Frank Williams: Nigel Roebuck's F1 Legends

The storm before the calm: Frank Williams was angry with Alan Jones when he signed Keke Rosberg in late 1981

Frank Williams 1982

"everyone" wanted to drive for Frank Williams in 1982

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A ‘retro’ interview this month. Recently I came across a tape, recorded in November 1981 with Frank Williams, and on a whim slotted it into the machine and began to listen. In so many ways I was reminded that certain fundamentals never change.

FW was riding high at that time. Very well, Alan Jones might have narrowly missed retaining his world championship, but Williams had again won the constructors’ title and everyone wanted to drive for Frank.

Except, it seemed, the two men who had been in the job for the last couple of seasons. At Monza Jones had stunned Williams, not only by arriving in less than pristine condition (finger broken, multiple bruising after, to quote Alan, “an altercation with some large gentlemen in the Chiswick High Road at around midnight…”), but also by announcing to his boss that he had decided to retire at season’s end.

“Alan was satisfied by what he’d achieved, had made a pile of money and decided to call it a day”

Then there was Reutemann. After a brilliant season, through most of which he led the championship, Carlos went to the last race, in Las Vegas, to fight it out with Brabham‘s Nelson Piquet, and there, having taken a scintillating pole position, he faded to nothing in the race. It remains the most inexplicable performance I have seen. And soon there came the news that he too had decided to stop.

Ultimately Carlos changed his mind, but there were doubts about his commitment. And alongside him for 1982 would be Keke Rosberg, blindingly quick but still unproven in F1 terms.

At the time of this particular interview, Williams was nearly five years away from the road accident which would consign him to a wheelchair. Not quite 40, he personified energy, ran for miles every day, couldn’t abide inactivity.

From the archive

Then, as now, he was a man of trenchant opinions, and it was very much his team, in the sense that there was no ‘engine deal’ back then, no link with a manufacturer. There were, of course, commercial sponsors to consider, but essentially Frank was answerable only to himself and his company, which helps explain why he, like all his fellow team principals, was far more willing to speak ‘on record’ than now.

Twenty-five years ago, after all, F1 was still a relatively simple business. As Patrick Head put it: “These days making an F1 chassis, with all the moulding and so on, takes a number of months — quite apart from the design process. Back then, two days after having some sheets of aluminium against the wall you could have a monocoque ready to go! You bought an engine from Cosworth, a gearbox from Hewland, organised some tyres — and went off to fight for the world championship.”

On that Sunday morning at Williams’s house we began by talking about the driver situation. “I never thought Alan would change his mind about retiring,” said Frank, “but I kept hoping. Patrick’s more realistic than I am and a long time ago he said, ‘No, forget it. Jones is history, a statistic.’

“Alan’s indecisiveness has always amazed me. In a car he’s incredibly positive, but out of it just the opposite. I think that if he had come back he would have been as good as ever. As a man he is immensely competitive. If you can get him on a tennis court, for instance, he’ll try his very best — to the extent that he’ll do silly things like throwing his racquet on the ground in a fury. It’s bloody hard to get him on the court in the first place, but once he’s there it becomes a serious business.

Alan Jones Williams 1981

Alan Jones (far right) speaking with Frank Williams while team-mate Carlos Reutemann listens in

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“[It was the] same with racing. He might not want to leave Australia, come to Europe, live on aeroplanes and so on, but once he’s in the car he gives it everything he’s got.

“Therefore, I reckon that he weighed everything up, was well satisfied by what he’d achieved, had made a pile of money and decided to call it a day. Funnily enough, despite what a lot of people think, he’s not madly ambitious for money. I mean, I’m far more ambitious for money — or the things you can get with it — than he is. He’s got a farm, a few houses, various other business interests, and that’s all he needs, you see. Now I require a lot more than that to satisfy me. I mean, Alan doesn’t want a 2000-acre estate in England, which is what I would like! Now that’s four million quid straightaway…” Remember, this is a quarter of a century ago.

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“Of course,” Williams went on, “I’m a little bit jaundiced about Alan at the moment. One of the reasons for this team’s success over the past three years is that it has always had the very best — and that includes drivers. Alan’s departure so late in the season, besides being grossly inconsiderate to us, was a big setback for our plans. By the time he’d told me he was stopping there was no one of his calibre —Villeneuve or Pironi or Prost or Piquet — available. They’d all done deals elsewhere.

“All Alan had to do was to tell me in July that he was thinking about stopping. I could have told Didier or Nelson or Alain — I knew it was too late to get Gilles — not to sign anything until they’d spoken to me.

“I don’t think for a second that Alan’s late decision was deliberate. It’s just that he’s very inconsiderate, quite honestly. Patrick and I both told him that we considered him guilty of gross thoughtlessness, but he said he thought that September was early enough to let us know.

“Every year I take a slightly tougher attitude towards drivers. And, let me be honest about this, I’m probably particularly jaundiced about them at the moment, thanks to all this messing around with Alan and Carlos. All I care about is Williams Grand Prix Engineering and the points we earn. I don’t care who scores them.”

Frank Williams Alan Jones 1981

Williams’ driver conundrum was not enjoyed by its team owner

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‘All this messing around with Alan and Carlos’. At the Brazilian GP Reutemann had gone against his contract and stayed ahead of Jones to the flag. Alan, livid, never spoke a civil word to him again.

“Oh, the Rio business was between them,” said Frank. “It’s true that Carlos did ignore the terms of his contract, and for that we did exercise a certain penalty. But after that the matter was forgotten as far as I was concerned. Frankly, I just found the whole thing very boring!  I don’t care who gets the points. Why should I care which one of them wins? They’re only employees, after all.

“As in everything else, you have to learn the hard way. You have to be realistic about racing drivers, to accept that most of them are in it to make as much money as they can. As soon as they’re satisfied… gone, right? Then, later on, they start thinking that maybe they got out too soon. And then they start to talk about comebacks…”

Reutemann Jones

The Williams pair spent much of their 1981 season divided — Frank remained unbothered, as long as the results kept coming in

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In the end Reutemann did change his mind and committed to another season with Williams — but after only a couple of races in ’82 he went home to Argentina for good. It was fortunate indeed that Rosberg, who at that time had driven only for tail-end F1 teams, was available.

“Personally,” said Frank, who had yet to see Rosberg in one of his cars, “I feel that Keke could be about where Jones was at the beginning of ’78. He’s got three hard years behind him and not too much to show for it. I certainly think he’s got a lot of talent. He went very well when he first tested for us at Ricard — his times were good, and he was like Alan in that he’d be right on it from the first lap and was decisive on set-up. Frank Dernie, who’s worked with a lot of drivers, was very impressed. He gave good information, didn’t spin and went quickly. I think Keke might surprise a few people in ‘82.”

He did indeed. He won the World Championship…

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