FEISTY JUST LIKE HIS DAD
May was a difficult time at Williams, having started the season far from where we had planned, but I won’t dwell upon the steps we are taking to build a stronger team and a more consistent future. Formula 1 is a hard business, but the staff at Williams are all professionals and apply themselves to their tasks with 100 per cent commitment.
Motor Sport has asked me to write about the 1996 season, in which Damon Hill was paired with Jacques Villeneuve, in winning cars. Jacques had made his name in lndycars in 1995, winning the title and the Indy 500. Bernie Ecclestone had been telling Frank that we should be taking Jacques. I think he saw him as a promotable character for F1, and he was right.
lndycars were much heavier than F1 cars and did not have carbon brakes, so some adaptation was required, but with little or no limitation on testing back then we were able to give Jacques 22 days prior to the first race at Melbourne. Initially, Jacques was a little off competitive times, but he was very much in control and towards the end of testing raised his speed to what was required.
Damon and Jacques were very different characters at different stages of their careers. Damon had endured a tough 1995 season in which he was eclipsed by Michael Schumacher with the same engine, due in part to Beneffon being stronger than us on the pitwall. But in the winter of ’95/96 Damon prepared himself excellently for the new season, in fitness and approach. He had Tim Preston as race engineer, who had the advantage of Adrian Newey ‘on his shoulder’, the car was fast, the engine powerful and reliable but suddenly there was a new team-mate to beat.
Damon had come into the team alongside Alain Prost in 1993, after 18 months as test driver on the active ride program. The system was complex and often not easy to relate to a conventionally sprung car, and this was difficult for Alain, but Damon had the benefit of over a year learning the system.
With active banned by 1996, the cars were quite conventional in set-up, but Jacques often had a very different approach to Damon who would drive a soft compliant car, as he knew this would look after the tyres. Jacques would often go for a much stiffer set-up. He had some refreshing new ideas on asymmetric set-ups, with suspension and wings, tricks he had learned from Indy. The ‘new kid on the block’ loved racing.
It was remarkable that Jacques almost won his first race with us. He was leading at Melbourne, with Damon behind, but Renault observed some drops in oil pressure and we had to ask Jacques to slow, allowing Damon to lead the 1-2 instead. If any thoughts of conspiracy entered Jacques’ head, he did not speak them.
Jock Clear was Jacques’ race engineer and they developed a close bond. Jacques had been used to a team based solely around him, and I think that a two-car team with equal support for both cars was not familiar to him. He was a feisty guy and wanted to feel that all in the team supported him. After a long championship, it went right down to the wire at Suzuka, where Damon won the race and his title. Jacques had baffled all the way, but it would have been a cruel stroke if Damon had not won.
For 1997, Jacques was partnered by Heinz-Harald Frentzen and won his championship. Adrian had departed late in 1996, but the ’97 car still very much had his stamp upon it. Heinz-Harald often seemed to be faster than Jacques on Fridays and Saturday mornings, but most often when qualifying and racing arrived, Jacques was in front. Jacques loved to race, one aspect in which he is similar to the way of his father, Gilles.
Sometimes I used to suggest that Jacques should consider going softer in set-up to look after the tyres better, and with a grin Jacques would turn to Jock and ask him to go the other way. I think it was his way of saying ‘it’s more down to me than the car’. As I said, he was a feisty racer.