The art of giving up gracefully - Jonathan Williams

For every driver who makes it to the select world of Formula One, there must be 20 who have set off down this ambitious road and failed to make the grade for one reason or another. In the mid-1960s there was a whole host of enthusiastic young British drivers contesting the 1-litre Formula 3 category, all of them hell-bent on making their names in the upper echelons of the sport. They included Piers Courage, who became Frank Williams’ first Formula One team driver; Peter Gethin, who won the 1971 Italian Grand Prix for BRM; Charles Lucas, who founded his own Formula 3 team and later raced a Maserati 250F in historic events, as well as people like Roy Pike, Charles Crichton-Stuart (now Alan Jones’ confidant in the Williams team) and Jonathan Williams. Most of these people competed in the “mainstream” of F3, as it was then regarded, and contested the British Championship. But Jonathan Williams decided that his racing career lay in Italy. In 1966 at the age 23, he decided to move to Italy and drive for the small Rome-based F3 constructor de Sanctis.

Jonathan Williams had been a member of the Lucas F3 team in 1965, a well-spruced selection of youngsters running a trio of Brabhams in British F3 events. The era of sponsored teams, of personalised overalls and brightly painted racing cars was only just dawning on the motor racing world, so the Lucas Brabhams, in their red, white and blue livery, driven by these young lads wearing nicely tailored overalls in matching colours drew considerable attention. In addition to Jonathan, the team included Roy Pike, Piers Courage and, occasionally, “Luke” himself and Peter Gethin. Such was their progress that Lucas was invited to run the works F3 Lotus 41s for Colin Chapman in 1966. As Jonathan Williams remembers, “Geoff Murdoch of Esso wanted Courage and Pike to drive the team, so I was quite happy to pack my bags and go off to drive for de Sanctis in Italy”.

Even at this early age, Jonathan’s priorities for life were pretty firmly fixed in his mirid. He was a relaxed young man with an open, sunny disposition and his character reflected the life-style he wished to pursue. He wanted to do what he wanted to do, at a relatively unhurried pace and, preferably, do it where the sun was shining. Racing F3 for de Sanctis in Italy provided an ideal solution to these ambitions. Coming from an Army family, his parents had moved around a great deal when he was young, so he had no pressing reasons for staying in England. As far as motor racing was concerned, he quickly became bored with pounding round Brands Hatch, Silverstone and Mallory Park. For those who wanted to parade their talents in front of “F1 talent spotters”, races on such circuits might have been crucial to realising their ambitions. “But I always thought that road circuits were much more interesting and fascinating. Avoiding drain covers, kerbs and trees was a much more stimulating business and gave me a sense of achievement that I could never feel at Brands Hatch and Mallory Park. Caserta and Mugello were circuits that I particularly liked. They were more dangerous, certainly, but surely running the gauntlet of those hazards, and trying to avoid them, was what it was all about?” Lest readers should now be starting to yawn, thinking to themselves, “another old buffer, banging on about the old days”, it’s probably timely to remind ourselves that these words were being uttered at Nice airport by a realistic, quiet and serious 38-year-old a couple of hours after he had climbed out of the pilot’s seat in the cockpit of an executive jet!

In Italy, “Jonathino”, as Williams became known, built himself a reputation as a cool, sensitive little racing driver, particularly adept at the art of slipstreaming. He won several epic battles at Monza, timing his dart out of a rival’s slipstream to perfection and edging ahead as they crossed the finishing line. In 1967 he was invited to do some of the early test and development driving on the F2 Dino 166, the cars which Ernesto Brambilla and Andrea de Adamich used to dominate the Argentine Temporada series at the end of 1968. But, like so many other young drivers, he founded his relationship with the Ferrari team at a time when their overall fortunes were sinking to a pretty low ebb. He did a considerable amount of test driving at Modena, handling F2, sports cars and the 6-litre V12 Can-Am machines. In fact, he was recruited into the Ferrari sports car team for the 1967 BOAC 1,000-kilometre race at Brands Hatch, sharing a 330P4 sports coupe – “super handling, but a tank to steer!” – with Paul Hawkins. They finished sixth. “I remember they were going to pair me with Jackie Stewart, but I said ‘hey, he’s a bit on the quick side, give me a break!’ So they put Stewart with Amon and I drove with Paul. Talking of Stewart, I must say I was impressed with the way he handled that P4. Old ‘Jock McArmco’ might have had his detractors, but he couldn’t half hustle a car round a circuit …. “

Jonathan also enjoyed a pleasant relationship with Chris Amon, whom he rated as an extremely nice person and “a good driver, with all the qualities necessary to win – except that he was too nice. He didn’t really hate his rivals badly enough to need to win. . .. ” The two of them were paired up and sent off to North America to contest the 1967 Can-Am sports car series, using the 6.3-litre V12 612 sports coupes. Williams remembers that wasn’t much of a success and he thought he was going to be left happily sunning himself in California when Amon went off to drive his F1 Ferrari in the Mexican Grand Prix. “I wasn’t ecstatic when they told me I should go off to Mexico with him”, smiles Jonathan as he remembers the occasion, “but at least I got my first and only crack at F1. I stood in the pits for a day while Chris hopped from one car to another before they said ‘OK, you hop into that one’, beckoning at the spare that Amon didn’t want!” And so Jonathan Williams had his single F1 outing, at the wheel of a Ferrari 312 V12. To say that this experience does not occupy a place in the forefront of Jonathan’s memory would be to understate the case! After a half-hearted dice with Beltoise’s F2 Marra, Jonathan finished ninth in a car whose lack of power was hardly helped by the 9,000′ altitude of the Mexico City circuit!

That, from an historic point of view, was the high spot of Jonathan Williams’ career as a professional racing driver – by that we mean a racing driver who was earning his living from his trade. But Jonathan feels that his most satisfying win came back in his beloved Italy the following summer when Frank Williams loaned him his immaculate Brabham BT23C and he triumphed in the Monza Lottery, on this occasion an F2 event. He describes this as “the best car I’ve ever driven, and the best win of my career” and, laughing at the enormous amounts of money earned by many racing drivers in the 1980s, recalls the arrangement was that “Frank would buy me dinner if I won the race!”

After Jonathan Williams’ career with Ferrari petered to an inconclusive close, at the end of 1968 he went out to South America to drive a de Tomaso-prepared Tecno-Cosworth FVA F2 car in the Argentine Temporada. Again, the sun was shining, the pace was relatively leisurely, and Jonathan found everything about it most agreeable. The racing wasn’t terribly successful, “but I had a pretty reasonable opinion of my ability and when a bloke called Reutemann was quicker than me I turned to Frank Williams and said ‘Hey, you’d better sign him up a bit quick’. Frank replied, ‘No, he crashes too much’ “.

The same relaxed attitude which Jonathan brought to bear on living in Rome and working for de Sanctis was continued in 1969 when he joined de Tomaso as a test and development driver. He worked with their road cars as well as driving their “one off” F2 machine in a couple of races, had some drives in the 2-litre V8 Alfa Romeo T33 sports cars and later accepted invitations to drive various Abarth sports/racing cars, Jonathan preferring races like the Targa Florio and Mugello where his precision and tidiness paid dividends against his less painstaking rivals.

As the first few years of the seventies passed, motor racing and Jonathan Williams simply drifted apart. Neither exactly gave up the other, but they’d obviously finished with each other and Jonathan didn’t attempt to “hang on” in a sport which obviously offered him little more in the way of satisfaction any longer. Totally unruffled, in no way bitter about the fact that he never “made it” into the top echelon of the sport, Jonathan Williams turned his attentions to flying and now works for a wealthy international businessman, piloting his expensive, complicated Falcon 50 executive jet on trips from one end of the world to the other. His interest in motorsport is now fleeting, although “I was impressed with that Arnoux/Villeneuve battle at the French Grand Prix the other year; they seem to be the sort of drivers I can identify with”, and he only reads the magazines occasionally. For road transport he uses a Citroen 2CV which he drives with an acquired Gallic brio, owning a selection of motorcycles on which he lets off steam when he’s away from the business of flying. Frank Williams described Jonathan (no relation, incidentally!) as a “skilled, sensitive driver, very clever with a delicate touch” and, from conversations with a flying colleague of his, that same approach has been applied to his flying aircraft, his landings usually being absolutely smooth and precise. Home for Jonathan Williams is still in the Mediterranean sunshine at Mandelieu near Cannes. – A.H.