Stock Markets and Soup
MARCH 2, 2011
Time can play tricks, but I'm pretty sure I've got this right. According to my 1985 diary, on Thursday 24 January I've written 'Williams'. I'm prepared to bet, even though this was a low-key event for a handful of British motor sport journalists, the date marked the start of a trend in F1 public relations.
We sat round a small table in the modest boardroom of the Williams factory in Didcot and Frank served us lunch. And I mean, literally served us lunch. Frank had an urn brought up from the canteen and, to a background of rude remarks, dished out bowls of hot soup and passed them round the table.
Hard to believe, but Frank's largesse that day was the first step down a long and fast-moving road that would lead to the exquisite five-course lunch served up last week in the immaculate Williams Conference Centre.
Equally difficult to take on board is the fact that the boss could not be present last Thursday because he was travelling though Europe preparing for the launch of his company on the stock market.
If you'd told Frank in 1985 that a), his team would have a museum celebrating 113 wins and 16 world championships (drivers and constructors); and b), he would be selling that heritage on the Deutsche Borse in Frankfurt, he'd have suggested you had either received a bang on the head or there was something suspicious in the soup.
The sad thing about pin-pointing this date is that I have a black and white picture somewhere in my archives which shows a grinning Frank wielding the soup ladle. Just over 12 months later, he suffered the road accident that would confine him to a wheel chair for the rest of his life. The 1986 pre-season lunch, due to be held shortly after that, had to be cancelled for obvious reasons.
In 1987 - Monday 12 January, to be precise - we were back on course, Frank hosting lunch even though his presence in the board room was limited to a short period, Patrick Head then arriving in time for cheese, a glass of red and plenty of forthright comments about the way of the F1 world.
Frank and Patrick - backed by smart media-minded lieutenants such as Ann Bradshaw and Peter Windsor - were able to see that these innovative lunches were manna from heaven for the journalists and wonderful PR for the team. The date became a regular fixture and expanded into a two-day affair (split between specialist press and newspapers) along with the team's move in 1995 to their present headquarters at Grove.
Much of the conversation would be off the record. In fact, given Patrick's wonderfully direct remarks, it would need to be. But if you didn't come away with useful quotes and an excellent insight into the season ahead, then it wasn't the fault of your hosts; unless, of course, you'd taken a particular liking to Frank's excellent wine.
So, we fast-forward to 2011 and the call to the conference centre adjacent to the factory. This time, the team was breaking new ground by launching, on-line, FW33 in its latest colour scheme. There was a technical glitch with the microphone at one point but, throughout this straightforward and comparatively unpretentious process, you couldn't help but think this was typical Williams. No smoke, no mirrors. Here's the car and here's Sam Michael, the Technical Director, to talk about it.
It was, for Williams, an upmarket version of the 1997 launch. Time was pressing that year. The car was en route to a shake-down test in Spain, so they drove the 10 miles from Grove to Didcot, wheeled FW19 into a barren workshop in the old factory, Patrick talked about the car, answered any questions you wished to make, FW19 was loaded back onto the truck, the roller door at the back of the workshop slammed shut and we all went home. Not even a bowl of soup. But, job done.
Williams made up for that culinary deficiency this time by laying on lunch to celebrate the new liaison with Michael Caines MBE, a Michelin-starred chef who literally knows his onions. It was an exquisite meal with the bonus of Michael (Sam) moving around the tables to chat in his relaxed way about the raft of technical changes for 2011.
As I tucked into the Loch Duart Salmon and Ravioli of Brixham crab, eased down by a nice drop of Chablis AC, Durup 2008, it was easy to muse that Williams has come a long way since Frank and his bowls of soup.
And yet, and yet. Beneath the understated style and communication trappings of 2011, Williams remains essentially Williams, generating affection and hope like no other F1 team I can think of.
Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.
His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.