"Looking back, its easy to forget how primitive everything was"

The Williams story was a slow burn until 1978 when the FW06 provided the spark that fired the team
By Nigel Roebuck

When we started Williams Grand Prix Engineering, for 1977,” said Patrick Head, “I think we had eight employees at the start of the season, and 11 at the end of it – but then of course we were running a March rather than our own car…”

When the company was formed, Frank Williams was very much starting again. Having sold his former team to Walter Wolf, he continued to run it for a while, but the new arrangement did not work out and Frank’s position soon became untenable. As Wolf progressed into 1977, with Peter Warr as team manager and Jody Scheckter as driver, so Frank launched a new team, running a far from state-of-the-art March for Belgian rookie Patrick Neve.

It may sound unkind, but still it’s fair to say that most of us saw this enterprise as simply ‘more of the same’. Williams had been involved in Formula 1 since 1969, but after some initial success with Piers Courage (who died at Zandvoort the following season), the team had been through years of unrelenting slog, with uncompetitive cars and a chronic shortage of cash. One thought of Williams as a sort of British Gordini.

Very British, though. Frank was always obsessively patriotic, but even beyond that came his extraordinary resilience. I had met him in 1971, the year I began working in F1, and liked him immediately. Sometimes he had pretty handy drivers, such as Jacques Laffite, and once in a while there was a windfall – like Laffite’s ‘attrition’ second place at the Nürburgring in 1975 – but fundamentally FW was viewed by many as a gallant no-hoper.

Not by all, though. I remember, for example, a conversation in 1974 with Ken Tyrrell, very much a leading player at that time: “A lot of people don’t take Frank seriously, but I think they’re wrong – there’s no one in this paddock who wants to succeed more than he does and if he ever gets himself financially organised, watch out…”

For all that, an old March and a journeyman driver hardly seemed to herald a new dawn in 1977. Predictably results were negligible, but a new car was promised for the following year, and if its designer, Patrick Head, was still something of an unknown quantity, we took note when Williams announced that its driver would be Alan Jones. While Jones was regarded as a competent professional rather than a potential world champion, the fact of his signing undoubtedly gave a lift to the image of the team.

Thus it was that one winter day the British press corps was invited to Didcot to the new factory to view FW06. The atmosphere was informal and chummy, although Frank was very much on his best behaviour when his new sponsors – from the airline Saudia – arrived. By helicopter, no less.

At that point Williams Grand Prix Engineering had precisely 11 employees, two of whom were named Ross Brawn and Neil Oatley. “When we went racing in 1978,” Head said, “if you turned up at the factory door, there’d be a secretary and a floor cleaner and one machinist. Everyone else was out at a circuit somewhere...

“When you look back now, it’s easy to forget how primitive everything was in those days. Back in ’78, for example, we never even saw a wind tunnel, so you were developing aerodynamic things by strapping things to the top of your Minivan, and so on!”

As my colleagues and I talked over that day in Didcot, though, we were all of a mind that maybe this time Williams had something serious going. The new car may not have been radical, but something about it commanded your attention – as also did the team’s new sponsors.

At FW06’s first race, in Buenos Aires, Jones qualified 14th; at its second, in Rio, he lined up eighth; at its third – Kyalami – he finished fourth, and next time out, at Long Beach, he had a serious shot at winning. Gilles Villeneuve’s Ferrari disappeared in the lead, but Alan gave Carlos Reutemann’s sister car all it could handle, even when the Williams’s front wings began to collapse. Eventually fluctuating fuel pressure slowed him, but after Villeneuve had tangled with a backmarker Reutemann went on to win, and Jones was confident that, without his problems, he could have beaten him.

There was no doubt that Williams was now to be taken seriously. Through that season, unfortunately, reliability was no match for pace and only rarely did Jones make the finish, but at Watkins Glen FW06 ran impeccably, and there he was second to Reutemann.

The 1978 season was dominated by the Lotus 79, which pioneered ‘ground effect’, a path down which other teams were obliged to follow and Head’s next car, FW07, proved to be a classic. “We were really growing,” Patrick smiled. “By the end of ’78, we had 18 people, and by the beginning of ’79 it was up to 32! Of course, now we were talking about a two-car team…”

Clay Regazzoni was brought in to partner Jones, and had what proved to be very much an Indian Summer. Although Alan remained the team’s natural pacesetter it was Clay who scored the first Grand Prix victory for Williams, which fittingly came at Silverstone. Then came an informal press conference where he shook his boss’s hand. “Bravo, Frank,” he said quietly and it was an emotional moment. Frank could hardly speak.

After that the dam burst. Jones, whose season had been plagued by unreliability, went on a tear, winning the next three races, and for the balance of the year FW07 was emphatically the car to beat. In Montreal Alan had opposition only from Villeneuve, finally winning by a second after one of the greatest race-long battles in F1 history.

“I was very proud of Alan that day,” said Frank when I went one Sunday to his house for a post-season chat. “There’s no doubt our car had the edge on the Ferrari, but the only driver I fear is that little French-Canadian, and any time you beat him is something to remember…”

Looking back on our conversation that day, what strikes me now is how willing Williams was to say exactly what he thought. Over time, as the corporate tentacles of PR increasingly enveloped F1, Frank would become much more guarded in his observations, but back then the world was a freer place, the consequences of speaking your mind less to be feared.

“I try to be as straightforward and honest with the press as possible,” he said. “If you keep saying ‘no comment’, they’ll eventually assume you consider them of no importance, and will react accordingly…” Well, he had that right.

Much else, too. After years of unrewarding toil, Frank’s professional life had been transformed, and in a remarkably short time. Williams hadn’t won the constructors’ championship in 1979, being beaten by Ferrari, but the team had taken five victories, and Jones was confidently touted as the likely champion in 1980. Frank seemed a little overwhelmed by how well it had all come together.

“To be honest,” he said, “I never saw Alan as the sort of regular race winner he’s become – and I’m quite sure he didn’t see it in us, either! I thought he was a good, regular driver who didn’t crash cars – that was what we needed for 1978, and I wasn’t looking beyond that.

“Alan’s becoming as good a driver as he is, I would say, is the second-best thing that’s happened to this team. The best, though – by a million miles – is Patrick’s becoming as good a designer as he is. When we first got together I had no idea he would progress so much. He joined me a couple of months before the Wolf deal came about and I was quickly aware that he was a good engineer. Then, when I realised I was getting the old heave-ho from Wolf, I decided Patrick would be the best guy to have with me. That was all. He was simply the best available – I truly didn’t appreciate his talents at that time.

It’s Patrick’s team as much as mine. He’s a shareholder in the company, and therefore rewarded by its success in every sense of the word. He’s a totally straightforward individual and it amazes me, frankly, that all the other teams aren’t bidding for his services. If I were another team owner I’d be sending him banker’s drafts for a quarter of a million quid every year until he cashed them in!

“Since I split with Wolf three really good things have happened to me, all of which combined to bring the success we’ve had this year: Patrick Head, Alan Jones – and, of course, my Saudi sponsors.”

Already times were changing, though, for suddenly Williams was a world-class team, and drivers were clamouring to come aboard: after only one season Regazzoni was replaced by Reutemann, and Frank admitted he would miss Clay’s presence in the Williams family.

“He’s very different from most drivers – a gentleman who genuinely loves racing for its own sake. All right, perhaps not a number one, but not a pure number two, either – and a happy, non-political, kind of guy. We did Clay a favour – and he did us a favour. A totally adorable character…”

For all that, though, Williams and Head had concluded that Reutemann could bring more to the team, a decision that did not go down well with Jones. “We’d had a great year with Clay,” Alan said a few months later. “He got a bundle of points, he was totally unpolitical, and I really liked him. When you’ve got a good picture on the TV set, why the hell change it?”

As soon as Reutemann’s recruitment was announced there were murmurings about potential strife within the team, but Frank was unmoved. “I believe that with the correct agreement to start with, and with good management, we’ll keep a happy team. And it’s my team – not the drivers’ team. We’re not here for the benefit of the drivers.

“I’m absolutely convinced that you cannot have equal number one drivers. Within this team there is total sincerity for Alan Jones, and our aim is to push him to the world championship in 1980. Next year we’re fortunate enough to have development engineers for both drivers, and we should be lacking in nothing. If it comes to the crunch, though, Alan gets priority.”

Development engineers for both drivers…Imagine that. F1 was indeed very different 30-odd years ago.

FOCA [Formula One Constructors Association] had been set up a while earlier to enable Bernie Ecclestone to do the financial deals on everyone’s behalf and Williams was happy with that. “It takes up his time and makes the Brabhams less competitive! Of course Bernard makes a lot of money from it and flies to the races by private jet while I go British Airways economy – we’re all looking for different things, aren’t we?”

Looking back on that conversation now, I’m struck by Frank’s far-sightedness. This was 1979, remember, but he said this about the sport’s long-term future: “What we must do is show ourselves to be energy-conscious and actually active in improving the use of energy by the brilliance of our technology and by the competitiveness of motor racing. Free competition in the market-place provides the best product, after all. We must show ourselves as having a contribution to make to future energy saving.”

He was also close to the mark on the way motor racing would evolve: “To be honest, I can foresee a time when Formula 1 is it, with just a couple of junior formulae on the way to it…”

We talked, too, about Jean-Marie Balestre, then the president of FISA (the sporting arm of the FIA). The choleric JMB was making no secret of his wish to curb the burgeoning power of Ecclestone’s FOCA and there seemed little doubt that serious conflict loomed.

“Balestre,” Williams shrugged, “seems very inconsistent in his decisions – but then he’s French, isn’t he? I think there’s always been a certain amount of animosity between the English and the French, frankly. I’ve got a lot of French friends, like Jacques Laffite, but by and large I think they’re a bloody nuisance…

“The other thing that worries me about Balestre is that he’s announced a ban on six-wheeled cars from 1982, and on four-wheel-drive cars, and turbines and diesels and so on. He’s going to ban everything, and that bothers me because Grand Prix racing has to be technically interesting. There’s got to be scope for bright kids to come along with new ideas – like Renault did with their turbo.”

Another point of contention at the time was driver retainers, which many in the paddock felt were getting out of hand. Frank, though, was relatively sanguine on the subject. “It’s free enterprise, isn’t it? Yes, some of them earn very big money, but I certainly don’t believe they’re overpaid compared with other sportsmen. I mean, we’ve reached a point now where a million pounds changes hands for a footballer! And you’re talking about one man out of 11…”

When I asked Williams where his future ambitions lay, his response said everything about how far he had come in the recent past. “Basically,” he said, “what I want is to become the English equivalent of Ferrari, whom I consider far and away the greatest team in racing. I love what I’m doing – I never seem to have time to take holidays, but my wife says I’m on holiday every day of my life and she’s right. Racing is my work, my hobby, my everything…”

Two years later I was back at Frank’s house again, and there was much to discuss. In 1980 his team had progressed as expected, with Jones taking his promised world championship, and if his relationship with Reutemann were far less matey than the one he had enjoyed with Regazzoni, still the two seemed able to work together tolerably well.

The 1981 season, though, had been a different matter. Reutemann, as we said, had joined Williams on the understanding that Jones was the number one; that, if requested, he would move over and let Alan by. For a driver of Carlos’s standing this was hard to swallow, but he wanted the drive and accepted the terms. Given that Jones’s championship had been won, however, I was amazed that the Williams policy remained unchanged for 1981.

At Rio matters came to a head. On a wet afternoon the Williams ran 1-2, Reutemann ahead, and when a pit board ordered him to let Jones by Carlos briefly considered whether he wanted to be first or second and concluded that he wanted to be first. After the race Alan was fit to be tied: “I’d like to think that when you shake hands and sign contracts on a cold December morning the other guy doesn’t pretend a couple of months later that it never happened. If he didn’t like the contract, he shouldn’t have signed it…”

In point of fact, Reutemann didn’t disagree. “Jones had reason to be upset,” he said. “I saw the pit board three laps from the end and I knew the terms of the contract – but still I was in a dilemma. I always started every race with the intention of winning, but now I was being asked to give it away. ‘If I do that,’ I thought to myself, ‘I stop the car here and now, and leave immediately for my farm in Argentina. Finish. Not a racing driver any more…”

Such relationship as Jones and Reutemann had ever had now went completely out of the window, and the atmosphere in the motorhome that summer was beyond tense. “Carlos says he wants to bury the hatchet,” Alan grinned menacingly. “I said, ‘Yeah, mate, right in your f****** back!”

Although, in terms of pure driving, Jones’s ’81 season was even better than the one before, he suffered endless reliability problems and it was Reutemann who emerged as the Williams driver most likely to win the world championship. At Las Vegas, the last round, Alan won as he liked, but Carlos, having blitzed everyone in qualifying, had an unfathomably lacklustre afternoon, and lost the title to Nelson Piquet by a point.

Williams, however, consummately won the constructors’ championship, a source of great pleasure to Frank, but when I talked to him in December his attitude to Jones and Reutemann – indeed to racing drivers in general – may be termed cool. At Monza Jones had blithely informed him that he would be retiring at season’s end, and following the debacle in Vegas Reutemann did the same.

“Every year,” Frank said, “I take a slightly tougher attitude towards drivers – and I’m probably particularly jaundiced about them at the moment, thanks to all this messing around with Alan and Carlos.

“As with everything else, you have to learn the hard way. You have to be realistic about racing drivers, to accept that most of them are in it to make as much money as they can. As soon as they’re satisfied – gone! Right? Then, later on, they start thinking that maybe they got out too soon, that they’re missing the cheques. And then they start to talk about comebacks…”

“The Rio business was between Alan and Carlos. It’s true that Carlos did ignore the terms of his contract, and for that we exercised a certain financial penalty. But after that the matter was forgotten as far as Patrick and I were concerned. Frankly, I just found the whole thing very boring! Why should I care which one of them wins? They’re only employees, after all. All I care about is Williams Grand Prix Engineering and the points we earn. I don’t care who scores them.

“Alan’s departure so late in the season was a big setback for our plans, because there was nobody of his calibre – like Villeneuve or Pironi or Prost – available by September. They’d all done deals elsewhere. I don’t think Alan’s late decision was deliberate – it’s just that he’s a grossly inconsiderate person, quite honestly…”

By now, too, Williams had toughened considerably in his attitude to Balestre: “All Balestre has is an armband – he doesn’t run any cars, he doesn’t pay my bills, he doesn’t have one penny invested in my business, or any of the other teams. I refuse to be administered by an incompetent – this is my livelihood!”

Frank was indeed in a lively mood that day, and it was hardly surprising given that his championship-winning team was looking at a new season apparently without any top drivers aboard. In the event Keke Rosberg tested for Williams, set a blistering pace, signed a contract, and went on to win the world championship in 1982.

All that, and much more, lay in the future, though. For the Williams team the 1981 season was anything but the beginning of the end, but perhaps, as Churchill said in a rather different context, the end of the beginning. Williams would go on to countless more Grand Prix victories and world championships, but perhaps success was never again quite so heady as when Williams, Head and Jones, three men of different skills but similar age and ambition, first embarked on the great adventure together, turning the establishment on its head, silencing all the doubters.