Head master

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Patrick Head has seen enormous changes during his 30 years in Formula 1. But as he tells Rob Widdows, the game’s the same

If age and guile does beat youth and innocence, then Patrick Head is far from relinquishing his grip on the tiller of the Williams team. He is first and foremost an engineer, a man who truly understands and loves the business of building a racing car. And he intends to build a good one this year.

Patrick Head has been at the top of his game for three decades. But life on the Formula 1 planet has changed dramatically and there are some tough challenges ahead for a man who is used to winning, and is accustomed to his cars being at the sharp end of the grand prix grid.

The Williams team has been sliding slowly down the mountain. Last season was its worst performance since 1978, scoring a meagre 11 points. Time for Mr Head to muster his foot-soldiers before this most English of outfits is swallowed up in the recent appetite for mergers and acquisitions.

“Yes, we have work to do and changes have to be made,” he says firmly, his posture suggesting immediate action. “Last year wasn’t good, and I know what has to be done.”

A practical and properly qualified engineer, Head is also a racer at heart, as is the man who lends his name to the team. Frank Williams and Patrick Head began working together in 1976, the year of Wolf-Williams, when Head worked alongside Harvey Postlethwaite at Bennett Road in Reading. The partnership, which has endured for three decades, knows how to recover from a bad season. The axe has already fallen at Grove and we may be about to witness a return of the gritty, no-holds-barred and ferociously committed style that has brought them so many championships. They view 2006 as a blip, not a trend. Real racers do not, cannot, give up racing.

The Director of Engineering has something of a military bearing, a gruffness of tone, a sense that here is someone who would suffer a fool for a very brief amount of time. There is, however, something very English about his charm, the public school manners and the blue team clothing worn for action, some of the creases not as sharp as the mind of the man within. This is by no means your typical Formula 1 aristocrat, swathed in corporate public relations. Williams people look up to him and respect him. That much is obvious as he stomps amongst his employees, issuing instructions and muttering dead-pan humour in equal measure.

A minor commotion at the tea urn distracts him. A female member of the PR team is organising a group of thirsty and boisterous mechanics. “Oh my God, she’s practising for when she gets married,” he laughs. “Bossing the men around already.”

We are going to talk about developments in grand prix racing, the major changes in engineering that he’s seen over his decades in the sport. So we get right down to it, without much preamble about the state of the nation.

“In 1978 we had just 18 people but we were already growing. I didn’t go to the last race that year, because I was working hard on FW07. This was the time of the Lotus 79 – enormous steps were being made and people were trying to copy what Chapman had done. We put our version in the wind tunnel at Imperial College for a week and we saw how it worked and understood the forces that were being created. Once we saw all this we could optimise the concept, calculate the aerodynamic loads and make our own steps forward in the engineering.”

There was a feeling, at the start of the 1979 season, that FW07 was going to be a huge step forward for Williams Grand Prix Engineering. 

“Frank wanted to race the car at Long Beach in April; he’d found new Arab sponsors from Saudi and he wanted them to see the car in action. I said no, I needed more testing, and we ran it on the banked infield circuit there. 

“Alan Jones did four laps, came in and said to me: ‘Now I know why Andretti was bloody winning everything last year; there’s no sliding with this car. There’s so much bloody grip. I could get used to this.’”

And, as we know, AJ got a very good grip on the thing. Head had mastered the tricks of the new revolution and knew he was on to a winner. They took FW07 to Jarama and though niggling retirements followed for both Jones and Reutemann, the potential was there, no doubts. Regazzoni was just pipped to the line by Scheckter’s Ferrari at Monaco in May. Jones came home fourth at Dijon in July (they had summer holidays in those days) and then came Silverstone where Jones led for half the race before retiring and letting Regga through for the team’s first grand prix victory.

“Jones wanted to win that one. He was on pole and he knew he had the car, knew he would have walked it. He was our kind of bloke, very pragmatic, no big traumas and it was difficult to get him angry. In development of FW07 he gave you the problems with the car in order of their importance. He could communicate and it was a good working relationship,” says Head. “It matters that a driver can communicate with an engineer, and it still does today.” But we will come to more of that later.

So FW07 was a big step in engineering, Jones using the momentum of a late winning streak in ’79 to win the world championship in 1980 in a car that was simply the class of the field. And he won the British Grand Prix to make up for the bitter blow of the previous year.

Engineering landmarks, especially at Williams, cannot be recorded without mention of Head’s FW08B, the six-wheeler developed for the 1982 season. This car was banned by the FIA before it could be tried in race conditions but, like Derek Gardner’s six-wheel Tyrrell in 1976, the concept had potential. Patrick Head’s plan involved four wheels at the back rather than four at the front, giving more drive and, in theory, more grip as opposed to the little wheels at the front of the Tyrrell which were intended to improve the airflow over the car. 

FW08B proved to be neither dramatically faster nor slower than the traditional F1 car of the time and, following the ban, it went to the Williams museum. More than a decade later, though, Jonathan Palmer drove it at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, setting a record time. Head keeps pictures of the Goodwood run as the only record of his radical machine in a competitive environment. Imagine six-wheelers in the contemporary world of manic pit stops.

We move on, then, to turbochargers and Honda power for 1984. Another huge challenge for Head and his team at the ever-expanding Didcot headquarters of Williams.

“We were late into the turbo era, remember. We’d struggled on with Cosworth and just won the title in ’82 with Rosberg. But we needed an engine partner for the new formula and in came Honda,” explains Head. “It was good from the start; the engines were strong.”

I get the impression that he likes working with the Japanese, at least a lot more than he does with the Germans. Which bodes well for the new liaison with Toyota. But back to the 1980s and that challenge with the big turbochargers.

“That engine had huge power and huge strength.” He spreads his hands on the table, leans towards me, concentrating backwards over two decades. “But, you know, we never measured the true horsepower because there wasn’t a dyno around with the capacity to measure that kind of power. Honda saw 1000 horsepower on their dyno and we reckon we were getting about 1300 in qualifying trim. That posed some challenges in the setting up of the car.

“Again it was a big help to have good feedback. Both Mansell and Rosberg were the type of driver who tells you what is not working, and what could be working better, so you can make changes and immediately see an improvement. There was very little data then as compared to now so you needed the driver to communicate. There were some, like Frentzen, who were not, let’s say, quite so helpful. I never did quite get his ideas on aerodynamics, I recall.” 

Aside from engines, and advanced composite materials, perhaps the biggest revolution in the life of Patrick Head the racing car engineer has been the coming of electronic data, the impact of telemetry and the sheer amount of information coming from the car itself.

“It’s all at such a high level now,” he says. “We have so much more to work with. So in one sense the driver is less important but in some ways his interaction with his race engineer is even more important. There is a lot less guesswork, which is good for engineers like me, and we can look at every tiny detail of the car’s behaviour on any given piece of track. Engineers like lots of data, and everything we have now is so much more precise. For example, now we can see precisely what the car is doing over the bumps, which means that we can assess any loss of aerodynamic downforce and then make the necessary changes. 

“The computer technology gives us so much data; that’s why you see so many huddles in the garages, the drivers and engineers reading and interpreting all that information. It’s like being a civil engineer on a bridge. You expect to have all the information you need, and you don’t want to be taking risks; rather, you want the data to be as precise as possible. This is what has made the difference; there are fewer risks. Combine that with a bit of wisdom and experience, then you really get results.”

At this point he cites Michael Schumacher as the greatest exponent of exploiting this new flood of information which has become available to the driver/engineer relationship. “He knew how to use it, how to make a difference to the car’s performance, and that was all part of his contribution to the team as a whole. Of course we would have wanted Schumacher at Williams but we don’t have limitless amounts of cash and his level of salary made Frank’s eyes water.”

The next big challenge at Grove will be the arrival of the engines from Toyota and a team of cleaners to sweep away a terrible year in 2006 which involved a switch to a new tyre supplier and the Cosworth engine. Head agrees that some of the problems were self-inflicted as a result of less than perfect operational standards. He’s far too canny to name any names but there are those who will need to be on their toes.

“We must lift ourselves. Last year we did not lift ourselves after a good showing in Bahrain and we just gradually fell backwards, a lot of it down to repeated unreliability. We know why that happened, we have identified the problems and we will get it sorted out,” he says very firmly.

“After 30 years in the business, there’s always a new challenge. But it won’t be one simple clinical act to get it right. We are dealing with people, they have foibles and none of them are perfect. We have to play to our strengths,
all pull together and combine our strengths, just like in any other sport. Formula 1 is no different, it’s all about the people; we win and we lose together and we all have to get down to work. When success comes it breeds more success, and that puts a spring back in your step.”

Williams did not have the happiest of times with BMW, and it often appeared that the two bands were not marching to the same tune; that the two forces were somehow pulling each other apart rather than pulling together. As we broach this subject Head gives me the kind of glance that might be exchanged between tunnel workers when the roof creaks.

“Well, it was pretty good in the beginning; they were fairly open with us at the start, but their way of doing things was very different to ours and the relationship broke down.
We could not continue with BMW because we could not communicate with them any more; there was maybe something on both sides, but respect on both sides has to be earned. And it wasn’t.”

And so to Toyota. The feeling I get from Patrick is that he is pleased to be returning to a Japanese company, remembering perhaps the halcyon days with Honda. He is visibly keener to talk about this new opportunity for the team. Toyota, too, may be thinking that success will come at last with a British team. They need a win, and soon.

“Look, the Japanese are on our wavelength, very much so, and so far all the signs are good. Let’s hope it lasts. We have a high level of contact with them and they have promised identical engines to the factory team. Yes, we will compete at the tracks, but otherwise there will be absolute co-operation, total sharing of information, and that’s vital. They want to win, we want to win, we all want to achieve and we have good people to work with. Yeah, we seem to be on the same wavelength and I hope it will be a good, open relationship.”

The team is ready to prove the doubters wrong. Williams is down, yes, but not out. There have been big changes in team personnel, responsibilities have been shifted and put in better working order. There is a new title sponsor in AT&T, a new driver in the lanky shape of the highly technical Alex Wurz, while the talented Nico Rosberg now knows all the circuits, and there’s that new motor from Toyota. FW29 cannot
come soon enough.

Patrick is shuffling his feet under the table, his fingers are tapping out a decent impression of a woodpecker. It is time to go. The last word from the man in charge is typical Head. “We had a short break after Brazil. Now we’ve just got to get down and build a decent racing car.”

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