Features - Interview
JANUARY 27, 2000
BY JOE SAWARD
Choosing CART champion Alex Zanardi to race in 1999 was not seen in F1 as being risk - but Alex did not get the results expected of him. No-one in F1 understands what happened - and neither does Frank. But he will not say any more.
"We decided that if Alex did not want to carry on - and our judgement was that he didn't after various discussions we had with him - we would have to change and by the time that decision was made the choice of drivers was rather limited. Olivier Panis was so far down the road with McLaren that he did not want to change his mind. We had a look at Darren Manning but he was not able to demonstrate what he could really do. He lucked out because the weather worked against him in the Jerez test. At about that time Jenson was given a run in the Prost and that went very well indeed and we thought we should give him a run. We had a little bit of spare mileage - not that finding free mileage is easy - but Patrick agreed that he was worth looking at - just in case he is as good as some people say he is."
In the week before Christmas Frank rang Button on his mobile phone one evening when Jenson was out with some of his mates at a pub.
"I don't remember exactly what he said," says Williams, "but he wasn't sure that I wasn't pulling his leg. He was quite surprised. I must admit it's an odd kind of place to start doing business. I am stranger to pubs as you know..."
The announcement of the second driver was delayed and Williams decided to run Button and test driver Bruno Junqueira in Jerez de la Frontera on January 14. This coincided with a disastrous spate of engine failures and neither driver achieved very any miles. But Button got one decent run - and he left the team impressed.
"He did a limited amount of testing," says Williams, "but he was certainly very competent - given his age and his relatively small amount of experience in single seater racing. We felt that if he could go so quickly so soon he must have great potential. He compared favor to Bruno - who is highly-regarded within the team and underrated outside it - but it was a very close decision. It really was. It was made 40 minutes before the start of the press conference. BMW felt that if all the press were there for the new car and the announcement of Compaq as the new big sponsor that it would be tidy to announce everything at the same time and it would be much appreciated by the press. They were right."
The British press went bananas. There were several front page stories in the newspapers. There were cartoons, comments in the editorials and the sports pages were full of the story. Button was going to be Britain's youngest-ever F1 driver... There were, of course, those who doubted the wisdom of the decision. Jody Scheckter, Jackie Stewart and others reckoned it was far too early for Button. But Sir Stirling Moss thought it was a great idea.
"He already has excellent credentials," he said, "and if he can rise to the challenge, he will become a very big name indeed. When I was young no-one ever gave me a chance. I'm glad things are different for him. It's an amazing opportunity."
Frank Williams admits that it is a risk.
"All driver choices are on the one hand calculated and on the other gambles. Unless you are negotiating with an Ayrton Senna or a Michael Schumacher - who can almost guarantee success for you. When we signed Nigel Mansell in 1990 for the 1991 season we were thinking: "Ooh dear. Is this the right thing to do? Remember that accident he had which we thought was a bit silly." Things like that. You worry about everything. It's all a gamble. Younger drivers and older drivers each have their merits but at the end of the day you have to stick them in the car and back up your judgement and hope it works for you."
One way or another, it is not likely to be an easy year - with BMW coming into F1 with a new engine and a new team of engineers. Climbing back up to the pinnacle in F1 is not going to be easy.
"We had a few down years in 1988, 1989 and 1990," Frank says. "But it harder this time around because there are more good teams about. The level of professional competence is rising steadily. It is also more and more of an engine formula because the rules are so prescriptive and restrictive. British natural engineering excellence is being stifled. Last year we did not have the best car but we had a good car. We had a good engine but not the best engine. If we had had another 40 horsepower on the occasions when the car went well - there were only a few of these because we just couldn't get enough downforce on the car at a lot of tracks - I would put it to you that Ralf would have won one or two races. Forty horsepower equals something like a second a lap and there were some places where he was very competitive."
So a great deal depends of the BMW engine? How is that programme progressing?
"We have a good relationship with BMW," Frank says. "You must remember that we have worked with them for two years on the Le Mans 24 Hours project so we have got to know the differences that exist between our two cultures. That was very successful but now we are on the F1 stage in two months and we are getting serious about the need to perform.
"They are very well equipped. We are counting on them."
Williams reckons that as the general level of F1 rises, his team is keeping up with the others.
"Our results don't show it," he admits, "but we are keeping up. In terms of size, competence, equipment and investment we are as good as anyone else. We had an interviewee recently from McLaren and he said: "McLaren has a lot of stuff but there are things you have that they do not have at all."
So what are Frank's realistic objectives this year?
"We would like to see ourselves on the podium a few times," he says. "It is not impossible but it is probably going to be more difficult than it was last year. That is the target."