Determined to force his way back to the top

At the end of the 1981 season Motor Sport carried a detailed account of the Formula One achievements of Williams Grand Prix Engineering which had just won its second successive Constructors’ Championship. The story had really started back in 1979 when Williams designer Patrick Head refined Colin Chapman’s ground effect philosophy to such good effect that the team’s FW07 quickly became established as one of the “cars to beat” in the Formula One business. Only a few early season teething troubles prevented Williams’s number one driver Alan Jones from winning the World Championship and by the end of that season it was clear that the combination of the rugged Australian and the FW07 would continue to be highly competitive throughout the following year. So it proved, with Jones winning the Drivers’ and Williams the Constructors’ title in 1980. The following season the team retained the Constructors’ title thanks to the combined efforts of Jones and Carlos Reutemann and Williams was absolutely determined to make it a hat trick in 1982, an achievement to match Ferrari’s success between 1975 and 1977. Unfortunately, a whole host of unexpected problems arose to plunge Williams Grand Prix Engineering into a state of uncertainty before the 1982 season even got underway. Within a few months they lost both their drivers to retirement and, from the position of having the strongest driving team in the business, they were forced to rely on two relatively unproven men. And that was only the start of it. . . . 

Unquestionably, 1982 was the most difficult season for Williams since they first showed a spark of competitiveness in 1978. But Frank Williams is determined to brush aside every vestige of those difficulties: when we visited him at his Didcot factory a few days after Christmas he was bubbling with his customary forward-thinking enthusiasm as we asked him to reflect on the season that had just finished.

Williams’s problems started shortly before Monza in 1981 when Alan Jones began to hint that he was “thinking of giving up”. Things moved quickly from that moment onwards. “We’d agreed terms for 1982 way back in July”, explained Frank, “And Alan had actually been down here to the factory and I’d announced to the entire staff in the canteen, to an enormous cheer, that he would be staying with us into the following year. Then he started telling me he was ‘thinking’ he might stop and my colleague Charlie Crichton-Stuart came to me just before Monza and told me that Alan just couldn’t quite bring himself to tell me that he’d really made the decision. Anyway, he came to me finally at Monza and said that he was stopping. I said ‘hell, Alan, you can’t do that so late in the year’. But he replied that he’d told me as soon as he’d finally made up his mind, so I flew into action looking for a replacement.”

While Jones and Reutemann got on with their Grand Prix business practising for the Italian Grand Prix, Frank busied himself talking to two other drivers. “The men I was most interested in were Nelson Piquet and Didier Pironi, but by the time I’d got to them they’d either signed their contracts for 1982 or given their word that they would. I really was looking for a number one driver, nothing less, so I decided the only thing I could do was get to work on Alan and try to persuade him to change his mind about retirement. I was in deep trouble, so I put in a lot of time on Alan, offering him a lot of money and really good deal: he listened very carefully and promised to go away and think it all over. But he came back and said no . . .” Frank’s disappointment was acute, but more than a year later he still retains a tremendous enthusiasm for the man who won the Williams team its first World Championship. “Make no mistake, Alan’s biggest fans are still living down here in Didcot! And that’s not just Auld Lang Syne nostalgia. We still have enormous, passionate enthusiasm for his ability as a racing driver!”

The next problem to face Williams was Carlos Reutemann’s announcement that he would retire, made public shortly after the final race of the 1981 season at Las Vegas. Reutemann, who went into the final race as favourite for the World Championship, had returned an unaccountably indifferent performance in the last event of the season and had been pipped at the post for the title by Brazil’s Nelson Piquet. A few days later he announced his retirement, although Williams admits that he didn’t take that initial decision too seriously.

“I think that Carlos made that initial decision after Las Vegas for purely emotional reasons and I half-expected that he might be persuaded to return for the start of 1982”. Williams was absolutely correct in this assessment and, by the time the season opened at Kyalami, he had Reutemann back leading the team with the promising Finn Keke Rosberg in the number two seat. Although Rosberg outqualified his more experienced team-mate, Reutemann drove excellently to split the Renaults and take second place. Rosberg, in his Williams debut, finished a good fifth.

“From the outset in 1982 I thought we were going for another Championship”, Williams insists, “and I was delighted with Reutemann’s drive at Kyalami. It was absolutely superb. But I was a little concerned about his mood after practice in Brazil after Keke outqualified him for the second race running. Then he tangled with Arnoux and spun off during the race itself and Keke finished second. Three hours after the race he phoned me at my hotel room. I thought that was rather unusual in itself, and then he said that he wanted to retire. My initial reaction was ‘hell, what’s the time in Australia, thinking about Jones, but that wasn’t really realistic. Carlos told me that ‘the spark had gone out’. I think the real problem was that he was an immensely skilled dnver who made his name in a period when the intricate business of setting up a car, its springs and rollbars, was an important part of a driver’s repertoire. But the advent of ground effect had changed that to a large degree and I think that Carlos was getting disillusioned over the fact that his input, his experience, was counting much less in the overall car / driver equation.”

At the time, many people wondered whether Reutemann’s retirement decision was finally sealed by discreet forewarning of the problems which were soon to boil up between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands. However, Williams tends to reject this theory, although he confides “I suppose he really couldn’t have continued racing for us, could he? If he had stayed on I think I’d have probably tried to do a deal to swap him with somebody Iike Pironi once the Falklands problem arose. It would have been a difficult situation. . .”

At the end of the 1981 season Williams had selected Rosberg from a host of potential candidates to fill the number two vacancy within his team. Now circumstances had elevated the confident Finn to the number one slot within the Williams team and Keke rose to the occasion magnificently, finishing a fighting second to Lauda at Long Beach and dominating the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder in the new FW08 only to make a slight mistake in the closing stages, dropping back to finish second behind John Watson.

It doesn’t take much of a conversation with Williams to realise iust how much he appreciates Rosherg’s efforts. “He’s out of the Jones mould”, admits Frank, “and I’ve been absolutely delighted with the way in which he’s driven as hard as he can throughout the season. Make no mistake, everybody at Williams is 100 per cent behind Keke. He’s done a splendid job winning the driver’s Championship.”

With Rosberg’s promotion to number one, Williams was then faced with the arduous task of selecting a number two driver from the wide range of candidates available. After careful consideration, he eventually selected former March and Tyrrell driver Derek Daly on the basis of his quite considerable racing experience. Originally Williams toyed with the idea of signing up Mario Andretti to drive alongside Rosberg for the season, but the popular American driver had committed himself to a programme of Championship Car racing in the USA with Pat Patrick’s Wildcat team before Frank could make him a firm offer. Mario drove for the team on a “one-off” basis at Long Beach but, although he hadn’t actually signed his contract with Patrick, felt that as he’d given his word to the American team owner, he wasn’t able to accept the Williams offer. Thus, Daly joined the team for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder.

Although the Irishman would disagree with Williams’s assessment, Frank simply concluded that Daly wasn’t quick enough. “He had most of the attributes required for a Grand Prix driver”, admits Williams reflectively, “He was intelligent, had an excellent personality and was a willing test driver. He wasn’t too expensive and he and his wife were a charming, obliging couple. It was a pleasure to work with him. But, ultimately, I really don’t believe that he was quite fast enough to hold down a position in a team like ours . . .” Frank paused for a moment, thinking deeply, before adding, “You know, it’s our ambition to have two top line drivers on our books. As far as I’m concerned, we aim for the two best in the business. This is Williams . . .”

Towards the end of the season it was becoming pretty obvious that Williams was casting around for a possible alternative to Daly: indeed, a couple of months before the final race of the season he told Daly that it was only “50/50 that he would be staying . . .” Although it was a close run thing at the end of the day, the Irishman eventually lost the drive and his place will be taken by Jacques Laffite for 1983. It took some months of careful negotiation before the popular Frenchman decided to leave Guy Ligier’s team, for which he had been driving since the start of 1976. Laffite, of course, was no stranger to Williams: long ago, in 1974, Frank plucked him from the F2 firmament and installed him at the wheel of one of his F1 cars. At the end of 1975 Laffite, who finished second in that year’s German Grand Prix for Williams, left the struggling Englishman’s team to seek his fortune with Ligier. By the end of 1982 the boot was well and truly on the other foot and the effervescent Jacques, by now one of the most respected F1 drivers in the business, returned to drive for the man who had originally given him his first Grand Prix opportunity.

At first glance one might think that Laffite, at 38 years of age, as rather old to be given the opportunity of driving for such a respected team. However, with the new F1 regulations taking effect from the start of 1983 calling for flat-bottomed Grand Prix cars, Williams is certain that Laffite’s considerable experience will be of enormous value to the team.

Says Williams, “I’ve always considered Jacques to be one of the leading drivers in this business and, when the car is on top form, he really flies. He’s got a tremendous amount of racing experience and, bearing in mind the alterations to the regulations for 1983, I think that experience will prove to be crucial in 1983, far more so than it’s been for the past few years. Also, and this may sound strange, he’s about the same size as Keke which will help when it comes to swapping round between the race car and the spare car. When Derek and Keke were driving together we always used to keep the spare car waiting with no seat installed. so that either driver could put his in if it was needed. But that caused us a bit of a problem at Hockenheim when Rosberg had to take the spare at the last minute, before the warm-up lap for the German Grand Prix. We managed to get his seat installed before he went off, but we were so pressed for time that we were unable to do up his harness. He did his warm-up lap without belts and we had to strap him in on the starting grid, just before the parade lap. A small thing, perhaps, but it can be of crucial importance under some circumstances . . .”

That the Williams team failed to win the 1982 Constructors’ Championship is a matter of some considerable regret to the team’s owner, and he continues to feel cheated by the way in which his car was disqualified from second place in the Brazilian Grand Prix. The much-discussed question of “water bottles”, installed ostensibly for brake cooling purposes but (coincidentally) as a method of circumnavigating the minimum weight limit regulations, has caused more strife and conflict within Grand Prix racing than pretty well any other subject over the last few years. Piquet’s first place Brabham and Rosberg’s second place Williams were excluded from the Brazilian Grand Prix, and the sheer resentment that built up within the ranks of the predominantly British based members of the Formula One Constructors Association (FOCA) resulted in its members boycotting the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola. Apart from being a petulant response to an unfortunate set of circumstances, the boycott robbed leading teams such as Williams of the opportunity to add to their Constructors’ points total. Ferrari finished first and second, thereby accumulating 15 points towards the Constructors’ title, and Alboreto’s Tyrrell-Cosworth was third. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that a Williams could quite easily have been third, if not second, in that event.

However, Williams designer Patrick Head takes up the story of the water bottles from this point onwards. It had been obvious for some time that the heavier turbocharged cars from Renault and Ferrari were at a handling disadvantage on tight circuits and, in order to mitigate that problem, the concept of water cooling for the heavily taxed brakes was quickly developed. Then, at the end of 1981, the question of water-cooled brakes arose in connection with the Williams.

Explains Head, “Shortly before we went to Las Vegas for the first time we were contacted by Automotive Products who told us that they’d run the circuit configuration of the track through their computer and had come to the conclusion that it would be the hardest track we’d ever run on from the point of view of brake wear. So they suggested that we thought about a water-cooling system tor the brakes like the Porsche team had employed at Le Mans. I started flicking through the pages of the rule book and suddenly realised that the rule that permitted us to top up fluids to normal operating levels after the race would, in my view, also apply to a brake-cooling reservoir . . .” It was the FISA’s decision to disallow such an interpretation of the rules — and more particularly their retrospective application of what Williams and Head see as a rule change rather than a clarification — that led to Piquet and Rosberg’s disqualification at Rio last year. “If they’d just rapped us over the knuckles and said ‘no more’, then everybody would have mumbled and grumbled and accepted it,” admits Williams, “but the way in which they handled the problem was bound to cause conflict.”

Notwithstanding these temporary setbacks, Frank Williams and Patrick Head retain an enormous enthusiasm and confidence in the ability of their company to come bouncing back at a competitive level. Although at the time Williams wasn’t terribly impressed about the way in which FISA have changed the rules, arbitrarily, for 1983, he admits that flat-bottomed cars will be more spectacular for the spectators to watch. However, he is very worried about the new regulation concerning the weight limit: as it stands at present, a car can be disqualified from the entire meeting if it is found to contravene the minimum weight limit requirement at any time during practice or the race. “It’s a rule which could cause quite a lot of aggravation,” Williams insists, “I don’t believe that there is any other penalty like it. If you’re found running a big engine then you won’t be excluded — your times from that day will be disallowed and you’ll be required to change it — but if you fall foul of the minimum weight rule, notwithstanding any inaccuracies of the weight bridge involved, you’re out of the entire meeting . . .”

Formula One has become a highly political affair over the past few years and Williams freely admits that he’s not happy about some aspects of the business today. It’s not simply a question of his concern about the way in which the rules are administered, but he also worries about the way in which FOCA operates. This doubt stems from the controversy over the works Brabhams in Argentina two years ago: he is adamant, as are many of his rivals, that the BT49Cs of Nelson Piquet and Hector Rebaque ran with a skirt system that didn’t conform to the regulations.

“In effect, they were ground effect cars when every other car on the track was not,” insists Williams in an assessment of Brabham chief and FOCA President Bernie Ecclestone, “you only had see the way that a driver like Rebaque flew past Reutemann to understand that! That whole affair prompted me to get involved in a major confrontation with Bernie at Imola. Unquestionably, when it comes to the financial arrangements, I trust Bernie implicitly. But I feel uneasy about his ability to represent all the teams’ interests in FOCA in an even-handed manner. FOCA is Bernie’s personal fiefdom and I sometimes worry if he is truly able to be totally impartial while he’s running his own team at the same time . . . He is in a very difficult position —. but remember, Bernie is the architect of Grand Prix racing’s current tremendous popularity.”

All those problems are now behind Williams, however, and he faces up to the 1983 season with an almost boyish, irrepressible, infectious enthusiasm. In his own mind, there’s no doubt at all that Williams Grand Prix Engineering has the proven capacity to be number one in the Grand Prix game. The era of the “grande constructore” may be starting, but Williams will be there with a turbocharged engine before too long (Matra or Honda|? — “no comment,” says Frank) and his enormous investment in skilled specialists and practical engineering will be sufficient to keep the big manufacturers on their toes. Frank Williams, Patrick Head and all their eighty-plus workforce down at Didcot are dedicated to winning — nothing else! — A.H.