500 grands prix with Frank Williams and Patrick Head: F1 drivers have their say

After a tough season Frank Williams and Patrick Head weren’t in the mood to celebrate the team’s 500th GP. So we got some of their drivers to toast them instead
By Rob Widdows & Adam Cooper

Patrick Head is the kind of man who calls the implement with which you dig your garden a spade. He would refer to scaffolding rather than vertical access solutions. The man can be gruff, going very rapidly to the heart of the matter. You get the picture.

No wonder, then, that neither Mr Head nor his long-time business partner Sir Frank Williams were much in the mood for celebration when it came to their 500th Grand Prix on a wet weekend at Monza in September.

“Frank isn’t too keen to celebrate,” I was told by the team’s invariably helpful press department. “He’s too upset about our performance this year to talk to you about reaching our 500th race.”

A determined and competitive character, Frank has never been one to look back, misty-eyed, over past glories. What about the other half of this legendary partnership? Perhaps Mr Head would be a little more forthcoming?

“Everybody, including Patrick, is focused on making the car go quicker,” comes the response from Grove, “but he will give you half an hour.” Then, just before the teams depart for Singapore, he too decides this is no time to be looking back. “Sorry,” they say, “but he’s no longer able to talk to you.” That, in brief, is why we have spoken to the men who raced for Williams, those who have brought the team a total of seven drivers’ championships and nine constructors’ titles.

Williams is one of the few remaining truly independent teams in the business. It knows how to win, what it takes, and the trophies in the cabinets are there for all to see. But, in the grimly hard-edged world of Grand Prix racing, past performance is not necessarily any guide to the future. Not since 1997, when designer Adrian Newey jumped ship for McLaren, has the team won a drivers’ or a constructors’ world title.

At Monza, then, in the pouring rain, where Kazuki Nakajima and Nico Rosberg finished 12th and 14th respectively, it was mugs of tea as usual. Not for them the gaudy cakes, champagne and speeches. The only sign of a milestone in the team’s history was a simple ‘500’ painted on the flanks of the FW30. Understated, very British and very Williams.

So instead of the Williams story of 500 GPs, we have the drivers’ side of the tale. And yes, we know the team are counting from 1978, but given Frank’s involvement long pre-dating that year, we’ve decided to go back a bit further, too. Here’s what the drivers told us about what it’s like to be employed by two of the toughest bosses in the business.

Tim Schenken
Williams driver 1970 & 1973 (one race)

Frank never seemed to have any money. Apparently he used the previous year’s sponsorship to pay the following year’s bills, and, looking back, the De Tomaso was pretty terrible, but we were doing Formula 1 and that’s what we’d all been striving to do. The team was always on the breadline but somehow he managed to keep it all going. He’s a tough character, very competitive, and it’s no big surprise that they’ve not only survived, but achieved so much success.

Jacques Laffite
Williams driver 1974-75 & 1983-84

I hope Frank remembers I scored the team’s first podium at the Nürburgring in 1975! I was so proud for him and he’d spent so much energy to be there. He’s a fantastic guy, he loves racing and he’s a real racer himself. When I started with Williams they had no money at all. Frank tried everything to get the money, to find the right people – and not to pay them too much! He started very low and has had fantastic success. I have a big admiration for him and, if I ever need anything, I can go and see him immediately.

Alan Jones
Williams driver 1978-81, team wins 11, World champion 1980

It was pretty straightforward, really. I mean, I’m not a very technical person, but I worked well with Patrick because we were both so competitive – he’s a terrible loser, worse than Frank, and even more competitive in some ways. We found we could communicate in very few words. I didn’t tell him so much about what was good with the car, I told him about the bad bits, so he could make it go better. We were a great team, a real unit working together, and we all called a spade a spade. I went as fast as I could, and they liked that, while they gave me the best possible car. If you look at it now, they’ve done an amazing job holding that team together for so many years without a championship.

Nigel Mansell
Williams driver 1985-88 & 1991-92 & 1994
Team wins 28, World Champion 1992

Having a team moulded around me is a big part of my make-up, the way I like to go racing, and I made it clear to Williams I needed to work that way. Moving to Williams was a breath of fresh air at first. Patrick Head likes to see a driver grab his cars by the scruff of the neck, and give some feedback to the engineers, and that suited my style. When I joined it was pretty much Rosberg’s team and he said he would leave if I joined. But Frank told me he would decide who drove his cars and I felt I had the support I needed. I like to have people around me who believe in me and who want to win as much as I do. The great thing about going to Williams was that, because of the standard of engineering, they could field two cars capable of winning and there weren’t any team orders. I didn’t have that at Lotus.

Damon Hill
Williams driver 1993-96, Team wins 21, World Champion 1996

Frank and Patrick were highly demanding masters, and that suited me just fine because I wanted to be put to the test. And I was. But I have been fortunate enough to have been complimented by them on my job for the team, more than once or twice, and believe me, that is praise hard won and greatly appreciated. The team is fiercely loyal and very British in its attitude which emanates from Frank and Patrick themselves. This, I think, is an important theme with the Williams team. To be a British driver racing with Williams is as close as you can get, as an Englishman, to being an Italian racing for Ferrari. I now regard it as an extraordinary privilege to have worked with them – although there were times when I felt differently… Both Frank and Patrick are extraordinary individuals who embody the true meaning of Formula 1 as a sport. To them it is all about the team result and Frank would happily admit as much. This can be frustrating for us self-centred racing drivers as we only care about ourselves but, having said that, they do love to see their drivers racing each other. I think that’s what really turns them on, you know. It was superb fun at Williams – in retrospect!

Keke Rosberg
Williams driver 1982-85, Team wins 5, World Champion 1982

I’m a bit like Frank – I really don’t give a hoot about how many races they’ve done. I don’t have a very good dialogue with Frank – we disagree on many things, so I leave him to do his job, and I do mine. Of course Williams was a very important time in my career, but I just seem to disagree with Frank on too many issues these days… [spoken like a true driver’s dad! – ed]

David Coulthard
Williams driver 1994-95, team wins 1

It was a fantastic period, as a young man, to be a test driver for Mansell, for Prost and for Senna. I will remember that time as much as my actual racing career. Williams is an amazing engineering company with a very clearly defined leadership. This makes it straightforward to understand who you need to talk to and it’s no surprise that they’ve had so much success in their career. For an independent team the success is quite remarkable, and it’s unique, because all the other big winning teams in F1 are manufacturer-based. Frank is a very intelligent man, very straightforward, and he’s one of the few people who will withhold certain information and then later confess to withholding it because he had to protect the interests of his team. A lot of the others will withhold information and then, when you challenge them, they deny – and keep denying – that they ever withheld anything. Frank is honest, and that is the mark of a man.

Kazuki Nakajima
Williams driver 2008

I’m only 23 years old but I’ve been watching Frank and the team on television for many, many years, so it is a little bit strange to be working for Williams now, especially with their Honda history in Japan. Frank is an amazing guy because his passion for racing is really big and that’s probably the only reason why he’s still here doing F1. It’s always nice for me to see him and talk to him. He loves to hear anything about racing and he is just a part of the history of it all. I am sure that Williams can come back to a good position, and as part of the team I want to play my role in that.


Nakajima was right. Back they came, with a bang, at Singapore last month when Nico Rosberg climbed onto the second step of the podium after fighting his way back from a penalty when he was forced to stop for fuel during a safety car period. In the thick of it, too, was Nakajima after a faultless drive through the darkness to claim the final point in eighth place. This bag of points brought the team to within just two points of nearest rival Red Bull Racing and kept it ahead of the Honda works team – which at least gives Toyota something to smile about. The FW30 looked, at last, like a useful weapon. From here on in the focus will be on FW31, the team eyeing up 2009 as an opportunity to take advantage of completely new rules. Just the kind of challenge to stir the creative juices back at Grove.

Williams as a team will never give up – they simply don’t know what it means.