Will Gray

Gray Matter: What will Williams do next?

Will Gray

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Williams face a difficult decision this month as they juggle a number of potential sponsor options having just lost title backer AT&T — and it could be one of the most crucial times in the team's history.

Last season was Williams' worst since they entered Formula One in 1977, continuing a slow decline that has now seen seven full seasons pass since they last put a driver on the top step of the podium.

After an inglorious five years with the team, AT&T was removed from all branding as the New Year began, leaving bare logos, web and social media names for the team's public face.

This year, however, is perhaps Williams' best chance of turning things around, with the return of Renault (albeit as a customer not a works deal) and a new technical team with strong ex McLaren experience in Mike Coughlan and Mark Gillian, both of whom were bedded in early enough to steer the development of the new FW34.

But the two important things that are not yet in place are a good development budget and a second driver — and the balance between these seem to point to a positive future for Rubens Barrichello.

Significant change in terms of team personnel and car components makes it even more vital than normal to have good technical feedback early in the process to help understand how the new pieces come together. Every new cog in the drive train can have a positive or negative effect — but clearly the more experience and knowledge available the better.

Late last season, links to exciting names like Kimi Raikkonen, Adrian Sutil and Bruno Senna looked set to put Barrichello on the F1 scrapheap, but as time ticks on things are looking better and better for the experienced Brazilian.

Barrichello refused to accept the season-ending race in Brazil as his last Grand Prix and remains typically full of enthusiasm as he sits patiently waiting, just as he did when awaiting the fate of Honda and Brawn in the winter of 2008.

His experience at Brawn showed him why it's worth hanging on — when everyone thought he was washed up he was suddenly handed a good car and took victories with it. Now, recent rumours putting Qatar's Qtel as a potential new title sponsor could help his cause.

Williams have strong connections with Qatar, they even have a technology centre there which makes them the only international sporting team with a permanent base in the Gulf state. They also recently linked with Silatech, an organisation founded in 2008 by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, to help encourage and build entrepreneurship in the region.

If that hard work in building relationships with Qatar does result in a pot of funding from the telecommunications group, it is understood (now that Raikkonen is no longer available) that the firm understands the relevance of Barrichello's experience and sees him as the driver who could help bring the team back to its feet.

It could be a saviour for Barrichello, whose own efforts of drumming up sponsorship in Brazil have been thwarted by the other main driver in contention at Williams — Brazilian businesses keener to back the name and potential career longevity of young Senna rather than the experience of 'same old, same old' Barrichello.

But if Williams plays its cards right, it could get the best of both worlds.

Senna's options are now limited, with a third driver role at Renault perhaps the best opportunity he could still get. With Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean in race seats there, however, he is unlikely to get any running at races — and this is where Williams could benefit.

By taking the Qtel cash and running Barrichello as their second race driver then handing Senna Friday drives in the elder Brazilian's car, they could still entice in some of that Brazilian funding (although probably not all, as one of Senna's partners, Embratel, could be seen as a direct rival to Qtel) with the offer of two national favourites for the price of one.

At least for the rebuilding year of 2012, that solution could suit Williams perfectly.

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