The start of something big

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The car on the left never won a race but its arrival in F1 changed the face of the spor forever. Matthew Franey samples a piece of Grand Prix history – Frank Williams’ first car, the FW06

When Jackie Stewart was asked to make his pre-season predictions for the 1978 Formula One World Championship he split the field into two camps: ‘the giants’ and those ‘trying to show their strength and bare their teeth.’ At the head of this second division he placed a diminutive but pugnacious Australian driver called Alan Jones and his new team – a revamped outfit based in an old carpet warehouse in Oxfordshire – Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

For nearly a decade, the team’s founder Frank Williams had lived an extraordinary hand-to-mouth existence as he fought against seemingly never ending odds to get to the top.., or at least stay afloat. In the mid-1970s it seemed his perseverance had finally paid off when an oil magnate with a penchant for racing had bankrolled a new outfit, Walter Wolf Racing, and placed Frank at its helm.

But the pair soon found that their opinions on how to run a team were far from converging. Williams upped and left. Within a year, this dynamo of a man had found new premises for WGPE, head-hunted a young designer by the name of Patrick Head from his old employer, secured a major new source of revenue from Middle East airline Saudia and convinced Jones that a move to Didcot for the princely sum of £40,000 was a sensible career move.

If the jump seemed risky at the time, at least it came with the whole-hearted blessing of JYS, who told Autocar “Many years ago I can remember being very impressed by the combined efforts of Frank Williams and Piers Courage and I often said that if I had not been able to drive for Ken Tyrrell, I would have liked to have Frank run a car for me. I always felt that he was good at putting a package together.”

How prescient Stewart’s opinion was would make itself clear over the next two seasons, for the no-nonsense triumvirate built a basic but effective machine that scored the team’s first championship points in only its third race. The role for Head’s FW06 was a simple one a car that “runs and races well and doesn’t give much trouble” while Jones’ duties were even more self-explanatory. It was his job to drive it until it finished, or broke.

Which it did on more than one occasion, sometimes in quite spectacular fashion. At Watkins Glen, Jones escaped serious injury when a wheel parted company with the rest of his FW06 during practice. The problem, a bolt not up to the task of holding it on, was soon rectified and Jones, in true style, jumped back in and hauled the j Williams to third on the grid, and then second in the race. It was the team’s first podium as a manufacturer and would lead them optimistically into the closed season. Although the FW07 wouldn’t make its debut until the fifth race of 1979, the die was cast. In July, just 25 races into WGPE’s brief life, Jones’ team-mate Clay Regazzoni inherited the lead of the British Grand Prix after the Australian had retired and brought his car home. Williams’ team had arrived.

The earlier FW06 chassis was not a complete disaster in those opening rounds of 1979, for Jones managed a third place at Long Beach, where the tight confines of the street circuit levelled the playing field against the latest ground-effect cars. But it was the car’s last hurrah, a fitting finale to the first offering from the Williams-Head axis.

That the team made it through that first season at all is undeniably down to the fact that both men were wise to one of racing’s most hackneyed phrases. To finish first, first they had to finish and if you ever get the chance to look around a Williams FW06 now, its inherent simplicity is perhaps its most striking factor.

Its fibre-glass bodywork may look prehistoric compared to a modern F1 carbon fibre monocoque and its tubular spaceframe could have been borrowed from a Formula Ford, but all around little signs hint at Head’s increasing ingenuity as a designer and his partner’s requests to build a car that would last.

Uncomplicated but elegant and beautifully cast suspension components are as easy to set up as you might imagine. At the front a top rocker and lower wishbone feed to springs and dampers mounted in front of the pedal box. To adjust the front suspension just slide some packers onto the damper and you’d be back out in seconds.

At the rear of the Williams a lower wishbone and upper radius arm and tie-rod bolt directly onto the oil tank bell-housing; a stressed member on the FW06. Behind, an incongruous tube serves as the main rear wing mount. Only some small pipes hint at its second purpose: the engine’s oil catch tank.

The clutch fluid reservoir is also tucked away, this time out of sight inside the bulkhead tubing rising beside the driver’s knees. Why, after all, would you want to add to the weight of the car when you have all this empty tubing serving no other purpose? To fall within the 1978 F1 regulations, the FW06 had to weigh in at no less than 585kg. In its current guise it weighs 586.

Behind the driver is mounted the ubiquitous Ford Cosworth DFV — the engine that Williams had to beg and scrape for when he first walked out of Wolf and the one which would bring him his first victory. This car houses an aluminium block 3-litre V8, rather than the titanium version that was sometimes used in the 1970s. Its four valves per cylinder and Lucas mechanical injection Produce around 515bhp somewhere near it redline of 10,800rpm.

A veteran of race tracks around the world, this FW06 now runs with less ferocious cam timings; a compromise which sacrifices those final few horsepower for considerably longer engine life. With rebuilds every 1000 miles at an eye-watering £14,000 a time, it’s not hard to see why.

Viewed as a whole rather than its basic elements, Head’s first Williams is actually quite graceful. The broad, flat nose sweeps back and up to the cockpit and beyond, the low radiator pods quite easy to miss when viewed from the side. Behind sits the DFV, unfaired and purposeful, yet still dwarfed by those great bulbous rear tyres, surely the most eye-catching addition to any Formula One car yet.

From inside the cockpit the view is faultless. Lower yourself in without the bodywork in place, adjust belts and apparel and then slot the fairing home. A neat touch here, too, for the body’s fasteners are positioned on the inside of the cockpit, allowing for a perfectly smooth outer surface in the airflow.

Alan Jones was not the tallest of men, but the FW06 is roomy and comfortable. Feet fall easily down to the pedal box and, another blessing, my knees are well clear of the wheel rim. The thought of hands clashing with knees if it all started getting a bit out of shape did not bear thinking about.

Arms relaxed and gently crooked, car plugs lodged firmly in place, the number 27 Williams is pushed slowly out of the garage and down the pitlane. Not some dramatic entrance for the cameras, just the only way we can get it started. For the life of me, I can’t Fire it up the way I am being instructed. It’s an ignominious start to my F1 career but at least it does serve a purpose, for in no time at all you learn that the myth of the Grand Prix car’s super-sharp clutch is just that, a myth. It is fairly heavy and obviously of limited travel, but nothing like you might have been led to believe.

With the second of the five-speed Hewland gearbox ratios engaged, and the Williams just about up to jogging speed, it is a simple matter of easing out the clutch, waiting for the engine to catch, and then returning the favour with several healthy blips of the throttle to clear its lungs.

As car and driver vibrate and rattle their way out onto the wide expanses of the Paul Ricard circuit, it’s time to flick off the electric fuel pump and allow the gravity-fed system to take over. With one eye scanning for other traffic and another fixed like glue on the rev counter to ensure it all stays within the redline, it is an intense bombardment of the senses. The Cosworth V8 shifts audibly from a heavy bass growl at low revs to a classic Grand Prix howl and remains the most constant reminder that what sits just a few inches behind your head is the sharp end of 1000bhp per tonne.

Using the curtailed version of the French circuit, the Williams eases through the tight right-hander which joins the famous Mistral Straight halfway down. On cold tyres and learning the circuit, there is a certain reluctance to jump hard on the throttle until the car is in the straightest of straight lines.

So it’s wheel straight, car straight, head straight, eyes front, shoulders back and then, and only then, plant the accelerator to the floor. No sooner does the car pick up its heels and sprint for the horizon, however, than it becomes obvious that the FW06 is no more likely to catch out virgin F1 drivers than a few wild road cars I could mention.

The delivery is smooth, progressive, wildly enjoyable and above all unyielding. No flat spots, wicked surges, uncontrollable helmet-grabbing torque. Just relentless acceleration to the end of the power band. Don’t be fooled into thinking it is slow, it just does everything with so little fuss that you are instantly at one, worrying no more about the power on tap and thinking ahead to driving it as it is meant to be driven. To feel so at home in a GP car within the first 20 or so seconds is truly testament to its capabilities.

Surprising, too, is the long travel present in the throttle pedal. It’s a strange feeling at first, a bit like a soggy clutch pedal in an old Citroen 2CV, but as the tractability of the engine becomes apparent, so too do the benefits of the long pedal. With so much power and torque on tap and an infinitely variable amount of adjustment through your right foot, you have the makings of an immensely forgiving and user-friendly car. No on-off switches like those which were to follow in the turbo-cars just a few seasons later. In the Williams every degree of throttle change is followed by an equal amount of acceleration or deceleration; it is ideal for twisty circuits and tight corners, where jumping on the gas too hard or too soon could seriously damage your rear tyres and hence your chances of a victory.

Geared to do 165mph in fifth gear, the Williams hits 10,000rpm before the daunting right-hander, Signes. Ride and damping in a straight line are superlative, with no buffeting whatsoever, and remember this is a six-foot driver pulling the other side of 150mph. The impression is of riding in the most softly-sprung of cars, but it is only when you get to the end of the straight and swing right at well over 135inph that you realise that while the ride may be accommodating, this car is still generating prodigious amounts of grip.

A healthy twist of the wheel is required to get the Williams turned in to the corner. It is not understeering, just low-geared in the rack; perhaps surprisingly so for a car that you would expect to deliver direction changes in millimetres.

But regardless of the amount of lock needed to turn, the Williams just hauls its nose through the turn with barely a hesitation and drags its massive rear end and tyres round with it. There is no need to be overly aggressive as you head into the corner. Do everything as systematically and calmly as possible and you will reap the benefits.

Keep hard in for the next tight right and hug the kerb as you barrel round. Here, where you might expect an ordinary car to start sliding, the Williams just ploughs round and the mechanical grip from the 15-inch rear Avons hints at the neck-strain that might occur if you were to keep at it for two hours in an energy-sapping race.

Straightline a set of Esses in third gear and then head off into the twisty section of the track. It’s not a great selection of bends, one constant radius corner looking very much like the next, but is the ideal place to demonstrate the neutral handling of the car. With several sharp changes in direction and short squirts of the throttle required, the opportunity to understeer or oversteer off would seem to be high. The Williams maintains its poise with consummate ease. Only once did the rear end step out slightly mid-corner but it had tucked back into line before I even had an opportunity to start correcting.

Only under braking does the car show the first signs of nerves. Going deep into the braking area at the first corner, the discs and pads begin to generate heat quickly, and the FW06 is liable to buck and skip as it slows. The rear end lightens quickly and begins a pendulous waft from left to right as it does so. But the signals coming up through your backside are instantaneous, and as long as you are ready to dial in small amounts of correction, keeping pointed the right way is not impossible. What it would have been like if you were the last of the late brakers, however, is another story.

Frank Williams’ first purpose-built race car never won a Grand Prix. It made it onto the podium just once. But in its own uncomplicated way, it made its mark on F1 history. Without the relative successes of the FW06, the team that helped shape the face of Grand Prix racing for the last two decades might not have made the jump from the second division to the premier league. Jackie Stewart it seems was right — the initial offering from Williams Grand Prix Engineering was the car that allowed them to bare their teeth.

Our thanks to Tony Smith for the kind loan of his Williams FW06, and to the Thoroughbred Grand Prix Championship.