In many ways, Williams was wildly ahead of schedule during the 2023 Formula 1 season.
As they began their 2023 campaign, a new team boss was in charge. Jost Capito made a surprise announcement in December of 2022 that he was stepping aside as Team Principal after serving two seasons in the role, opening the door for James Vowles to slide into that spot from Mercedes.
Vowles was not the only new face, as Nicholas Latifi was out after three seasons driving for the team. In his place? American rookie Logan Sargeant, who parlayed a fourth-place finish in F2 during the 2022 season into a full-time seat for Williams starting in 2023 alongside Alexander Albon.
So you have a first-time Team Principal in Vowles and a rookie driver in Sargeant, competing for a team that finished dead last in 2022. Surely there were going to be some bumps along the way in 2023?
Perhaps. But while many — including this author — predicted yet another wooden spoon in their future, Williams shocked the grid, and it started early. The team showed some surprising pace during pre-season testing, and when all was said and done, Williams won the battle at the back of the table, finishing seventh in the Constructors’ Championship and ahead of AlphaTauri, Alfa Romeo, and Haas.
That result came almost exclusively on the shoulders of Albon, who scored 27 of the team’s 28 points during the season. Albon’s strong showing has opened the door to speculation about his own future, and perhaps a return to Red Bull or a move to another big team.
However, our focus here is Williams. Vowles, Albon, and Sargeant are back, and the team is looking to improve upon their 2024 showing thanks to some much-needed experience earned in 2023.
Can they make an even bigger leap in 2024?
2023 highlight: Las Vegas Grand Prix qualifying
When Williams arrived in Sin City for the inaugural Las Vegas Grand Prix, they faced both expectations and questions.
On the expectations side of the ledger, all season long the FW45 was strongest on the straights. This was clear early in the season, and was highlighted at races such as the Canadian Grand Prix, where Albon delivered a stunning P6 despite an incredibly-long stint on a set of hard tires, which were bolted on with 58 laps remaining in the race.
Yet, if you look at telemetry data from that Grand Prix, courtesy of F1-Tempo, you’ll see that his fastest lap — Lap 68 — was also the fastest lap from Max Verstappen, the race winner. Verstappen was on mediums, Albon on old hards. But look at the telemetry data, in particular the long straight:
Even on these old hards, Albon was faster down that straight.
So, given the layout in Sin City, there were expectations for both Albon and Sargeant to be strong in qualifying, given the long straights on the Las Vegas circuit.
Now to the questions. As Williams headed into the penultimate race of the season they were sitting in seventh place in the Constructors’ standings, looking to fend off a late charge from AlphaTauri. Whether they could fend off their challengers was one big question. The other? The future of Sargeant. As the season wound down, the American rookie was the only driver yet to lock down his seat for 2024.
Vowles, who had been preaching patience throughout the year, outlined that the team wanted to continue to work with Sargeant into 2024, and continually gave the rookie votes of confidence. But the team boss also wanted to see “consistency” from Sargeant, and given the expectations for how the FW45 would perform on the Vegas streets, a good showing in Las Vegas — during qualifying at a minimum — would be huge for his future prospects.
Given all of that, the team delivered on Friday night in Sin City. Both Albon and Sargeant advanced into Q3, and when the session ended, Albon was sitting in P6 with Sargeant right behind him in P7. A harsh penalty handed down to Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr. dropped him out of the top ten, pushing Albon into fifth, and Sargeant into sixth.
A third-row lockout for the team.
It was a moment Sargeant desperately needed, and you could hear it in his reaction when told of his finish. “Really well done Logan, that’s how you build a weekend up. You were on equal footing, and you performed. Good job,” said Vowles to Sargeant the moment the rookie was informed of his result in Q3.
While the race was a different story, on a Friday night in the desert Williams — and Sargeant — delivered.
2023 lowlight: Japanese Grand Prix
At the other end of the spectrum?
Things got out to a difficult start for Sargeant in qualifying. While the rookie had hopes of advancing to Q2 after a P13 in the third practice session, a snap of oversteer near the end of his first push lap in Q1 saw him slide off the track and into the barrier, ending his qualifying Saturday. When the team made the decision to make changes to his FW45 under parc ferme conditions, he was forced to start the Grand Prix from pit lane.
Still, there were hopes that the team would salvage something from the weekend, particularly when Albon advanced into Q2 and managed to qualify in 13th position. Points were perhaps on the table, even with Sargeant’s difficult starting position.
Those dreams were ended before the first lap was in the books.
Albon endured a heavy collision with Valtteri Bottas on the opening lap, and needed to pit for a new front wing. He was able to do so under a safety car, which came out for the heavy debris that resulted from the collision.
When the race restarted on Lap 5 it was Sargeant’s turn for a collision, again involving Bottas. The rookie locked his brakes heading into Turn 11 and drove into the back of Bottas’s Alfa Romeo, and Sargeant had to pit for repairs. He was also given a five-second penalty for causing the incident.
By Lap 23, Sargeant’s day was done as the damage to his FW45 was getting worse and worse. Albon got the same call to retire on Lap 27, for the same reason. “I had damage from lap one and it was pretty much game over so it’s a shame,” said Albon after the race.
Outlook for 2024:
This time last year many, myself included, believed another last-place finish was in the cards for Williams.
It is hard to imagine similar predictions this year.
Throughout last season Vowles stressed patience, asking to be judged on the team’s success — or failures — over a period of years, not weeks. But the results were almost immediate, given how the FW45 performed during portions of pre-season testing, and how the team finished in the Constructors’ Championship.
If this was Year One of the Vowles Era, what can Years Two, and beyond, hold?
Perhaps his biggest decision last fall was whether to retain Sargeant for 2024. While some believed that best move forward for the team was to add a new driver, perhaps Liam Lawson, Vowles went in a different direction, bringing the rookie back for a second season. While this may run contrary to life in F1, where patience is not exactly a virtue, this fits with Vowles’ long-term approach. If the team can help Sargeant take a step forward in 2024, then that patience will be rewarded, and a finish even higher up the table could be on offer.
Still, there are risks. Growth and development are not linear, and while expectations will be in place for Sargeant to have a stronger sophomore season, that might not come to fruition. While Williams is receiving their fair share of expectations at the moment, nothing matters until the stopwatch is running.
That might be why the team in recent days started to downplay thoughts of a move higher up the table. In an interview with Auto Motor und Sports, Vowles outlined that fighting with Alpine and Aston Martin might not be in the cards for them in 2024. “That’s not realistic,” said Vowles when asked about challenging those two teams ahead of them. “I know the true gap between the two teams and I know our speed of development. What we want to change is still too far away to allow us to take this step next year. I am confident that we will be better off next year. But I won’t do anything that jeopardizes our long-term goal.”
Still, that was in line what what he was saying a year ago, before they delivered their surprising seventh-place finish.
Person under the most pressure to perform in 2024: Logan Sargeant
Sargeant is the clear answer here. The decision to bring the rookie back for a second season was met with some skepticism in various corners of the F1 world. While we have argued here that it was the right move for Williams, it remains to be seen whether Sargeant can indeed have the kind of season Williams is hoping for.
What will success look like for Sargeant in 2024? In his own words, it goes beyond points.
“But personally, it’s quite simple,” Sargeant said to me Monday when I asked him what a successful season would look like for him. “I want to make a big step forward from a personal aspect. I want to perform consistently over the course of a season at the level I know I can perform at. And if I do that, that’ll be a big success.”
2024 Williams lineup
Team Principal: James Vowles
Drivers: Alex Albon and Logan Sargeant