The Williams F1 team is celebrating its 750th Grand Prix start in Monaco, becoming only the third team to do so after Ferrari and McLaren. It’s yet another landmark in the remarkable history of the organisation, which is still keen to celebrate its past, despite the Williams family selling up last year.
Frank Williams first arrived on the F1 scene in 1969. However, by the start of 1977, he had lost his original team to Walter Wolf, with whom he had partnered in 1976.
He was left with nothing, and had even lost his hard-won FOCA membership to Wolf. Keen to restart he made contact with Belgian driver Patrick Neve, who had some sponsorship. That was the start of Williams Grand Prix Engineering, and is the point that Frank has always believed that the history of the team as we currently know it really began.
Williams had an ace up his sleeve in the form of designer Patrick Head, who is as much a part of the team’s history as Frank himself.
Head, who had made the transition from Wolf/Williams to the renamed Wolf Racing, was tempted by the challenge of designing a new car from scratch for the following season.
“I was still at Wolf and was actually at a test in South Africa,” Patrick recalls, “When Frank rang me up and said, ‘I’ve started up again. We have a budget to do 10 races, do you want to come along and join?’
“I said I’d think about and tell him when I got back. I think the time had come to do my own thing, really. For the first year we’d use somebody else’s car, and then do our own for 1978. However, I don’t think I thought much beyond the first year.”
Frank’s main task was to find a second-hand chassis. He opted for a March 761, and having paid Max Mosley £14,000, he acquired four used Cosworth DFVs at bargain prices. Next step was to find a suitable base in Didcot, as Head recalls: “The factory had the most filthy floor; it had been a carpet warehouse or something. It had no machinery, no equipment, nothing. It needed everything setting up, and we were just desperate to get going.”
On the team’s debut Spain Neve qualified a humble 22nd, and finished 12th, four laps down on winner Mario Andretti.
“The budget was supposed to be £200,000,” says Head. “Neve was supposed to bring £100,000, and Frank was supposed to put in £100,000. We ended up having £180,000 because he only got £80,000 together, but in those days it was quite a lot of money.
“I didn’t actually poke my nose into too much of the budgeting, but we were spending almost nothing. We were on cheap flights, and staying in some of Frank’s cheap deal hotels. At that time it was all good fun, but I’m not sure I’d be too happy about some of those places now! At each circuit we just rented a little caravan as our motorhome.
“That year we did 10 races, and I think there were three when we didn’t qualify. That really gets through to you; when you are packing up and leaving on Saturday evening, and everybody else is staying around and preparing their cars for the race, it hurts. It really does…”
Neve scraped into the top 10 four times, including a lucky seventh at Monza, but he did little to capture any headlines. However in January 1978 new signing Alan Jones sat on the grid in Argentina in the Head-designed, Saudia-sponsored Williams FW06.
“We had about £350,000 in ’78, which a workable budget for one car,” says Head. “But Frank still had us staying in his cheap hotels! The 06 was a nicely balanced car and it suited Alan Jones very well. He liked throwing a car around. But he used to say to me all the time, ‘I tell you Patrick, those bloody Lotuses just don’t slide!’”
Williams attracted more sponsorship and hired Clay Regazzoni as second driver for 1979, while Head set to work on designing the FW07. The target was obvious – design a better and more effective Lotus 79.
The FW07 made its race debut at Jarama, and it immediately impressed. Jones showed well, but retired in his early races with it, and then Regazzoni finished a superb second in Monaco.
The team made a crucial aerodynamic breakthrough at the Silverstone test, just before the British GP. Come the race Jones gave the car its first pole, but he retired due to a water leak. Regazzoni saved the day by earning a first-ever victory for Williams. Jones made amends by winning four of the season’s remaining six races, and the FW07 was the car to beat.
Head sums it up thus: “Going to outboard rear brakes, having a sound structure for the car, long sidepods that meant that we didn’t have to run big front wings, and a skirt system that worked. Those things meant that the 07 was the car it was.”
The team had momentum on its side heading into 1980, and Jones won the opening race in Argentina with a standard FW07. He subsequently scored four more wins with the B-spec car, which featured upgraded aero, on his way to claiming the team’s first World Championship. New team-mate Carlos Reutemann added a success in Monaco, and his consistent scoring helped Williams to claim the constructors’ crown.
The 1981 season saw a ban on skirts and controversy over hydraulic suspension systems. Jones and Reutemann shared four more wins with the revised FW07C, which had a stiffer chassis, and Williams earned a second constructors’ crown. The Argentine driver missed out on the title after a lacklustre showing in the Las Vegas finale.
By the end of 1981 it was clear that turbos would be dominant in the coming seasons, and in the absence of a suitable engine deal, Williams began to look for ways of getting more shelf life out of the Cosworth engine. Head designed an all-new FW08 six-wheeler, only for it to be made obsolete when it was decided that F1 cars could only have four wheels.
“We had the rug pulled out from under us even before we decided if we were going to race it. For a while I thought we’ve got to make the 07 last longer, then we’d bring out something much later in the year. I probably spent a month thinking about it.”
In the end he decided to keep the FW08 design and fit a standard 07 rear end, resulting in a car that had a relatively short wheelbase, as the chassis has been designed to ensure that the six-wheeler wasn’t too long. Keke Rosberg scored only one victory, at Dijon. However, he managed to win the 1982 title.
“It was a very simple little car. Keke had such quick steering movements, and I think it just suited him very well. He loved driving it. It was a car that Keke could use.”
For the 1983 flat bottom rules, Head created the FW08C, distinguished by its stubby sidepods. By now turbos were unbeatable except on street circuits, and Rosberg scored a memorable win in Monaco. In September the car was involved in a little bit of history when Williams gave Ayrton Senna his first-ever F1 test at Donington.
By then the team had a new relationship with Honda, inspired in part by a recommendation from Ron Tauranac. The FW09 made its race debut late in the 1983 season, and heading into 1984, there were still lots of reliability issues.
However, the Williams-Honda scored its first win in Rosberg’s hands in Dallas in 1984. For 1985, the package was much improved, and it gave Nigel Mansell his first GP victories.
In a 1986 season that began with the terrible road crash for Frank in France, his new signing Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell won most of the races – but they lost the title to McLaren’s Alain Prost in the season finale.
“We won a lot of races but not the drivers’ championship. Frank was really not involved for the whole of that season, he had his accident and had broken his neck in March 1986, and although he did appear in a wheelchair at Brands Hatch he wasn’t involved or at the company at all. And looking back on it, probably I should have been more authoritarian.
“We didn’t have anything in contracts that said that one driver had to be favoured over the other. And so it was a bit awkward early in the year when Frank was not able to communicate with us.”
In 1987 Williams and Honda were again the dominant force, and Piquet beat Mansell to the World Championship. However, by the end of that year, Williams and Honda had agreed to part, essentially after a disagreement over taking Satoru Nakajima.
Williams used uncompetitive Judd engines in 1988, and got lost as it tried to develop an active ride system that Mansell hated: “In the aftermath of losing Honda we tried too hard really, and gave ourselves too many engineering challenges,” says Head. “We had the débâcle of active ride in 1988, when we had to take it off the car for all sorts of reasons.”
Head insists that he never felt frustrated as McLaren scored success after success with Honda: “I was up to my eyeballs in work, and I’ve never been one to look backwards and say something’s not fair. I think if I ever had any of that in me as my character, my father would have kicked it out of me when I was 16 or something, because he was a fairly tough character!
“And so I didn’t sit and look back, it was just get on with the future. And we signed up with Renault, and I think we won a couple of races with Renault in the first year. The belt drive was pretty unreliable. So it wasn’t really a championship potential engine in 1989. It took us ’89 and ’90, and then we started getting serious in ’91.
“And I accept full blame for not winning the championship in 1991. It was our first semi-automatic gearbox, and for the most stupid of reasons it was unreliable. But after three or four races, we considerably outscored McLaren, but we weren’t able to catch up with them.”
“And by that time the active car was beginning to do better lap times than the passive car, and delivering the promise that was always seen theoretically.”
In 1991 Williams had perfected the active suspension system on the FW14, and the FW14B of 1992 was to be dominant, helped by the input of the brilliant Adrian Newey, who became a huge influence on the team.
“In 1991 Nigel and Riccardo Patrese were very close together on performance, but in ’92 Nigel stepped up relative to Riccardo,” says Head. “The main reason was the feeling and feedback from the active system. Nigel worked out that providing you could persuade yourself to trust it, it would be there once you had got into the corner. Nigel adapted to it, but Riccardo always wished it was a standard car.
“The good work was done over the winter, and then it was a question of just running the car. I think by the end of the year McLaren were beginning to make good progress with their active system, and they were getting it to work pretty well.”
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Mansell left at the end of the 1992 season, and in 1993 Alain Prost dominated the World Championship in the FW15.
“We started work on the 15 towards the end of ‘91, and it was intended to be the ‘92 car, but we decided to start the season with the 14B. With the 14B it was a relatively straightforward conversion from off to on, whereas the 15 was a committed active car, with no either/or. However, we seemed to be so strong, and thought, ‘Maybe we don’t need to bring the 15 in this year.’
“The FW15 in 1993 wasn’t a bad car, but I don’t think it was a particularly significant step better than the FW14B. There could have been an argument that we might have done better to develop the 14B and run that in ’93, but your tendency is always to do a new car.”
Prost retired at the end of 1993, as his old nemesis Senna joined the team. Then 1994 brought tragedy when the Brazilian was killed at Imola.
“I must say, undoubtedly, Ayrton was a very, very special driver,” says Head. “He left McLaren expecting to climb into a perfect car, and the car wasn’t perfect. The unfortunate thing is, by the time we started the Grand Prix at Imola, the car was a lot better, and he was absolutely convinced that he was going to win the race.”
Damon Hill challenged for the 1994 title, but he lost out to Michael Schumacher at the final race. Hill continued to be a race winner with the FW17 in 1995, but made too many mistakes, and again lost to Schumacher.
“We finished the 1995 season with the general feeling that we should have won the championship. We were probably not very good at driver psychology. I think Damon felt that we felt that he should have won the championship. I have to say I admire how he responded. I think there was a suggestion that Michael was fitter than he was, and Michael could operate like a qualifying lap every lap, more so than Damon had.
“But Damon got himself enormously fit, and he lost the feeling of inferiority to Michael, I think he felt he was just as fit as Michael. So he turned up in 1996 as the same basic personality, but a much more self-confident, focused, ‘let’s do this job’ person than we had finished with in ‘95. The car was good, and apart from one or two little hiccups early in the season we started scoring and looked as if we could take the championship that year.”
Hill duly beat new team-mate Jacques Villeneuve to the 1996 World Championship. At the end of that season Newey left, but Villeneuve went on to win the 1997 title. That was to be the last year with works Renault power: “The ’97 car was mapped out by Adrian, who stood down at the end of ’96. We had people good enough to deal with any problems. I don’t think the development rate was that fast year-to-year at that time.”
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A new works deal was agreed with BMW, and meanwhile the team had two difficult years with Mecachrome/Supertec engines. In 2000 Williams gave Jenson Button his debut and raced with BMW power for the first time, and as with the early days with Honda and Renault, there were lots of reliability issues.
“The BMW was a very big, bulky, rather heavy engine. But it was powerful, no doubt about that. I think BMW were up to their eyeballs keeping engines going. We always used to change the engine for the race, but we had engine changes in the middle of practice, we had engine changes on Friday night. We had a lot of engine changes. And for BMW just keeping up with it was a massive effort.”
By 2001 Williams and BMW were winning races, and challenging pacesetters Ferrari and McLaren, and in 2003 Juan Pablo Montoya and Ralf Schumacher were potential title contenders with the FW25, but the crown slipped away.
“We could very easily have won the championship. There was complete and total animosity between Montoya and Ralf. I couldn’t believe how childish the two were in the latter part of that season. But we were definitely the fastest car, aided by a very powerful BMW engine.”
It was around that time that Head reduced his day-to-day technical responsibilities.
“I stepped down from being technical director and handed over to Sam Michael in 2004, after we sort of got ourselves competitive in 2003, but for stupid reasons, blew the last three races. And we started 2004 with that dreadful short nose with two fins on it. I was by that time living in London, and commuting, and I didn’t feel I was keeping enough control over what was going on.”
Meanwhile BMW had ambitions to own an F1 team: “They offered to buy Williams, for a very, very low sum. And we said no, so they then went off and later on they did their deal with Sauber. I think if we’d been cleverer, we could have avoided that split.
“But it would have meant literally having them at Grove telling us what to do. And I don’t think I was prepared for that. I would say that from 2001 to 2005, when we had a decent engine, we won 10 grands prix. From 2006 until they pulled out, four years, they only won one grand prix!”
As the decade progressed Head remained involved with Williams, but with reduced responsibilities. The team gradually slipped from competitiveness as it moved from BMW to Cosworth to Toyota back to Cosworth. In 2011 Head sold the majority of his shares, and reduced his involvement further.
In 2012 there was a reunion with Renault. Pastor Maldonado scored a shock pole and win in Spain that year – it remains the most recent success. There was a return to form with Mercedes power in the early days of the hybrid era, with Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, but then the team went into a slump. By then Head was no longer directly involved, but in 2019 he made a brief return as a consultant.
Head sold the remainder of his shares as part of the recent purchase by Dorilton that saw the Williams family formally leave. With Jost Capito at the helm, the team is making solid progress – and the German has made it clear that the new management has enormous respect for Frank and Patrick.
“Frank and I were a good pair,” says Head. “Would I have started a Grand Prix team? No, I never would have done on my own. Frank had the blind. confidence. He was a person who put his head on the pillow and went to sleep and slept 10 hours every night. And I was a worrier, completely opposite. But we were a pair that worked well together.”