What went on in the Williams pit as its cars raced wheel-to-wheel for the Australian GP? Mark Skewis listens in
Where most teams step in with team orders at the merest hint of conflict between its drivers, Williams traditionally leaves its men to settle their own disputes.
Down the years that policy has resulted in some stirring battles, not least in 1986 when Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet were so busy tussling for the drivers’ crown that Alain Prost nipped in and stole it. As a result, they have nerves of steel at Williams. But as Jacques Villeneuve and Damon Hill went head-to-head to settle the opening race of the season, it wasn’t only the temperature on Villeneuve’s engine that was rising…
The oil temperatures were initially within the limits that Renault have set us, but higher than we would have liked, and Jacques’ were a bit higher than Damon’s,” explains Technical Director Patrick Head. “After the pit stop I was a bit apprehensive about a couple of incidents between the two of them, and there was a big debate going on about whether we could slow either down.
“Adrian Newey, who had been working with Damon’s car, and Jock Clear (Villeneuve’s race engineer) were having a discussion. Adrian was thinking that Damon had it well in hand; Jock was saying Jacques only drives as hard as he has to, and he had it all well in hand. It was all healthy stuff!”
Although Villeneuve led for all but the final six laps, Hill had clung to his tail throughout. But how much did he have in hand? “Certainly our data was telling us was that Damon was taking it very easy after the pit stop,” reveals Head, “He was using very few engine revs, and driving very much within his limits. I think he was sorting out how he was going to have a go at Jacques. Then he suddenly started seeing all the oil coming out and covering his car. Damon came on the radio.
“He didn’t say, ‘Please slow Jacques down,’ he just said, ‘Jacques’ car is pumping out oil all the way round the track. Not just in the corners, but continuously. We didn’t do anything then, but when Renault told us the oil pressure was dropping we got on the radio to Jacques and told him we had a serious problem.”
Head admits to being torn between two courses of action before Villeneuve’s problem settled the issue and he was told to slow, “We were apprehensive. At the end of the day neither have an agreement in their contract that they have to give way to the other one, but obviously in the first race of the year the team was pretty to get a result in the bag.”
Last year the form of team-mate David Coulthard helped torpedo Hill’s title ambitions. So will team orders be applied this time round?
“We all knew this year that we are going to be racing Schumacher and Eddie Irvine and, I’m sure, others, but its quite clear to us that Damon and Jacques are going to be racing all the way through the year,” acknowledges Head. “We don’t have any fanciful ideas that we can command the results, so we’re just going to have to build the cars strong. By that I don’t mean strong enough to bump into each other, but strong enough to be driven to the limit for the length of the race.
“Everybody in the team will be told that our two guys are racing each other. We’ve been in that position before.”
And lost a Championship because of it.
“I think we’ll worry about it as it comes,” he says with wry smile.”We obviously haven’t forgotten 1986, and we won’t make that mistake again…”