A Question of Numbers

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Talking to Patrick Head, the designer of the Frank Williams team cars, he queried why the specialist motor magazines insisted on quoting the chassis numbers of his cars with two noughts before the number, i.e. 004. “There is no way we are going to build 999 cars, so why not call the cars 1, 2, 3, 4,” he said. Sound Head logic I agreed, but pointed out, on the car by which we were standing, the chassis identity plate that was clearly marked FW07/04 and mentioned that last year the plates were marked FW06/002, for example. “I bellyached all last season at the works about that” said Head, “but the chap who got the plates made insisted on putting two noughts in front of the car number. I bellyached again this year and he changed it to one nought, as if we were going to build 99 cars”. I explained that we were trying to keep a logical system going and as the Williams cars were 001 etc. last year, we used 001 again this year for the FW07 series. “Well I wish you wouldn’t” says Head, “it makes the cars sound like Tyrrells, God forbid” he added with a grin.

Of all the designers I talk to I find Patrick Head refreshingly logical and sound, and his cars reflect his logic and practical mind. Some designers confuse me with their logic, for though it sounds all right it is not always what they are actually doing; others try and blind me with their logic and some of them just aren’t logical at all. Patrick Head doesn’t confuse me, nor does he try to, he has both feet firmly on the ground and doesn’t need to be “clever-clever” like some designers; he knows what he is doing and the results speak for themselves.

In deference to his wishes Motor Sport will in future refer to the Williams cars the way he wants it, i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4 and when the next one appears it will be No. 5. In 1952 the works Ferraris used to be numbered like that, no suffix, no prefix, just a single number stamped on a chassis member. This recalls a funny story told to me by Mike Oliver, who was the chief engineer at Connaught in the fifties. After they packed up racing he returned to flying and one of his jobs was to deliver the first fighter aircraft bought by a new Middle East power from a British firm, while a colleague ferried the second one behind him. The customer had only bought two aircraft to start with, in order to officially form their Air Force. As they had never had an Air Force before Mike’s plane was number one. He stopped to refuel at Bari, in southern Italy, and went to the control tower to fill in the appropriate forms. Where it asked for the Aircraft Number he wrote 1, but the Italian in charge just would not accept it. He knew that aircraft had complicated numbers like A-OEG 746-A. “You can’t have an aircraft with number 1” he screamed “what’s the proper number?” “1” insisted Mike Oliver, and tried to explain about the new Air Force being formed in the Middle East, but the Italian didn’t want to know, all he wanted was a proper aircraft number on his form. Finally Mike got tired of the dispute and walked out, saying as a parting shot “It’s bloody well number 1, and very shortly number 2 will be arriving”. He didn’t wait to see what happened when his chum breezed in with aircraft number 2!

Patrick Head’s abhorrence at the idea of his cars being confused with Tyrrells recalls that I was talking to Frank Williams at the Belgian GP in 1970, the last year it was run at Francorchamps. At the time Jackie Stewart and the Tyrrell team were a force to be reckoned with in Grand Prix racing, while Frank was struggling along on a shoe-string with some pretty unlikely cars. I suggested to him that he was wasting his time and effort and would be far better off to go into Formula Two where his ability and money could rule the roost. “Surely” I said, “you’d be happier as King of F2 rather than a nobody in F1”. Frank was very forthright, “I want to be the Ken Tyrrell of Formula One” he said, “that’s my aim, and I’m not interested in Formula Two”. At the Austrian GP this year, where his team scored their third successive victory, I apologised to Frank for doubting him in 1970. It had been a long hard slog, but worth every effort and it is nice to see a team really enjoying their success.

I did not have the courage to ask Ken Tyrrell (in 1979) if his ambition was to become the Frank Williams of Formula One! — D.S. J.