LONDON (Reuters) - Williams are back among Formula One’s top trio of teams but deputy principal Claire Williams does not hesitate when asked whether she senses a return to the Williams of old.
“No, it feels like a new Williams,” the daughter of founder Frank told Reuters at the end of a season that saw the former champions finishing third overall in their best performance since 2003.
“It’s not that I don’t love the old Williams... But I think for a number of years we’ve been kind of static, kind of held down and the brand not really knowing where it was, the team not really knowing where it was going.”
Last year, Williams scored just five points and finished ninth overall.
The once-dominant team, winners of nine constructors’ and seven drivers’ championships between 1980 and 1997, also scored only five points in 2011 and had not finished higher than sixth overall in the last six years.
So far was the fall from grace that some had begun wondering whether Williams might be headed the same way as now-defunct ex-champions Tyrrell.
This season has highlighted the importance of the switch from Renault to dominant Mercedes engines but the marked improvement in performance comes down to much more than just bolting a different power unit into the back of the car.
The arrival of technical head Pat Symonds, who won championships with Benetton and Renault, as chief technical officer in July 2013 was one key moment as were the signings this year of engineers Jakob Andreasen and Rob Smedley from Force India and Ferrari.
The arrival of title sponsors Martini has also freshened up the image.
“I think that’s played a real part mentally and culturally for a lot of people at Williams and that this is a new, bright fresh future for the team,” said Williams.
“It’s about a new generation and taking it to recreate the glory days, but in a different way.
“That’s really exciting for me. I don’t think we’ve heard one conversation about this may be a fluke for Williams. It’s a new path, a new start.”
Williams signed off in Abu Dhabi with Brazilian Felipe Massa and Finland’s Valtteri Bottas second and third to Mercedes’ race winner and champion Lewis Hamilton.
Massa had led the race during pitstops and looked threatening throughout.
It would not have come as a massive surprise, in a season that saw Massa on pole in Austria and the team take nine podium placings, if the former Ferrari driver had gone on to win and that has to be the ambition for 2015.
“It’s the next step that’s going to be the hardest piece of work,” recognized Williams.
“Next year it’s got to be making that step up and closing the gap to Mercedes... winning races and taking the fight to them.
“It’s down to us to challenge them and to take victories away from them. And that’s really what we want to do. And not to do it flukily, but because we’ve got the competitive advantage.”
Williams, whose tetraplegic father has been in hospital in England for the past month for treatment to a pressure sore, said the success on the track was also being reflected in sponsor interest.
“It really is picking up. People want to be a part of it,” she said. “We’ve got lots of really positive conversations going on in the pipeline. Success breeds success, doesn’t it?”
Some of those brands, she said, were more youth-oriented than in the past and that too was a testament to how Williams had re-positioned themselves.
“It’s not just a team that had great success in the 90s but a team with a future,” she declared.
Editing by Justin Palmer