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Worrying signals from Williams

Martin Williamson January 17, 2012
Bruno Senna's sponsors already adorn the Williams team clothing © Williams
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When Pastor Maldonado signed for Williams at the start of last season it owed as much to the financial package he brought to the team as his ability. His performances in 2011 were satisfactory but not good enough to dispel mutterings that better drivers had been left sitting on the sidelines.

Now the team has unveiled Bruno Senna as Maldonado's team-mate for 2012. Eighteen grand prix starts for HRT and Renault with one top-ten finish probably gives a fair reflection of his abilities. But crucially he brings a substantial amount of sponsor money with him - estimates claim as much as $20 million - and that was enough to see off more talented candidates.

Pay drivers have been around as long as the sport itself. But that Williams has now sold both its race seats is a sad indication of how far the team has slid since its glory days when it lured Bruno's uncle, Ayrton, simply because it was the No. 1. Even Marussia and Caterham, ostensibly inferior teams, find a balance between cash and ability.

For a team that has undergone a major restructuring the safe hands of Rubens Barrichello would have provided an obvious barometer to measure progress. But the fact that he found sponsors himself in order to pay to keep his drive and was still overlooked hints at the financial problems for Williams.

Senna has shown flashes of real talent - one thinks of his qualifying performance at Spa last year - but ultimately he wasn't retained at Renault, and a driver with money and speed is a team principal's holy grail. While both he and Maldonado will do a solid job, neither is likely to set the world on fire or provide the much-needed dynamic to revive former glories. But at the moment, balancing the books is the No. 1 priority for a team seemingly drifting slowly down the F1 pecking order.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of digital media ESPN EMEA Martin Williamson, who grew up in the era of James Hunt, Niki Lauda and sideburns, became managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group in 2007 after spells with Sky Sports, Sportal and Cricinfo