferrari can maintain their pace and make that rubber last they may have an edge to outpace Mercedes through the likely two stops, or at very least force the German marque to split their strategy.
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