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OCTOBER 1, 1996

Why Williams wins in Formula 1


Frank Williams is a strange man - but you can understand why. He has been paralysed since a road accident in March 1986. He is confined to a wheelchair and needs round-the-clock nursing. He cannot do all the things that people take for granted in life. The focus of his life, therefore, is his racing team and he thinks about it night and day. He is a worrier by nature, turning over in his mind all the things that can go wrong. He plans for the future but he keeps his plans very much to himself. He has learned from his mistakes over the years. There was a time in the mid-1970s when Williams was known as "Wanker Williams" because every project in which he was involved was a disaster. But he struggled on, refused to be beaten, and ultimately became a success. And now he wants to remain successful and he does what is necessary to ensure that Williams Grand Prix Engineering continues to win.

But what is the secret? How does the team continue to be successful? Drivers change, engineers come and go but the team keeps on winning.

Frank Williams and Patrick Head formed Williams Grand Prix Engineering in 1977. Frank had 70% of the shares, Patrick 30%. They hired several members of staff from the Wolf team of 1976 but the team was put on its feet by John Makepeace, the manager of Barclays Bank, Didcot, who agreed to allow Williams and Head to have an overdraft of ú30,000. Graphic designer Tony Harris was also important. The Saudia airline company was looking for something to sponsor, Harris suggested Williams. Williams bought a March F1 chassis and went racing with Belgian Patrick Neve, who had ú100,000 of sponsorship for Belle-Vue beer. The money enabled the team to survive while Head designed a chassis in an old carpet warehouse in Didcot, near Oxford. That car proved to be moderately successful in 1978 with driver Alan Jones and the FW07 which followed made Williams winners in 1979.

It was the engineering which brought success and Frank Williams is happy to accept that.

"Williams is primarily an engineering company," he says. "And I am not an engineer. I overlook everything and I am the figurehead for the company when it is necessary. There is no question that the way Patrick runs the engineering department is very effective. The fact is that these are the guys who deserve all the credit. The results speak for themselves. Patrick Head and Adrian Newey are a formidable partnership."

As a partner in the company Head is not going to move to another team. His motivation is as great as it ever was and he still enjoys the challenge. The actual design work has been done in recent years by Adrian Newey. He is paid extremely well and has done a fine job for the team but throughout his career at Williams he has been the target of bids from rival teams.

So far no-one has made him an offer he could not refuse. At Williams he has the best facilities, plenty of resources and a good salary. So why are there rumours that Adrian wants to leave the team?

To understand the logic one has to examine Newey himself. Adrian is 37 and his cars have won everything in motor racing. His March Indycars won the Indianapolis 500 and the Indycar Championship on several occasions; his Williamses have won the F1 World Championship. He is a millionaire. He could just walk away and never have to work again but Adrian is ambitious. He likes a challenge and when other teams ring him up trying to hire him, it must be tempting.

"The time to worry," says Newey, "is when they do not ring up. I think that if people are happy where they are working then they will stay there. If they are not happy they will probably think of moving on if somebody presents them with a better opportunity. That is human nature. I think loyalty as a word is overused."

Frank Williams disagrees. Much of the team's success, he believes, is based on the loyalty of the staff. Many of the 250 people employed by the team have been with Williams for years. This is something which stands out about Williams. Other teams are constantly poaching staff from one another. Williams does not poach and, until recently, it was rare that Williams would lose anyone to another team. In recent years McLaren has poached Williams's research & development chief Paddy Lowe and top race engineer David Brown and Stewart recently snapped up aerodynamicist Egbahl Hamidy but most of the Williams men are the same as they always have been. How does Patrick Head manage to keep the team together?

"Winning helps," says Frank Williams. "That environment is important. Another thing is that we sail our own course. There is no way that we will pay silly money to get people. We refuse to match offers from elsewhere. Patrick's policy has generally been to seek freshly trained graduates - but not necessarily straight out of university. He is looking for highly-qualified individuals who are interested in their own particular fields and are not necessarily looking for personal aggrandizement in the press. They don't want to have their names in the racing magazines every fortnight. They want to come into the factory and do their particular task to their own personal satisfaction and go home at night being quite sure they are did an excellent professional job and that they are part of a good team. I suspect that they also respect the leadership of the department. That's what I think. Beyond that I have no idea except that I think Williams is a friendly place to work."

The message is clear dedicated and loyal people are important. McLaren or Ferrari have the financial power to poach any engineer - it is difficult to turn down a salary which is twice what you are earning - but the teams do not work as well as Williams. There are jealousies and rivalries which do not exist at Williams. Money is not everything.

When it comes to budgets, Williams has less money than Ferrari and McLaren - and yet Williams does the winning. It has very good facilities. Earlier this year the team moved from Didcot to a new factory in the countryside not far from Didcot, near the village of Grove.

"Our factory is bigger than Benetton and McLaren," says Williams, "but the truth is that it is too big for us at the moment. We knew the site and it became available at a time when we desperately needed to move. We are very pleased with it but it is really an investment in our future in F1 for the next 10 years."

As part of the move Williams spent a fortune to relocate its half-scale rolling-road windtunnel. The 165-ton structure, now housed in a purpose-built three-storey research and development building at Grove, was broken down into three main sections and loaded onto four mammoth trucks for the eight mile trip which had to take place in the middle of the night in April with major road closures to allow the convoy through.

Why the expense and trouble? Because the tunnel is one of only three 50% rolling road windtunnels in the world. Ferrari has one at Filton in Bristol in England and Swift has one at San Clemente in California. Benetton is building one - when it can raise the money - Ferrari is building another one at Maranello. No-one else has access to such technology.

The team likes to play down the significance of the windtunnel but it is clearly a major advantage - in terms of detailed aerodynamics. Small gains added together produce big gains overall.

This potent mixture of good and loyal people and good equipment and a steady money supply is the foundation on which the team's success has been built. And that success has not been based on one aspect. It is a package. When Benetton had Michael Schumacher the team could win but when Schumacher left the winning stopped. Williams is able to discard drivers as it wishes. Nigel Mansell fell out with the team at the end of 1992 and went off to Indycar racing. In 1993 Alain Prost was elbowed out of the way to make room in the team for Ayrton Senna. And now Damon Hill has been ditched to make way for Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

It was a move which was typical of the Williams management. Williams company logic is that winning the World Championship is reward enough for a driver and that it is better to sign up an ambitious and cheap young driver than pay out vast sums for an established star.

Williams's theory of hiring drivers is, in fact, not very different from Patrick Head's method of hiring engineers. Williams does not pay for stars - except in exceptional situations like in 1993 when Ayrton Senna was available - and instead he hires youngsters who have been trained in other teams (Frentzen), or who have worked as Williams test drivers (Hill and Coulthard). Frank tends to get youngsters on long contracts - which avoids him having to pay vast salaries - and then holds onto them until their financial demands become excessive.

The team has no team orders, leaving it to the racers to fight it out and see who emerges ahead. Some drivers thrive on the competition - others hate it. David Coulthard was one who did not like the Williams management style and tried to move to McLaren instead. Williams fought to keep the young Scotsman, arguing that he had a three-year contract which had been signed when David began testing for the team.

The matter had to be referred to the F1 Contract Recognition Board in Geneva, Switzerland. This is a body of independent lawyers with whom all F1 contracts are lodged. In the case of a dispute they are empowered by the FIA to decide if a contract is binding or not. The Recognition Board decided in mid-December that Coulthard would have to stay with Williams for 1995. He moved to McLaren in 1996.

The money saved on drivers is then invested in research and development which means that the team continues to enjoy a technical edge over its opposition. One can always make new World Champions. Other teams can pay for them...

It may seem ruthless and disloyal but Frank Williams wants to win and he doesn't matter how it is achieved. When asked this year whether Jacques Villeneuve would be quicker than Damon Hill he replied significantly: "I've got no idea and in a way it doesn't interest me. As long as one of them is better than everyone else."

Having struggled to establish himself for many years one would think that Frank Williams might have some sympathy for teams which struggle to survive. Far from it. He doesn't care.

"A clever man will always worry that out there are several people better at doing his job than he is," says Frank. "One waits with trepidation for their arrival. When you see a new team arrive you always think that maybe in five years they will do the job and you have to work out how to beat them."

"But I don't feel any sympathy for them. They are competitors."