Williams Grand Prix Engineering


The heading to this article is the official title of the firm that runs the Williams team in Formula One and it can be said that it is financed by Saudi Arabia. However, it has not always been so, for the initial influx of money from Saudi Arabia came solely from the national airline Saudia, but over the past two seasons interest in the Formula One team has spread throughout the land and there are now ten Saudi Arabian business houses putting money into the team, which is why we can say that the Middle East oil country is behind the Williams team.

It was during 1977 that Saudia made it known that they were interested in putting some money into a Formula One team, in return for advertising space on the cars and the resultant exposure to the public and the world in general. Prince Mohammed Bin-Fahd, the second son of Crown Prince Fahd, was the power behind the idea of letting the world know about Saudi Arabia through the medium of world-wide Formula One racing, though he did not approach Frank Williams with the idea. The word was merely put about in certain circles and the opportunity was there for anyone to take. A close friend told Frank about the possibilities and he wasted no time. He had clinched the deal to run a car with the backing of Saudia for 1978 and to carry the FLY SAUDIA slogan loud and clear before many teams had even got wind of the Saudi Arabian interest! The cars were officially entered as Saudia-Williams and the team was called the Saudia-Williams Racing Team, run by Williams Grand Prix Engineering, with a small factory in Didcot, deep in Berkshire.

He had been running a small one-car team, using March cars and his designer, and now co-director, Patrick Head had been carrying out numerous modifications and was not far off designing a complete car. For the 1978 season there was the promise of up to £500,000 forthcoming so they could really get down to business. Before the end of 1977 the first new car was completed, this being the FW07 and it was a neat and compact design embodying all the best current practices in Formula One. They had to be ready to race in January 1978 so there was no time to try radical design features, for they had to put on a satisfactory showing for the Saudi Arabians without explanations or excuses, for the Saudis knew little or nothing about the vicissitudes of Grand Prix racing. They merely expected to see their money put to good use. At a small gathering at the Didcot factory we all admired the new car in its pleasing green and white colour scheme, the colours of the Saudia airline, and the top brass from the airline arrived from Heathrow by helicopter, landing on a football pitch behind the factory. As a piece of showmanship Frank Williams pulled a master-card when everyone was gathered round the car passing pleasantries with the Saudi Arabians. Without a word, two mechanics approached the car and started the engine, and the sound of a Cosworth DFV inside a building is impressive to hardened ears like those of the motoring press. To the Saudis it was enthralling and the beams of delight that spread across their faces was wonderful to behold. It was their car and it was making that wonderful, powerful sound, and it was going to race, and to win, and carry the name of their national airline into the vast arena of Formula One. In deference to the policies of Saudi Arabia over the question of alcohol we were toasting the success of the new car in tea and coffee! That was December 1977 and now we are in December 1979, exactly two years on and the Frank Williams team are at the top of the Cosworth-powered tree and fighting hard against the might of the Scuderia Ferrari with Fiat backing and the Renault-Sport team with the backing of the mighty Regie Renault.

As an aside, the day after that introduction to the Williams FW07 and the Saudi Arabian backers, many of us went to another new Formula One showing. It was as evil looking a car as the Williams was pretty, the workshop was as small and cramped as the Williams factory was large and bright, but the champagne and hard-stuff flowed unceasingly. While the Williams Saudi-backed team rose to great heights on a baptism of tea and coffee, the car that was launched on a sea of champagne sank with all hands.

As the 1978 season progressed the FLY SAUDIA slogan was joined by other names, the first being ALBILAD. This is the name of the Royal Trading Company through which Prince Mohammed and the Royal Family carry out all their business transactions, and when that name appeared on the FW07 we knew that the team was well established. Throughout the season the new car, driven by Alan Jones, gave a good account of itself and a number of times came close to victory. Frank Williams and Patrick Head were near to despair at times for they could see the Saudis losing interest if they were not successful. They ended the season with a rousing second place in the United States GP at Watkins Glen, but they really needed a victory.

For 1979 the flow of money from Saudi Arabia was increasing rapidly and a two-car team was operated, with Gianclaudio Regazzoni joining Alan Jones on the driving side, and Frank Dernie and Nigel Oatley joining Patrick Head in the design office, and the workforce expanding into an adjoining factory at Didcot. As is well known the new FW08 design was a winner from the word go and Regazzoni scored the team’s first victory at the British GP at Silverstone after a fighting second place at Monaco. The team won the next three races on the trot, Alan Jones scoring the hat-trick, and they ended the season with a win in Canada. The Saudi backers were delighted and throughout the year more and more advertising had been appearing on the cars, all of which meant more and more Royal approval and more and more money into Frank Williams Grand Prix Engineering. It is safe to say that the 1979 income from Saudi Arabian business enterprises has topped the million pound mark, and it has been ploughed into the firm as a recent visit to Didcot indicated. A third factory is about to be acquired and this will become a separate Research and Development department, including a small wind-tunnel for research purposes. More and more machine tools are appearing in the main factory as Patrick Head finds the outside commercial world unable to appreciate the urgency of Grand Prix racing. They are aiming to become more and more self sufficient as regards the manufacture of components.

The Saudi Arabians are businessmen with a very sharp and modern outlook and must appreciate that Frank Williams is not squandering their money on publicity and “bull”, he is spending it on achieving results. One of Frank’s close colleagues says, with a wry smile, when there is money about Frank has deep pockets and short arms.” Meaning not that he’s mean, but he is careful. If I might make another aside, a year or two ago there was a team that appeared in Formula One with a sizeable budget of someone else’s money. They exaggerated and dispensed largesse in a most blatant fashion and I said to a colleague at the beginning of the season that I doubted if they would still be with us at the end. They were not.

Looking at the Williams cars today they are covered in names familiar and not so familiar. Many of the firms do not need to advertise to the outside world but it is important to their business connections to be allowed to be involved with the Royal racing car. FLY SAUDIA is still very important as Saudia Airlines are spreading fast in the aviation world. ALBILAD is in effect, the Royal stamp of approval, dallah AVCO is the Saudi Arabian Trading Company of Sheikh Saleh Kamel. Techniques d’Avant Garde or TAG is the Paris-based firm dealing in aviation and electronic matters, owned by Akram Ojjeh and his son Mansour Ojjeh. USI, the monogram on the nose of the cars is United Saudi Industries who are based in Washington in the USA and handle imports and exports to Saudi Arabia. The head man is Sheikh Faisal al Sowayel and he is the liaison man between the team and many of the backers. The hieroglyphics on the nose fins actually read M&M and are yet another business house owned by Mouaffak al Midani and Prince Mohammed, while the side pods are a group of four firms. These are Encotrade who are a construction company, Baroom who are importers of steel, cement and building materials into Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden who are road builders and electrical contractors and Kanoo who are Saudi Arabian shipping agents. In Canada the name Challenger was added to the side pods alongside TAG and this was a courtesy to Canadair who had just concluded a contract with TAG to supply a batch of executive jets called Canadair Challengers to the Saudi Arabian firm.

As can be seen the Williams team really have the backing of Saudi Arabian businessmen, but in addition we must not overlook the very important part played by non-Saudi industries, notably Goodyear who make sure the cars are well shod, Koni who supply the shock-absorbers, Champion who supply sparking plugs and Mobil who supply oil through their Saudi Arabian branch. With Alan Jones winning four races in 1979 the Saudis became very proud of “their” driver and next year expect him to carry only Saudi Arabian advertising on his helmet and overalls.

Because Frank Williams does not go out of his way to publicise what he is doing, other than by winning races, or setting the pace there are numerous stories circulated about him and his team in respect of their association with the Saudi Arabians. One story was that he was flown to Saudi Arabia by private aircraft after each race to report to the Royal Family. Totally untrue. He does go to Saudi Arabia about eight times a year, to Riyadh and Jeddah, to pay courtesy visits to the various firms and people who are supporting him. Some team owners take the money and hardly speak to their sponsors again until the money has run out, but that is not Frank’s way of working. He flies out on Saudia Airlines and naturally receives the VIP treatment and travels first-class. As he says “they are marvellous, and look after me very well.” Another story that went the rounds after the first victory, in the British GP, was that Frank got a bonus of £100,000 or £1,000,000 depending on who you listened to, and that all the mechanics got a bonus of £1,000 each. Also totally untrue. There is no direct connection between the income and success. The income and increases are continuous with the general expansion of interest by the Saudi businessmen, and it was happy coincidence that this interest gathered momentum as successes started appearing. The mechanics are among the highest paid in Formula One.

What everyone is wondering now is whether the team can carry on as pace-setters in 1980. Nobody in Didcot is thinking that way, they are certain they can and intend to do so. The early part of the season will see them using uprated B-versions of the FW07 cars, with improvements to suspensions at front and rear, a general tidying up of details and an increase in efficiency at every point. This season they have had four cars forming the team, with number five as a spare monocoque on the shelf. Number six is now under construction, incorporating improvements to the construction and stiffness in line with knowledge gained during the season. The cars for the early part of 1980 will all be modified from the basic shell and the new FW08 cars will appear later in the season. Part of the object of investing money in a separate Research and Development factory is to enable future developments to be tried and tested thoroughly before being incorporated in the racing team, whereas this year everything has been done by one group.

The interest in Formula One by Saudi Arabia has been most enlightening and a complete contrast to some sponsors who have arrived on the scene in a most brash and gaudy manner and have not only swamped the scene with “over-kill” publicity, but have even tried to influence the running of Grand Prix racing, as if they had just invented it The Saudi Arabians have come in quietly and discreetly, but are leaving some very permanent marks on the scene. They do not try to influence the Williams team in any way, nor to influence the running of Grand Prix racing. You would hardly know they are about the place, even though there are always two or three of them in the pits on race day. For Frank Williams and his team they are “dream sponsors” and the whole team work really hard to show their appreciation by getting results, which is what the Saudis are interested in. Some people say Frank Williams was lucky, but I think shrewd would be a better word. – D. S. J.