The head line
There is a view in Formula One that time spent looking back is time wasted. If you don’t spend every available second focused on the future — be it the next race, or the next season — you’re not going to keep pace with change in Fl, let alone get ahead of the game. Those who think this way should meet Patrick Head, cast an eye over the achievements of Williams Grand Prix Engineering and consider the following: despite not having won a race for more than three seasons, Williams has won on average 4.6 races per season every year since its first GP win in 1979. By comparison, McLaren has won just 3.9 races each year since its debut victory in ’68, while Ferrari has managed just 2.6 wins per season. Williams’ statistics are not those of a team stuck in the past.
And yet, spend time with Head — he is not just the Technical Director of Williams but its de facto MD, too — especially in the museum at their HQ in Grove, and you will find a man who believes absolutely that there are lessons to be learned from the past that will help shape the future. But there’s more to it than this. His view of the past is partly analytical, but in the main he is proud and passionate about the achievements of the team he and Frank Williams created. He appears to have a photographic memory of every working minute from the moment he arrived at Frank Williams Racing in November 1975 to the present. He can record details that are over 20 years old with a clarity most would be pleased to ascribe to something they did yesterday. His task today, however, is to name his favourite Williams…
It’s extremely hard to make this selection, and I’ll not do it without first saying my choice is affected as much by the times we had racing the cars as their outright success. Speaking purely personally, I would place the FVV07 at the top of the list, followed by the 14, the 11,06 and 18 in that order.
This has to be on the list: it won our first race, and then, as the 07B, our first championship. Alan Jones would have won that first race at Silverstone in 1979 had he not retired with water pump failure — but, in the end, it was Clay Regazzoni who got us on the scoreboard.
Obviously, the car had the advantage of following the Lotus 79, but while the Lotus did have proper ground effect, it also had many frailties, particularly a monocoque with all the stiffness of a wet lettuce leaf, skirts that didn’t stay on the ground much of the time, and relatively short sidepods.
We did a week-long wind-tunnel test with a car which wasn’t an exact Lotus copy, but was as close as I could tell. I wasn’t certain how the 79 was working but, once I’d taken some pressure tappings, it was clear what was going on. At some point I removed the front wings, and although the balance was wrong, the lift-to-drag ratio was hugely better. Also, the pressure tappings on the underside were much better; it was clear the front wings were significantly damaging airflow under the sidepods. So we extended the sidepods much further forward and ran either no front wing or a neutral front wing: and it was this which significantly stepped the performance up above where the Lotus had been. Even so, it took a long time to design: we were only just becoming a two-car team and we did the first four races of 79 in the 06. Frank Dernie joined us in January and finished off the rear suspension and the skirt package on the side of the car. Because of low pressure under the car, the skirts were being continually sucked in and we had to design them to go freely up and down while being continually subjected to these forces from outside to inside. It was quite a complex piece of engineering with loads of rollers and a constant-load spring scissor system — and Frank did it brilliantly. We first ran it at the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway. Alan went out, did a few laps, came in, and just sat in the cockpit. Eventually he said, “Now I know why Andretti could run bloody rings around me!” Then he said the car had so much grip it wouldn’t slide whatever he did; but by the time he got to the Spanish GP, he could be seen sliding it everywhere. It was just anew level of downforce which needed getting used to.
It took two or three races to sort out some silly reliability problems, then Alan led at Zolder and Clay was second at Monaco. By the time we got to the British GP, we’d done an upgrade on the back which produced more downforce. It was pretty simple, cost about 50 pence and took about two hours to make: we panelled in the underside of the car up to the bottom of the engine. At Silverstone it was worth about a second a lap. From then on we were very strong and should have won the title in 1979, but we came good too late to stop Jody Scheckter and Ferrari. Two entirely different cars were called 07B. The first one we took to practice in Argentina at the start of 1980 and got into monstrous porpoising problems. We had a new composite sidepod which was quite adventurous, but not stiff enough: it flexed, jamming the skirts, so we converted it back to 07-spec, retired the original 07B without a race mile and, by Zolder, produced the proper 07B. It was quite different in its bodywork and sidepods and, with a carbon underside and skirts, was quite advanced for ’80. Effectively, that was the car Alan won our first title in. He should have won it easily but went off a couple of times, mainly through surprise at how far ahead of the opposition he was. It didn’t quite go down to the wire, but it did cause a head-to-head with Nelson Piquet’s Brabham in Montreal.
The 07C we Used in 1981 was quite an ugly car, but it was quick. Alan should have won the title easily, but there were a couple of races where we had mechanical problems which caused him to lose the lead, and he threw the car off the track while leading at Zolder and Jarama. The history books don’t show it but, actually, Alan was more dominant in ’81 than in ’80.
We were hanging on by our fingernails with the FW12 and 13. Frank and I doubted our Renault was ever going to beat McLaren’s Honda and, good though our drivers were, they had Prost and Senna. We decided the only way to beat them was to build a quicker car. Meanwhile I’d been very impressed with the design of the Leyton House March and, when they sacked Adrian Newey in 1990,1 asked him aboard. He started as chief aerodynamicist, but it was clear within a week that he should be chief designer while I became technical director. This meant all the aero and geometry definition went to Adrian, while I did the mechanicals, like transmissions, uprights, suspension and brakes. During the winter we became sure that the car we were producing was a real step forward.
We had some silly transmission problems at the start of 1991, and but for those we would have clearly won the championship. In the meantime, we had been working on an activeride system fitted to a test 13B, and we eventually took the system to Australia for the last race of ’91 and ran the 14B in practice only. The reason we took it that far was we had to decide whether to base 1992’s car around the active platform. It was a very complex system and we worried it might be unreliable. Anyway, we convinced ourselves it would work. Happily, we were right and, in ’92, Nigel had the 14B, won nine races and wrapped up the championship early in the year. B, therefore, really means active ride in this context.
My third choice is the FW11 and 11B of 1986-7. Basically, it was a much improved version of the 10, lower and with a sturdier installation for the engine. It did two years with Nigel and Nelson, but the time was heavily marred by Frank’s accident.
Even so, we won nine races in each year.
The FW11 was never intended to do two seasons. Its replacement was designed to accommodate a much lower engine, as the 1986 Honda engine sat on its oil filter, giving it a very high crankshaft. We’d been talking to them about getting the engine lower, but Lotus said they’d be happy with the old design, and Honda were not prepared to supply two different engines, so we scrapped the new design and did the 11B.
The original 11 was the car that won the constructors’ championship by miles but failed to win the drivers’ tide thanks to Nigel’s famous tyre failure at Adelaide. The best thing about those cars was their sheer speed; they really had 1300bhp in qualifying, and you’d see the drivers wandering around in practice with their eyes popping out as if they were on cocaine. During qualifying at Monaco in ’86, Nelson was coming out of the tunnel and braking for the chicane from 192mph. At Monaco! Then we lost Honda to McLaren. I don’t know if the reason had anything to do with Frank’s accident, but they were, quite rightly, enamoured with Ayrton Senna, who had built a relationship with them when he was at Lotus. And when Ayrton contracted to McLaren for ’88, Honda went with him and they weren’t prepared to supply three teams. In fact, what Honda wanted to do was drop Lotus and supply McLaren and us, but it was only on condition that we dropped Nigel and ran Satoru Nakajima. Not only did we not want to drop Nigel, we also weren’t interested in playing second fiddle to McLaren.
It never won, but I’ve included it because it could, and should, have done. What stopped us was that we were learning how to get a grand prix car to run a race distance and we found just about every silly way of not finishing. We were second four or five times when something broke, and it was never the same thing a driveshaft or a type of throttle cable presumed unbreakable until we found a way of breaking it.
We finished second at Watkins Glen, even if we weren’t very popular with Alan. We broke a front through-bolt on Friday which pitched him into the barrier. He was unimpressed, so we withdrew the car for the rest of the day, got a copy of America’s YellowPages and found a company capable of heat-treating the bolts. Charlie Crichton-Stuart persuaded its boss to keep the company open all night and retreat the bolts.
We were third on Saturday, second on Sunday.
I would call it a reasonably-executed, conventional car. I was the design office until Neil Oatley joined, and we did the entire car ourselves. It’s a favourite of mine because I can say I designed, or directly dictated the design of, every single part That doesn’t happen these days.
It had a slightly unusual oil tank in an adaptor between the gearbox and engine. Frank was paranoid about it as he’d blown many engines through tanks that didn’t work and was certain I was going to cause mayhem. But he hung in there and it was never a problem.
I’m nominating the 06, not for its success, but for the fun we had with it. Williams was 10 or 15 people back then and life was more relaxed. We also had, in Alan, a driver who was of the same generation as Frank and me: three lads out there together, having lots of fun.
This car was designed in much the same way as the 14, with Adrian doing the surfaces and layout, while I got on with the engineering. Every so often he would come along, give me a nudge and suggest I might try harder to make things even smaller; I’d usually be the conservative one suggesting we were pushing a bit far. We had a very good working relationship over that period.
Adrian was more the dictator of the layout and design; as these things are so much driven by aerodynamics, it was much better done that way. Equally, the company was getting bigger and I was adopting the role of technical director much more. So Adrian was chief designer, and most of the credit for the speed of the cars goes to him. I would take a certain amount for the durability of the designs.
Damon Hill won the 1996 title with FW18, and that led to the 19, the evolution of 18 and the car that so nearly didn’t win the title thanks to the efforts of one Michael Schumacher at Jerez. The impact dislodged the battery from its casing and it was literally hanging by its wires for the rest of the race. If one had come adrift… By the time Adrian went on gardening leave at end of ’96, he’d done the basic layout of the car but there was a lot of its engineering detail to be done. So while FW18 and 19 were different chassis, they came from the same mould.
This burly Australian was viewed as little more than a hard-nosed midfield charger after spells at Hesketh, Hill, Surtees and Shadow. But Williams saw his potential. And were vindicated. Once ensconced in an FW07, he flew. Like most drivers, he wasn’t keen on the ground-effect cars, but he grabbed the best of the breed by the scruff of the neck and made it dance to his tune.
The breakthrough came in 1979 with three wins in a row Germany, Austria, Holland and the title followed in ’80, winning in Argentina, France, Britain, Canada and America (East). He also won in Spain, but that race was annulled by FISA, and does not appear in the statistics below. As far as the forthright Jones was concerned, however, it was a pukka GP, and he won six times that season, not five. He had a point.
During his championship year, Jones outshone Carlos Reutemann, a fact which boosted his standing with some more than winning the title did. He won twice more in ’81, and his legacy still resounds at Williams. PF
He wasn’t a fan to begin with, bad memories of the faltering steps of 198788 clouded his judgement, but active ride was the key that unlocked one of the most dominant season-long performances in F1 history.
Nigel Mansell had a serious car advantage in 1992, but boy, did he make the most of it. He never let up and revelled in the performance of the 14B, as his incredible 14 poles from 16 attempts testifies.
Five consecutive wins kicked off his season and made it clear there could only be one champion. Three more in a row in summer followed and a second place in Hungary put the tin lid on it. The usual Mansell political maelstrom followed, but the lingering memory is of him turning into balls-out corners like Copse, foot mashed hard in, many kph up on his once-quicker and now-demoralised team-mate, Riccardo Patrese. It was mighty to behold: a terrifying mix of talent and a burning need to prove the doubters wrong. A mighty driver in a mighty car. PF
It should have been Derek Warwick. With opinion divided on his capabilities, even within his new team, it was, however, Nigel Mansell who found himself at Williams, a force standing on the foothills of Honda power, looking up.
It was supposed to have been twotime champion Nelson Piquet who led the title charge. But nobody had told Mansell. Buoyed by his turn-the-corner wins late in 1985, he stepped up into the premier league, and made the Brazilian sing for his supper. It was madness, but great to watch, a team with the best car scrapping among themselves and tossing away the drivers’ title. They won it the next year, but the accolade went to the wrong man: Mansell clearly had the edge in 1987. His outrageous 180mph dummy on Piquet at Stowe moved the Englishman into the realms of superstardom — here, for all his faults, whims and caprices, was a truly great driver. He won few friends at Williams or Honda, but won heaps of races and millions of fans. PF
Williams is a tough-love outfit. Castigated in ’95 for several poor races, Hill arrived in Adelaide a new man. And won. He’d turned it around. The following year would be his best-ever chance. He knew it. So did his bosses — they’d already dumped him for ’97. Everyone knew before the season’s end, but Damon stayed focused to win, and left with the title and his dignity. PF