Features - Interview

FEBRUARY 18, 1999

Battling with Sir Francis: Frank Williams


Battling with Sir Francis

"Oh look," says Frank Williams - changing the subject - "there is a radio aerial disguised as a tree. Look. Over there!"

And so it is. A very bizarre thing to find in a wood in Buckinghamshire. We don't even bother to ruminate as why there should be such a thing. It is a fact of life. Why it is a fact of life is a mystery but it doesn't matter. Frank likes to deal in facts rather than opinions. Opinions are not important. If they were Frank would probably have gone stark raving bonkers back in the 1970s when everything he did in F1 was a disaster.

Now he has been knighted for services to motor racing but he is not going to let it go to his head. He is constantly aware of the need to keep things in perspective. If your ego gets out of control, you stop winning.

Well, that is his theory.

"Besides," he says. "It is a team effort. It is like many honors. There is only one recipient but the honor is for the effort of a lot of people."

Yes, that is all very well, but how many of the Williams team were with Frank in the bad old days?

"Quite a lot actually," Frank snaps back. "Starting with Patrick Head. We had about 20 people then and most of them are still here."

But come on Frank it must make YOU proud?

"I don't view it like that. Really I don't."

Not even for the industry?

"That's different," he says. "But I'm not going to talk on the record about that with the tape recorder going. Turn it off."

Frank is not very good when tape recorders are about. He clams up and says what he is supposed to say. He will occasionally say something controversial "off the record" but then it cannot be used.

We have just finished a press lunch at the Williams factory. It was very pleasant but Frank didn't really say much. Now we are in a flash Renault, being driven (enthusiastically) by Frank's assistant Hamish, bombing down the M4 motorway towards London. Frank has one eye on the clock. He has a meeting - but he's not saying who with.

I am hitching a lift. I've tried to outflank the other pressmen and squeeze more out of him - on an exclusive basis.

Frank loves to gossip. Or rather he loves to HEAR gossip. Extracting information from him is like trying to catch whales with a butterfly net. Journalists are supposed to pump team bosses for information but whenever I see Frank it is the other way around. It is like being on a quiz programme - except I don't win any money.

And it's not just Formula 1. Last year Frank discovered that we share an interest in military history.

"What was the biggest naval battle ever fought," he asked.

"Eh?," I replied. "Um, Midway."

"Wrong!" he cried.

"Leyte Gulf?"

Suddenly Frank was off, telling me about how many battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers faced one another at Leyte Gulf. He likes military precision.

In F1 he likes to have strategies. He plans ahead - often much further ahead that he will admit - and then when it gets down to fighting for the World Championship he is in his element.

So how is the team going to do in 1999? Is Ralf Schumacher settling in? And how is Alessandro Zanardi coping with being slower than Schumacher?

"Ralf is very popular within the team," says Frank. "And that's the truth. He is very quick and that is what we like at Williams. They are getting on fine together. Alex is a wise experienced old professional. He just lets it all float by without any aggro... and he keeps coming up with these brilliant jokes!"

The word on the street is that Ralf got a big shock at the end of last year when he left Jordan's Honda V10 engine and tried the Mecachrome for the first time.

"If there is a power difference we will just have to make a superior chassis," says Frank. "It's a good way to learn how to make a superior chassis. But it is definitely a better engine than it was at the end of last year. They have made progress. They have had trouble getting the mapping right because they are not getting the bench-testing they need so they have had to do it in the car."

Frank will not say it but he knows that 1999 is not going to be an easy year. On the horizon, however, is the new Williams alliance with BMW for the 2000 season. There are buildings full of BMW projects behind the Williams factory.

But will the recent management changes at BMW make any difference to that?

"It is worrying until the new supporters of the project emerge," Frank admits. "The contract is set in stone. BMW has made a public commitment and there is no way they will do a U-turn. We are pretty sure that the people who pull the strings to make things happen are going to go on pulling the strings.

"The reason they decided on F1 is not because they want to get free paddock passes. They want to promote the BMW name. They are worried about Mercedes and Audi jumping into their market and they want to be different to those other marques."

It is also going to get more difficult with the arrival of Honda, a bigger effort from Ford and Toyota's F1 attack on the horizon.

"It will further enhance the worldwide visibility of F1," Frank says. "There will probably be a hiatus at some point because only one company can win and so some of them may throw their dummies out of the pram in five or ten years. But we will carry on racing..."

Isn't there a danger that F1 will become too expensive? Does Frank see a limit to the growth?

"I have always believed there is a limit to the amount of money you can raise," he says. "No matter how clever you are. But so far the teams seem to be able to raise the necessary money every year. At the same time you have to remember that F1 is a global business now. People all around the world follow it. I think it is going to be strong for quite some time."

Frank is facing the end of his Winfield sponsorship deal at the end of this season. Winfield's parent company is being taken over by British American Tobacco.

"That contract runs out at the end of this year," he admits, "and I have been told by the BAT representative for motorsport that there won't be another deal."

But the sponsorship for 2000 is already in place, isn't it? Rumours suggest that BMW's longtime partner in motorsport Fina will be backing the team.

Frank smiles.

"No comment."

I make a mental note to avoid playing poker with Sir Francis.

The word on the street is that the team will be called BMW Williams, but does that mean that Frank and Patrick Head are going to sell any shares to BMW?

"At this time the need to do so does not exist," says Frank. "Anything can happen in the future. My number one interest is winning races and World Championships."

OK. So who is going to win the World Championship this year?

"You know I'm not going to answer that question. How do you think we are going to do this year?"

Frank! I ask the questions. You give the answers.

"Good work Hamish, this is a quick run."