Features - Interview
MARCH 1, 1992
BY JOE SAWARD
Frank Williams has every reason to be delighted with the result of the South African Grand Prix. It could scarcely have been a better weekend, nor a better start to a World Championship. The Canon Williams-Renault team was dominant in South Africa. Nigel Mansell was the fastest in every session - timed or free - and the Englishman led the race from lights to flag, set the fastest lap and was followed all the way by team mate Riccardo Patrese.
It was the kind of race meetings of which drivers dream. No-one could have asked for a better result, and yet Frank is unwilling to accept that he had the McLaren-Honda team rushing back to Europe to accelerate its new car. It is as if the mere mention of success will cause it to vanish. Even in his moment of victory, surrounded by eager pressmen, Frank was being guarded.
"It's obvious that the car was quicker than the rest of the field," he admits, "but South Africa is all corners. Mexico and Brazil are different circuits and maybe horsepower counts a little more there. It"ll be a different set of rules when we get to Mexico. If we manage to maintain our advantages in the next two races it will only be by a small amount, and the whole season will see people making even more progress than they did last year.
"Just look, the Benettons are close behind, Ferrari is just beginning with an unusual car which could have phenomenal potential."
And what about Ligier, the second team with Renault engines. The performance in Kyalami was not very spectacular?[QL]
"I've got no comment about Ligier," says Frank diplomatically, "they are struggling a bit. Remember Williams in Phoenix in 1991 with the FW14. We were pretty competitive but that was really the same car that we had in Montreal and which was as fast as a train in the next few races. That was because we got to know the car and how to operate it. That really counts for a lot. Ligier is taking a while to find its feet, but they"We've come long way since Australia last year. You have to give these guys time.
"Whatever the case, complacency cannot exist in our organisation - it never does anyway. Today we have a minor advantage, but if you relax at all it will disappear."
The pre-season testing had given the team some idea that it would be right on the pace, but Frank does not put much emphasis on the results of testing.
"There can be highly delusory times and I take a slightly - not cynical - but jaundiced view of testing times in order to keep both feet on the ground.
"Okay, in South Africa we had a comfortable margin but you only have to have a small problem - maybe you have a bad balance for the race - and suddenly your are in trouble."
Much of the Williams advantage has been gained from an intensive winter testing programme, which seemed to be much more intensive than in recent years.
"No, not really," says Frank. "For several years now we have tried to do a two or three car test once a month for five or six days, a major blitz rather than lots of little tests. It used to going to Ricard for a day to try a new radiator then four days later pop to Pembrey to try a new wishbone and then a week later go back to Ricard to try a rear wing. Now we map it out and follow major blitz policy. We had probably one more test than normal in the winter. I think what we saw in January 1991 was an absence of tests because the FW14 wasn"t ready. It didn't hit the road until February 21 or something. So there was not a lot happening and this year seemed therefore to involve a lot more testing."
"We believe that their new car is coming out in Barcelona. It has got to be a useful advantage over the present one, and that is already pretty damned competitive. They will make a substantial leap forward. They have seen which way to go from the others!"
"They have the best team in Grand Prix racing and if they have good equipment they will get the best out of it, no question. Our new car is not planned for Barcelona. It'll be a little bit later than that, but obviously while we wait we have a development programme for the next GP and the one after that and so on."
Is McLaren really the best team?
"Yes," smiles Frank. "There is no question in the results. The bottom line is who wins the most races, who scores the most points. I hate to admit it, but they are better than us, but it is not by much and we"re on the attack. We"re going to beat them by being a better team in every sense. The evidence today, however, is that we are not there yet. Give us a season...
"Our attack is definitely technologically led, but that has its dangers as Ron (Dennis) can sit there smirking if we break down. We have to avoid that."
The technology advances now coming into F1 are more and more complex, and much of the breakthrough technology is now being found in the realms of electronics. Is that where the Williams has gained most in recent months?
"I cannot say where the car has gained most since Adelaide. It has probably come from the electronically-controlled active suspension system. The other things that people refer to about clutches and so on are test pieces which unfortunately are being talked about - which is not the ideal thing - at the present time they are purely test pieces and I don"t think that they refer or relate to South Africa or necessarily the next GP.
At Kyalami Dennis let it be known that the new McLaren would have fully-integrated "fly-by-wire" systems.
"Anything that is controlled electronically is fly-by-wire," smiles Williams. "I think Ron is using a phrase which sounds great (and it is) but people have been flying stuff to control all sorts of things by electronic signals or chips for a while. It"s a good way to do it. The technology is easy to acquire, easier to operate, easier to understand and it will spread more and more in F1."
But it costs a lot? Again Frank smiles. If there is one thing which team management hate to talk about it is money.
"We"re not suffering," he says. "We have a very good, adequate, budget, but we recognise that it is not easy to find sponsors. It is an on-going job all the time, as every other team will tell you. We have the benefit of generally having long-term and very stable sponsors. We are very competitive and that makes us attractive, but deep down there is this awful feeling that it can change, so we take the money side very seriously. The obligations to sponsors are continually re-examined and polished up all the time."
So the recession is not hurting Williams?
"It is tough out there," he admits, "but we have a bit of insurance because of the long-term contracts with long-term people. There is a limited amount of money and the bills are going up. Happily the television attractiveness of the sport is at least stablizing, if not better."
And what about the current assault by the European Community on cigarette backing, Williams, after all, has a large tobacco sponsor in Camel?
"An aggressive reply would be that I"ll believe it when I see it," he smiles, "but a sensible reply would be yes. The squeeze is inevitable, bit by bit. It may turn out to be an abrupt change, but that will apply only to the European countries and not to the other eight races. A tobacco company must then determine the value of racing; of paying for 16 races but getting coverage from only eight. If there"s less money ultimately we will spend less. Clearly we will be looking to replace tobacco if ever it is removed - for wholly hypocritical reasons perhaps, but that is a totally partisan reply."
In general, the top teams in F1 are doing well in the recession. Is that a correct way of looking at things?
"It is. Often because of long-term contracts and because motor racing is a plum activity in any international company"s strategy, and it takes longer to wind it down. The hurt could come a year or two years from now. If you go to companies now and talk about F1, they may be struggling now and they"ll say: "Cheerio, give us a call in a year or two." Things may already be on the upturn, but these things take a long time to change direction. We have to see how things develop."
Right now, however, does Williams think that his team is the best he has ever had?
"Really, it"s too soon to say," he admits. "It has got to be a step above last year"s team in the way we operate. The proof in the pudding will be at the end of the season. We will obvious make the odd change or insert a better system, but we could look back to 1986 and 1987. We did a damned good job then and also in 1980-81. The rules of the game were quite, quite different then. Today we are coping with a far slicker organisation just to keep ahead of the technology. Really it is difficult to compare teams because we are dealing with a totally different situation.
"At Didcot the number of staff tends to drift up all the time, with the odd hiccough or blip in August through to December. I wouldn't"t say we have had major increase, but there are a lot now. It"s very close to 200 people."
But they are a very loyal staff?
"Yes, and we"re very proud of that, particularly in the race team. We have had several additions to it, to cope with the technology, but the people who were here last year are, to a man, here this season. It"s much the same in the factory.
"They all work their nuts off - and that is what we want."