The Best in the West
Before Silverstone, 1979, there were others. Ten years before, Piers Courage finished second at both Monaco and Watkins Glen with the dark blue, immaculate, Frank Williams Brabham BT26. And then, in 1975, Jacques Laffite took second place in the German Grand Prix in the John Clarke-designed Williams FW04. I was at that race. It was a day of punctures – a re-run of Clermont, 1972, when Jackie Stewart “avoided the stones” to win for Tyrrell. (Chris Amon, who should have won the French GP with his Matra V12, always smiled at that one.) Anyway, at the Nurburgring, even Jackie couldn’t avoid the trackside rubble. Carlos Reutemann did so in the Brabham BT44B – afterwards, he couldn’t resist telling the Argentine press that he had “driven around the stones”! – and the ebullient Jacques-Henri Laffite finished second, as I say, in the unloved Williams. I think this was a watershed race for Frank. His decision to run a De Tomaso chassis in 1970 had backfired badly. A switch to March had only worsened the situation. I lost count, in 1972, of the number of times I heard Anthony Marsh over the PA system, at any given race, announcing, “Henri Pescarolo has crashed the Frank Williams March! It looks like a big one.” I met Henri after just such a shunt at said Clermont.
“Henri! What happened?”
“I was going down zee hill and I looze zee control and zee car is deestroyed…” – all in that lovely French monotone. I used to repeat this story to Teddy Yip – Macau’s answer to Rob Walker – over and over again. He’d laugh until his ribs ached.
In 1974, though, Frank decided that he’d build his own cars. The John Clarke Iso Marlboro wasn’t the world’s greatest but Jacques Laffite – very fast, very sharp – was exactly the right driver for these very difficult times. When he finished second at the ‘Ring, making no mistakes and proving the car’s strength (if nothing else), everyone was reminded that Frank Williams was not going away. He was still there. A racer. His day would come.
We’ll forget about the whole Hesketh 308C-Walter Wolf period. Let’s fast-forward to the Sao Paulo Inter-Continental in early 1977, where Frank is in the lobby, briefcase in hand, polo shirt matched to his customary dark blue, perfectly-pressed trousers.
“This is it,” he is saying. “This is the last trip I do for Walter Wolf. You can fly back to Heathrow to meet someone and then drive him to the race shop only so many times. I wasn’t born to be a go-fer. I’m doing my own thing again. And this time I’m going to put the word Engineering in the name. F1 is about cars. And I’m going to build some cars…”
Frank had met Patrick Head in 1976, when Harvey Postlethwaite had hired him. Patrick had re-drafted the back end of the car – the far better end, it seemed, of the two. Frank chose Didcot for his new base for Williams Grand Prix Engineering Ltd: it was near the big railway junction; and, besides, the local council gave Frank some major “business incentives”.
Through the F2 grapevine, into which Frank was always plugged, he met the talented Belgian driver, Patrick Neve. Patrick – like Frank’s other drivers at the time – could put together a budget. They’d start with a March 761. Patrick would modify it as he saw fit and as the money allowed. They would run only the one car. They would do only the European races.
And so it began. Patrick’s first proper Williams, the FW06, was a gem of a non-ground effect racing car, with brilliant traction and lots of feel. As a standout race, then, I’d have to nominate the 1978 Long Beach Grand Prix, when Alan Jones ran right at the front and for the first time showed the world that Patrick Head could deliver. Alan didn’t win that day – he set fastest lap before the nose section broke and the car developed a mis-fire – but it didn’t matter. The new Williams was a world-changer. Frank’s endless search for sponsorship would at last have some traction. His words – so often perfectly-enunciated in foreign languages – would at last have some meaning.
It was about this time that Frank rang me and invited me to lunch at the Steering Wheel Club in Curzon Street, London.
“Listen Peter. I’ve got a hunch that the next big sponsorship money is going to come from the Middle East. I have some connections there. They want to be ‘Best in the West’. F1 can do that for them. I just need to educate the local press, which is where you come in. Would you be prepared to send regular updates from the team to the Middle Eastern news agencies? Keep them informed – keep them fired up?”
Of course I agreed to do so. How could anyone say no to Frank Williams? His “connections” turned out to be Charlie Chrichton-Stuart’s Saudi gambling mates at the Clermont Club – but that was no problem. Indeed, that club turned out to be a rich vein. It was through Charlie that Frank met Mansour Ojjeh. And our media-friendly programme developed the Saudi-Arabian Airlines sponsorship.
1979 was a year of massive change. Ground effect ruled, surplanting all the old gold standards like engine power, wheel movement and c-of-g. Now it was only about downforce and c-of-p (centre of pressure). Some teams – like Lotus, ironically enough, and McLaren – began to fade.
Ferrari scraped through (thanks mainly to a weird points system that accepted only the four best races from each half of eight races) but couldn’t match the sheer pace of the new kids on the block – Williams and Ligier. Ligier took first blood with a stiff, Gerard Ducarouge-designed chassis but quickly they began to wilt: the chassis (unbeknown to them at the time) began to flex; and, worse, the side skirts began to lift. By the European rounds, therefore, Patrick Head’s new Williams FW07 was already in a class of its own. It sustained its chassis stiffness; and Patrick’s new aero man, Frank Dernie, had found a way of keep the skirts in constant contact with the road. Alan Jones did the rest.
So here’s another moment: the 1979 British GP. No-one was going to out-qualify Alan that Saturday at Silverstone. He could barely find the words, as he climbed from the car, to express the sheer joy of driving with so much grip and balance around corners like Stowe and Club. Jean-Pierre Jabouille, running perhaps 200bhp more in the Renault turbo, could only line up second, 0.6 sec behind. Alan’s average speed for that lap, including the Woodcote chicane, was 146.84 mph.
Alan didn’t win on Sunday (a duff water pump connection sidelined him after 37 laps) but Frank’s number two, Clay Regazzoni, took up the slack with style. I’ll always remember Alan leaving before race’s end, taking the country route back to London via Grendon Underwood and Long Crendon. I learnt that brilliant back-route from Alan that day at Silverstone. The detail of his description I think in some small way immediately diluted his disappointment at not winning.
The wins came, of course. And I guess Alan’s World Championship in 1980 was another major breakthrough for the team. I say “I guess” because, even as a Carlos Reutemann man, I have to concede that Alan would probably have won second and third world titles for Williams had Frank retained Clay for 1980 and 1981. Carlos “took” points from Alan and vice-versa. Thirty-three years on, it’s astonishing to see people that should know better continuing to make the same mistake. Frank always persisted in hiring “the best two drivers I can get” – just as Ferrari are doing for 2014.The concept of a “natural number two” seems to have disappeared…with Alan and Clay.
It isn’t difficult to find the other highs. Nigel Mansell’s first victory (at Brands Hatch, 1985); Nigel’s win at Brands in 1986, when, for the first time, he showed true disdain for Nelson Piquet’s Number One status. This was also the first race Frank attended in a wheelchair. Nigel’s right-rear tyre failure in Adelaide the same year, when the championship was but a few laps away. That Goodyear exploded about three minutes after the tyre engineers had told us to “keep Nigel out there”, their evidence based on the wear rate of Thierry Boutsen’s recently-retired Arrows. Nigel’s pace in the 1987 Williams FW11B-Honda was breathtaking but this, too, would end: in the motorhome at Monaco, Honda, who were now besotted with Ayrton Senna, offered Frank an ultimatum: either he found a slot for Satoru Nakajima in 1988 or the engines would be withdrawn. Incensed – and a little concerned at the thought of running Mansell-Nakajima – Frank told them to go away and to think again. Honda took that as a no. Frank signed with John Judd. (And so another potential championship was lost: I have no doubt that Nigel would have won a bunch of races with a Williams-Honda in 1988 – and probably would have emerged as World Champion. Senna and Prost “took points from one another”; Nigel would have delighted in having a clear number two alongside him.)
Williams’ Renault era co-incided with probably the greatest engineering line-up of all time: Patrick Head, Adrian Newey, Paddy Lowe. The result was the FW14 and then the fully-active FW14B (1992). Take as many high points from this era as you please. Personally, I loved Silverstone, 1992. I was never relaxed there on the pit wall; you were always tense when Nigel was driving. He was like Ian Botham: he was bigger than his mere sport. At any moment he could move mountains. This was, though, a golden day. A phenomenal racing driver dominated in a phenomenal car. For me, that’s what F1 is all about. No DRS. No fuel-saving. No KERS. Just raw control of raw speed. Do we lament now that there was little or no overtaking that day at Silverstone? Did any of the spectators leave Silverstone thinking the race had been a bore? I think not. Twice over.
Like Jones, Nigel could have won a second title the following year. Instead, annoyed that Frank had signed Alain Prost rather than retaining Riccardo Patrese, Nigel left to race IndyCar. Alain duly won in 1993 and was replaced in 1994 by Ayrton Senna. The Williams cars were in the main very quick in 94-95-96-97 but I don’t remember this as a particularly “golden” era. Or a happy one. Damon Hill drove beautifully – but often his days were over-shadowed by the coarseness of Michael Schumacher; and Jacques Villeneuve, surrounded by hangers-on, was never really himself. Instead, he was the driver that others wanted him to be..or not to be. Money – big money – was beginning to change the face of the team that Frank had formed.
A new, BMW Williams age co-incided with the turn of the century. Newey had left and Patrick was finding the computer-aided design (CAD) stations a little too prolific for comfort. Williams-BMW won races but, again, there was no afterglow. A lot of champagne flowed when Juan-Pablo Montoya won Monaco in 2003 but Ralf Schumacher had been on the pole: it was a slightly incomplete day. And then the two of them began to fight… It was nice to see Mark Webber in the team but I don’t think he was ever given the space he needed to perform at his best. Mark is much more than just a racing driver: he also helps to put together good racing packages. Williams never really tapped into this side of his talent.
(A highlight for me at that time was Jeff Gordon’s Williams “test” at Indianapolis in 2004. He was quick and he was full of finesse. Jeff came to the 2005 Hungargian GP and told me then that he would be prepared to switch to F1 if a serious offer was made. I rushed over to see Frank, told him of Jeff’s comments, and for a while, I think, there was a bit of a spark. Then, as with most things that require some energy, the light quickly faded. An opportunity was lost.)
In recent times, I think Pastor Maldonado’s win in Spain deserves to sit up there with the best of them. He sustained enormous pressure from the home hero (Fernando Alonso) and, for a relatively rookie, he was on unknown territory in terms of being out there in front and dictating the pace. Yet he won as Alan Jones had won before him – as Nigel Mansell had won. On this occasion, though, he had paid Williams for the privilege of driving one of their cars.
The team, if you like, had come full-circle.
Captions, from top: Frank in relaxed mode at the pre-British GP press day – Silverstone, 1979; cockpit of the immaculate Frank Williams Racing Cars Brabham BT26 (driver, Piers Courage); back end of the Williams FW06. Hallmark of the car was great traction; sheer speed oozed from the Williams FW07 – even when it was stationary; by 1985 Nigel Mansell was quite happy to race audaciously with Ayrton Senna – and with his team-mate, Keke Rosberg; sidepod/chassis interface on the FW10. This was the first full-carbon Williams. Unlike John Barnard, who pioneered the material at McLaren, Patrick opted for a female-mould carbon chassis. It worked beautifully; We had to think hard about how to blend the combined colours of Canon, Mobil, Honda, ICI and Denim in 1985-86-87. In the end, I sketched a dark blue, angled dividing stripe front-to-rear and gave the sponsors their own territory. Frank didn’t like it at first but quickly it grew on him – particularly the shade of dark (Mobil) blue! I still love that livery…; I was lucky enough to represent the team on various podii in 1991/92. Nigel, Riccardo, Ayrton and I had plenty of laughs in “the Green room”; Paddy Lowe printed this telemetry read-out after the 1992 British GP, fittingly naming it “The Ultimate Lap”; not the Jones days: a rather subdued Patrick Head with Juan-Pablo Montoya after their win at Monaco in 2003; below – one of the key men behind the success of Williams was Frank’s Mini-racing friend from the 1960s, Sheridan Thynne (centre, chatting to Nigel and Rosanne Mansell); 1979 earth-shakers (from left to right): team manager Jeff Hazel, Charlie Chrichton-Stuart (talented F3 driver and another of Frank’s great mates from the early days), Wayne Eckersley (Australian No1 mechanic to Alan Jones) and Frank; Frank today with a background he would love: an F1 “flyaway” packhorse Images: Peter Windsor Collection, LAT Photographic