The first round of the season usually provides some answers about the pecking order of the forthcoming year and it was clear from the Australian Grand Prix that Williams’s pace in 2014 is genuine.
All too frequently during the past decade the team has flattered to deceive across pre-season testing and consequently assumed a midfield position, or worse, once the serious matters began.
That there was a sense of disappointment at the team departing Australia with 10 points – double the amount they scored in the whole of 2013 – tells you all you need to know about the competitiveness of the FW36.
The team was out of position in qualifying as the FW36 was ill-suited to the wet conditions, but Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas nonetheless managed to make the top 10. It was somewhat cruel for Bottas that he was demoted five spots on the grid after a gearbox penalty, considering that the team enjoyed strong reliability pre-season. More woes struck at the start of the race when Massa’s car was used as a barrier by Kamui Kobayashi’s stricken Caterham.
Bottas nonetheless made swift progress, dispatching the Toro Rosso drivers and compatriot Kimi Räikkönen and was hunting down Fernando Alonso when he clipped the wall on the exit of turn nine and damaged his wheel. It was a costly mistake but fortunately the Williams mechanics were able to service Bottas and send him back out on track, while the safety car enabled the Finn to close up on the midfield.
Bottas then fought back through the midfield and finished the race in sixth place, which became fifth after Daniel Ricciardo’s exclusion. He passed Williams's expected midfield rivals - Sauber, Force India, Toro Rosso - with consummate ease. With the cars still in their infancy, Bottas had sufficient confidence in his FW36 that it would respond to his demands.
It’s difficult to fully read into Bottas’s race pace due to the amount of time he spent running behind, and overtaking, his rivals. But once unleashed he was setting quicker time than the McLaren duo and set the second fastest lap of the race. During a 10 lap stint mid-race when he was not stuck in traffic, only Nico Rosberg was consistently quicker than Bottas. Between the end of the safety car period and the conclusion of the race - a duration of 41 laps - Bottas lost only nine seconds to second placed driver Kevin Magnussen. Considering the Finn had a slower second stop than the McLaren driver plus had to weave his way through rivals, it is undoubtedly impressive. It also goes a long way to explaining why Bottas was so mad with himself for his mistake. It was a small misjudgment which ultimately cost the talented Finn a spot in the top three. McLaren was the team that left Melbourne in the lead of the championship, but with a little bit more fortune it could have been Williams.
Beating the Mercedes drivers in a straight fight will be a difficult proposition as the car is not the quickest over a single lap, while its wet weather pace is also questionable. But the first round of the year suggested that Williams has the second best package. After their miserable 2013, that is a phenomenal step forwards.