Features - Interview
JULY 1, 1993
BY JOE SAWARD
"I'm quite certain he never visualized himself as one of the world's leading constructors," she wrote. "His motivation was simply his love of F1 racing. He was addicted to all aspects of the Grand Prix circus. He really didn't mind whether he was on the trapeze or cleaning out the cages, so long as he was there."
For many years Frank cleaned the cages, his own underfunded team being the laughing stock of the paddock. Frank doesn't care about the past, so he doesn't care that once he was known as "Wanker" Williams, because of his lack of success.
Nowadays, of course, you wouldn't dare question the record, Frank is up on the trapeze. It is exhilarating, but Frank is only too aware that a winning streak can always come to an end and great winning teams, like Tyrrell and Brabham can slip down the grids or even disappear.
"I've been down that end of F1," says Frank, "and I could finish up there too, but I don't intend to."
On the surface it doesn't seem very likely. Even in these days of recession, a winning record like that of Williams-Renault draws the big sponsors. Sega and Rothmans have both been landed by Williams's director of marketing and sponsorship Richard West at a time when some F1 teams can barely get money to pay their hotel bills.
"We have the advantage of being a top team which can generate a lot of TV exposure," explains Frank, "but it is hard to get money. What I have always done is say to myself that whatever people make they must sell, and whenever they sell they must market. Sometimes motor racing fits the bill. We have a very good marketing team.' He pauses for a second, and adds: 'and so has Ron Dennis at McLaren."
Frank often says things about Ron and McLaren, as though to remind himself that there is always someone looking over your shoulder, trying to steal your limelight.
"I get on quite well with Ron," he says. "I respect him. I admire what he does. He's tough in business and he proved that again this winter when he tried to get hold of Renault engines. In his shoes I would have done exactly the same thing.
"Nothing ever stays the same. Our gap over the opposition this year is probably less than it was last year. The only real way to judge it is to see what the gap is in qualifying and how much you can win races by. We are not as comfortable this year and we're under more pressure because the gap may reduce still further. I have no quarrel with that. I want to try the very best we can and if we get beaten we will take it on the chin.
"McLaren was unbeatable in 1984-85 and then it was us and then they came back again. And don't overlook 1990, that was a splendid year because Ferrari pulled itself up by its boot straps and nearly beat everyone. That was a wonderful championship.
"There is one peculiar problem in F1 at the moment," he goes on. "It's the Renault V10 engine. The last thing we want to do is to lose it, but just supposing we had to race with an Ilmor or a Cosworth. Can you imagine what the racing would be like? It would be wonderful. You cannot blame Renault for doing the job properly and you cannot expect Williams to say "Cheerio Renault" and give up all the technical and commercial advantages which it brings us. That is not our job. It is the opposite.
"It is up to Ron (Dennis) to get McLaren's act together and it is up to Tom (Walkinshaw) to get another 80hp out of Ford for Benetton.
"We could have won every GP this year, but life is never easy in F1. I'm satisfied with the way things have gone, the important thing for us was to be in front at the start of the European season where the tracks favour us. And we've succeeded. And there's been some good motor racing."
But Frank accepts that F1 needs to put on more of a show.
"The show has to be made better," he says without hesitation, "but in Europe the audiences are fairly sophisticated. They know that the cars are special and want them to be the best. There is no question that being in F1 we take the spectacle for granted. If I haven't been to a test for a while during the winter, I find the adrenalin really gets going when I see the cars. It's a turn-on. For the average guy who comes to a race once a year it's a bit of an orgasm. The prices seem expensive to me, but I'm not a promoter and I respect the promoter's decision to charge what he feels he can get away with. That's business."
So what can be changed to improve the F1 show?
"It looks like we're going to have fuel stops next year. Actually I don't think that'll make much difference to the show. I think the 5 sec tyre stop is far far better than a - yawn - 15sec fuel stop. That will be the time to go and get beer out of the fridge, won't it?"
When it comes to things political Frank usually prefaces everything with the words 'off the record'. He has passionate views about many of the goings-on in F1 but, for whatever reason, he does not want to talk publicly about them.
And when you analyse it, Frank has never been much good at politics. His team is always getting into scrapes when it turns away from technical and sporting matters and gets involved in politics and how to present things.
Frank says: "Despite the wins, this year has only been enjoyable to a limited extent, because of the politics we are now in. The politics in the winter were contentious enough but right now there is a lot of unhappy stuff going on. It consumes a lot of everybody's time and takes away some of the enjoyment.
"But," he adds quickly, "race weekends are generally still a lot of fun."
You can call Frank and Patrick many things, but above all they are racers, when they talk politics they both look miserable, when they talk about their cars and the men who drive them, they are like a pair of kids.
"I remember the exact day that Patrick joined us," says Frank. "It was February 28 1977.
"Engineers tend to be an unsettled breed, changing easily from one team to another. Patrick has never left. I don't think there is another engineer in F1 who has stayed so long with the same team. Our 16 year association is the cornerstone of Williams GP. He has played as big a part in the Williams adventure are I have.
"I don't know whether I'm a better team director than other people, but I consider Patrick to be the best technical director - without a doubt."
Ask Frank a technical question and he will always dodge it, muttering something about "knowing vaguely what the engineers have coming along" and how "any good team has a non-stop development programme.
"I cannot say: "You watch out mate" we're doing this, because it would be uninformed comment."
Frank is quite right to dislike uninformed comment for in recent weeks and months his team has been the centre of a great deal of rumour: there was Nigel Mansell's contract last year; and this year there has been criticism of Alain Prost's driving and wild stories about whether Damon Hill can win races.
What about Prost, is Frank happy with the performance of his number one driver?
"I think Alain is very quick," he says, "and he's canny. He'll only go as quick as he has to. When I signed him knew his experience and his talent as a test driver would make a significant contribution to the team. I've never doubted his ability as a racing driver because I found out the hard way when he was beating us."
So some of Damon Hill's performances must have been a revelation, for he has made Prost work on occasion.
"I was surprised to begin with," Frank admits, "but then I didn't know him as well as Patrick and the rest of the gang did. They were right. The guy is very talented. He has a calm head which I respect very much.
"Remember Barcelona where Damon was really pushing Alain for pole. What I admire about Alain is his ability to go stunningly quickly without giving the impression he's driving all that hard. Well, if you watched Alain's qualifying lap in Spain it was like one of Ayrton Senna's, when he is dancing for grip, right to the edge. It was a lovely lap to watch. You don't see that very often from Alain because he isn't pushed enough."
Mention of Senna begs the obvious question. Why is the best driver in the world not driving for the top team?
"F1 is about making the most of opportunities," explains Frank. "It is no secret that I have been in contact with Ayrton on a number of occasions. We wanted him to race with us. Those negotiations came to nothing because he was never free when I was in a position to take him and we had no vacancy when he was in a position to move. It is as simple as that. I was more fortunate with Alain."
And what about the team orders we read so much about in the papers after the French GP and at Silverstone?
"There are tactics," he smiles, "but tactics have always been team business. I wouldn't dream of sharing them with anyone. I cannot help you. Ron Dennis would be the same."
There he goes again, talking about Ron...