Williams expects no Baku fairytales after 2017 podium

Lance Stroll made a sensational leap onto the podium at last year’s chaotic Azerbaijan Grand Prix, but the team is under no illusions that its 2018 car can live up to the expectations set by its predecessor.

Stroll’s shock podium was far from a representative result for the team last year, which finished more than 100 points behind Force India in the battle for fourth in the constructors standings.

It was the fourth year of steady decline since Williams’s 2014 resurgence, but even so its performance drop this season has been alarming.

Williams is the only team yet to score a championship point in 2018.

“Unfortunately we just don’t have the speed to really fight with the others the way we did last year, especially in the race,” Stroll said after finishing 14th in the Chinese Grand Prix.

“Last year we’d get a good start and it would actually be a better race for us due to our straight-line speed … but the other teams have definitely caught up in that area and we don’t have that advantage anymore.”

Williams revolutionised its design philosophy this season under direction of chief technical officer Paddy Lowe, who joined the team from reigning champion Mercedes in 2017.

Lowe identified the car’s lack of downforce — beneficial on long straights but detrimental in the corners — as a key failing of the previous car and sought to reverse the characteristic, but this season’s challenger left the factory slow in all areas.

Indeed Williams set slower qualifying times at the Bahrain and Chinese grands prix this season compared to the same sessions last year, when it was a regular top-10 contender.

Many have suggested part of the problem lies with the team’s driver line-up, comprising 19-year-old Lance Stroll and 22-year-old rookie Sergey Sirotkin, citing their lack of experience as hinderances in developing a problematic car.

“They are relatively inexperienced, but we are very happy with what they’re doing,” Loew protested. “It’s not causing us any issues.”

But it’s difficult to ignore the presence of Robert Kubica in the Williams garage. The Pole is the team’s reserve driver and is widely viewed as the experienced reference with which the young drivers’ technical feedback is complemented to aid car development.

“In the end everything you do with cars is driven by real drivers — you have to factor in the quality of the driver, the effect of the driver, their particular interpretation of that car,” Lowe said.

“Every driver is different and we have two different drivers. We wouldn’t allow that to distract from the fact that we haven’t produced a car that’s performing correctly or as we intended.”

The only glimmer of hope for Williams is that the bottom half of the field has so far failed to score heavily, with the inconsistent sixth-placed Toro Rosso just 12 points ahead after three rounds.

If the team can solve the car’s more pressing problems by the start of the season’s European leg in May, the ignominy of finishing last in the constructors standings for the first time in Williams’s history might be avoided.

“It’s about going away and analysing and understanding where you are and then understanding what you’ve got to do … which is exactly what we’re doing,” Lowe said.

“I think there’s a sense of optimism already that we can make solid progress, rapid progress, and we’ve already started down that road.”

But any major progress is unlikely to come in time for this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix on 29 April.

“We are not expecting a fairytale going there, that’s for sure,” said Sirotkin, an Azerbaijan GP2 podium-getter. “We will just continue working on the things we are working on now.”

It could be a long season yet for the once-great Williams team.