Features - Interview

MARCH 1, 1996

Frank Williams


In Melbourne the Rothmans Williams Renault drivers Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve dominated completely. They qualified 1-2 on the grid and finished 1-2 in the race. It was a remarkably impressive performance, particularly given the fact that during the winter months - as the new FW18 was being designed and built - the team actually moved factories. That success is a source of great pride to team boss Frank Williams - but how easy is it going to be to stay ahead of the opposition this year?

In Melbourne the Rothmans Williams Renault drivers Damon Hill and Jacques Villeneuve dominated completely. They qualified 1-2 on the grid and finished 1-2 in the race. It was a remarkably impressive performance, particularly given the fact that during the winter months - as the new FW18 was being designed and built - the team actually moved factories. That success is a source of great pride to team boss Frank Williams - but how easy is it going to be to stay ahead of the opposition this year?

FW: "It may have looked very easy but I was sitting there worrying for two whole hours. Yes, in Melbourne we had the measure of most people out there but Ferrari's performance was remarkable considering they had done zero running. Michael Schumacher is one of those guys who is going to win races when he ought not to. Having said that we think that for the next two races in South America we should have a small advantage over the opposition. Having said that I think Benetton will be right with us and might even be able to beat us. Whatever the case, when we get back to Europe it will be another set of circumstances."

Frank is a worrier by nature, turning over in his mind all the things that can go wrong. But how does he expect Benetton to be so competitive when they were not even close to Williams in Melbourne?

FW: "Their car is quick. They have the same horsepower as we do and they have a pair of capable drivers. They are a good race team and they race their cars well. They can beat us. They can definitely beat us."

But for a season-long challenge, Ferrari looks like becoming a very serious threat?

FW: "No question. Definitely. They were supposed to have had reliability problems in Melbourne but, quite frankly, I didn't see very many of them in Australia."

The sensation of Melbourne - overshadowing the dominance of the Williams - was the performance of Jacques Villeneuve. Since Melbourne there has been a lot of what might be rather over-the-top publicity about Jacques. He did well but some observers felt that Damon Hill looked to have the measure of Jacques and would have overtaken him at the end of the race. He wasn't able to challenge because Villeneuve's car was throwing at oil so that Hill could not see where he was going. Does the team agree with that analysis?

FW: "A lot of that is a fair point. Jacques did not disappear into the distance but then he may not have wanted to. He's pretty canny and shrewd and he doesn't talk to much - which is a good thing. I like that. We got the impression and Patrick Head has been quoted as saying that Damon was fairly easy on his car and was comfortable where he was. Whether he would ever have got by Jacques is quite another matter.

"And while Jacques can only get better it has to be said that we have a new Damon Hill this year. There is no question about it - this is not a team speech. He's a different Damon. He is fitter and stronger in his attitudes than he used to be. It was like that when he arrived in Australia last year after the Japanese race. I thought when I got in from Japan that I would have to do some of that old-fashioned team manager kind of stuff and sort my driver's head out, but it wasn't necessary. He came breezing in and was with it from the word go before practice began. He was clear in his head and knew what he was going to do and how he was going to get there. And he is even more like that this year.

"So I've got no idea who will be better than the other throughout the year and in a way it doesn't interest me. As long as one of them is better than everyone else."

How does Jacques Villeneuve rate alongside some of the great names who have driven for Williams over the years?

FW: "In very simple terms, it is too soon to say. I would qualify that statement by saying that what Jacques did in the first race was exceptional. I think he will have a very strong career in F1. He is a quite remarkable and a very likeable young man. But he's very tough."

Since the mid 1980s Williams has always had a policy of letting its drivers race one another. Does that not leave open the possibility that the two drivers will fall over one another and let a rival get to the flag first, as happened in 1986 when Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet lost the World Championship to Alain Prost?

FW: "You tell me which races would have made a difference and prevented Alain becoming champion that year. There was one when, arguably, Williams ought to have interfered in the finishing order. That was at Brands Hatch and no-one would go out there and be stupid enough to tell Nigel to give way to Nelson on the penultimate lap of the race. That was one of the best scraps I have ever seen in Grand Prix racing, wonderful hammer and tongs stuff for the entire race. That was the only time that a change in order could have affected the outcome of the championship. Every other time that Nigel beat Nelson, Alain was second and if we had said: "Nigel - slow up and let Nelson pass" we would have given even more points to Prost."

But don't you sometimes worry that when they are fighting it out, your drivers might actually collide and both go off?

FW: "That is a risk you have to take. On the other side of the coin, if we decided before a race that one driver shall win and the other shall come second, we would get whipped in the press. On top of that the drivers would - quite rightly - ignore the instruction because their contracts preclude it. They are allowed to get on with it. Most of the time - if not all of the time - they will avoid calamity, hopefully remembering that they need points as much as we need points and given that they are both very experienced racing drivers.

"Don't ever think Jacques is inexperienced, because he isn't!"

The drivers aside, Williams does seem to have an uncanny ability to build the best cars. What is the secret of the team's success?

FW: "There is no question that Patrick Head and Adrian Newey are a formidable partnership. And the way Patrick runs the entire Williams engineering department is very effective. The fact is that these are the guys who deserve all the credit. The results speak for themselves."

But Williams is a little different to most teams because while others are constantly poaching staff from one another Williams seems to stay out of the action. It is rare that the team loses anyone to another team and so the engineers tend to be a rather mysterious group - who are not often in the limelight. How does Patrick Head manage to keep his together?

FW: "Winning helps. 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 pay silly money, to match offers elsewhere. Patrick's policy in any case 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 comics 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. It just so happens that Williams is a friendly place to work. I am sure Benetton is a friendly place if you are a Benetton man. And probably McLaren is as well - but I don't know about them.

The relationship between Williams and Benetton must be rather an uncomfortable one, given that both teams use the same engines and are supposed to have absolute parity, despite the fact that Williams previously enjoyed an exclusive engine supply deal with the French manufacturer.

FW: "Well it is and it isn't uncomfortable. It could easily be a disastrous relationship but I have made a point to have very good communication with Flavio Briatore (boss of Benetton). Renault has, in fact, taken the lead and bent over backwards to make sure we get the same. They go to truly ridiculous lengths to make sure that no leak of any sort occurs to the other side and vice versa and they treat both teams absolutely scrupulously - and are seen to do so. I have no complaints.

"At the same time our position about engine supply is wellknown. We would infinitely prefer to have an exclusive deal. But it is not our engine. It is Renault's engine and we are delighted to have the Renault partnership. We are getting on with winning - trying to win..."

At the end of 1997 both the Williams and the Benetton Renault contracts come up for renewal. Will Frank be staying on with Renault?

FW: "That is up to what Renault chooses to do. I honestly do not know. They might choose to supply one team or leave things as they are. All I can say is that I sincerely hope we are included in their future plans."

What about the future? F1 seems to be able to continue developing at an extraordinary rate. Williams employs 250 people and has just moved into its vast new factory. How much more can F1 expand before the bubble bursts?

FW: "Our factory is bigger than Benetton and McLaren I suppose but the fact is that we knew the site and it became available at a time when we desperately needed to move. We are very pleased with it. It is a bit too big for us but what it is is an investment in our future in F1 for the next 10 years. Or to put it another way. It is primarily an engineering tool. It also happens to be a damned fine marketing tool..."

But how much more can F1 grow?

FW: "Not a lot more. Income is peaking out a bit and whilst you never take the attitude that this is all we are ever going to get and give up trying, one always tries to become more attractive to potential investers. But clearly there is a limit to what the world - or any group of particular partners - can afford. F1 may well have to shrink back a bit. That will be an interesting engineering and commercial enterprise and if it comes we will do our best to cope with it. At the end of the day we will only be following in the footsteps of many companies around the world. There is barely a company out there which has not had to shrink or re-examine itself and reconsider the way it operates. I am not saying that we have an instant action corporate plan on the shelf for emergencies but it is on one's mind."

What about the political side of the sport? The Formula One Constructors Association is largely the same gang who were the bosses back in the early 1980s - 15 years ago. Those bosses are beginning to get older now. As an original FOCA member, can you tell us what is being planned for the future?

FW: "Bernie Ecclestone (the FOCA President) is making plans and there are negotiations with the teams looking at the future of F1 after Bernie. I can say most sincerely that we are talking years and years ahead. The last thing I need is to have to occupy myself negotiating TV contracts and distributing FOCA benefits. Bernie does that and I would rather get on with what I am doing. The plans are not concluded but they are well down the road. I cannot tell you what is going to happen. I do know that Bernie is very sincere in his desire that when he decides to stop he wants to leave a tidy situation. What he does not want to see is what he has built up - brilliantly - fall apart because no-one was prepared. That is a serious ambition of his."

What about Frank Williams's ambitions. Winning in F1 is the obvious one. What about touring cars? Is that just a deal which will last as long as the Renault contract?

FW: "As a company we want it to continue. There is no question at all. If Renault was to leave that activity we would get plenty of notice and we would be confident of finding another partner. The touring car team is good for Williams. It is interesting. It is a useful business activity and there are 40 people out there who we do not want to lose - and we would fight tooth and nail to keep them employed."

There is much optimism then at Williams but what about the dark cloud which still hangs over the team? The possible legal actions in Italy resulting from the death of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1994. When are they going to be settled?

FW: "I won't talk about the subject - except to answer that direct question. There is no sign of when the magistrate will come to a formal conclusion. We suspect it will be in the period not long after the next Imola race (May 5). I have seen the technical report but I do not know what the magistrate is going to do with it."

Isn't there a danger that if the Italians rule that the team is guilty that you will be open to legal action from other interested parties such as the Senna family or insurers?

FW: "We cannot be found guilty until we go to court. All the magistrate can say is: "I think there is negligence and someone is culpable. Please Mr Judge will you prosecute these people". The judge may say: "There is insufficient evidence. We do not really know what happened. Sorry". We do not know what he is going to say. I think if a judge decides that there are grounds for a court case, it has to go to court within six months."